The first time Ralph Rothschild was called to the Torah as a bar mitzvah, it was August 29, 1942, and he stood there alone. “It was during the war. I had no family with me, and there was no formal celebration. I was glad to be alive, but I missed my family. I was a stranger.”
The second time was very different. September 8, 2012, exactly 70 years from the original Torah portion (called, Ki Savo) date of his first reading on the bimah, Ralph led the Saturday morning Shabbat service at Tifereth Israel, reading the same Torah portion his father had prepared him to read as a young boy living in Belgium, just after the war broke out.
The portion was from the last book of the Torah and was part of the instructions that Moses gave to the children of Israel just before they entered the Promised Land.
Ralph chose to come to America in 1948, alone. He did it for the freedom and the promise of a Jewish future that he felt so many European Jews could not hope to see. “So many American Jews don’t know how much it means, do not understand the meaning of freedom here in America. To be able to practice one’s religion, to have freedom of religion and speech, this is a gift that most Americans don’t fully appreciate.” In a way, Ralph reached the Promised Land that Moses never saw.
Ralph explained his decision to have a second Bar Mitzvah, “Tradition tells us that, according to King David, a normal lifespan was to be 70 years. If anyone was privileged to exceed that age, then it was as though their life was starting over. Reaching the age of 83 was like reaching age 13 all over again. I never thought I would live this long. But a couple years ago, I thought, ‘If I make it, that’s what I want to do.’”
In Tifereth Israel, the synagogue he has called home for 37 years, Ralph led the service, read the Torah portion and the Haftarah. “This time, I had my wife of almost 60 years, Ruth, my children, Danny and Naomi, and Naomi’s husband, Rob Cohen, my grandchildren, and all my friends from my congregation surrounding me.”
Ralph said part of his motivation for having a second Bar Mitzvah was to show his gratitude to G-d for allowing him to live so long. He has spent his life trying to pay back what he calls the debt of surviving the Holocaust. “I joined the Army to be able to repay my debt to the American soldiers who fought and died so that I could live.”
After the Army and 35 years at IBM, Ralph retired, but shortly afterward began working part-time at the JCC, where he’s been serving the community for 17 years. Ralph manages the Financial Assistance Program, which provides financial aid and scholarships to Jewish families in need.
“I like working for the JCC because I get to help the people of my community. That’s the main reason I do my job, because I can help people. I like getting to work with Jewish families and serving those who need help the most. I am also very grateful to the Columbus Jewish Foundation and to the Columbus Jewish Federation who provide the funds that allow me to do my job,” Ralph said.
Surviving the Holocaust and reaching the age of 83 has made Ralph reflect in this time of celebration. “Why did my family survive and others did not? I’m just very grateful that I survived to this day. Others who were more deserving, more devoted, more religious than I, did not survive or went through much more than I did. Why? That’s a question there is no answer for. Ruth says that G-d allowed me to survive as a favor to her. If that’s good enough for her, it’s good enough for me.”