By Ben Tinsley
TJP Staff Reporter
RICHARDSON — Rabbi Israel Meir Lau was only 8 years old — a child laborer at the death camp of Buchenwald — when he escaped the horror of the Holocaust.
The 77-year-old would eventually grow up to become No. 38 in an unbroken chain of rabbis and an insurmountable influence on the world stage — good friend to presidents and kings, confidante to prime ministers and politicians.
Monday night, Rabbi Lau shared his wisdom as guest speaker during “A Night To Celebrate Jewish Education — Honoring Helen and Frank Risch,” sponsored by the Center for Jewish Education of the Jewish Federation of Greater Dallas. The event took place at the Renaissance Dallas Richardson Hotel.
More than 800 people came to honor the Risches, whose commitment to Jewish education throughout Dallas and North America is described as immeasurable. The couple received an enthusiastic standing ovation after accepting their award.
And it seemed at one point, that Jewish education itself took a bow.
Rabbi Lau — author of “Out of the Depths: The Story of a Child of Buchenwald Who Returned Home at Last” — said there is one insurmountable reason the Jewish people remain so unique. It is why their Torah and homeland span the history of the world, relatively unchanged, from the way it was more than 3,000 years ago.
“Jewish education, “ Lau said. “Nothing but education.”
The Risches are credited with facilitating much Jewish education — effecting educational change through philanthropy and activity as leaders in area religious and cultural organizations.
Frank Risch, who retired from Exxon Mobil in 2004, has accumulated a vast array of life accomplishments. Part of this is serving on the executive board of the Dallas Holocaust Museum/Center for Education and Tolerance. He hopes to play a leadership role in the construction of a new, permanent home for the museum.
On Monday night, Frank Risch described Jewish education as a “miracle.” He said he and his wife were fortunate enough to receive it from their parents. It was an honor to pass on to their children and grandchildren, he said.
“You can’t imagine how honored I feel about receiving this kind of recognition,” Frank Risch said during the ceremony. “Many of you who know us know that this award should be Helen’s, and Helen’s alone.”
Helen Risch is an authority on child development. She created pioneering programs for childhood centers and high schools, and also worked as a school psychologist in private practice for 17 years. She serves on various executive boards including the advisory committee of the Federation’s Center for Jewish Education and is a member of the boards of the Federation’s Jewish Women’s Philanthropy Center and the Visiting Nurse Association of Dallas.
As she accepted the award Monday night after her husband’s remarks, a humble Helen Risch thanked the audience for the “incredible honor.”
“I want to thank the community of Dallas — who opened to us their arms and hearts,” she said. “Thank you for letting us be part of this.”
The highly-anticipated guest speaker Rabbi Lau, who serves as the chairman of Yad Vashem and is former Chief Rabbi of the State of Israel, discussed the importance of a continuity and generational link between all Jewish people. (His son, No. 39 in that aforementioned unbroken chain, is current Chief Ashkenazic Rabbi David Lau.)
The Poland-born Rabbi Lau said that chain extends all the way to Moses — who led the Jewish people from slavery to freedom.
Moses “is part of that chain … that golden chain of Jewish tradition,” he said.
The rabbi has gone on record lamenting the steady decline in the number of Jews in the world, which he attributes to intermarriage and assimilation.
Without continuity in education and practices of faith, all things (regardless of their original majesty) fade to dust, the rabbi said.