Thanksgiving at Rosh Hashanah : Daughters’ Shipwreck Tested Family’s Faith

Times Staff Writer

Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, one of the High Holy Days of the Jewish calendar, had a special solemnity and joy this year for the families of Rickey Berkowitz and Judith Schwartz. The two Palos Verdes families were together --their wandering daughters gathered safely again into the fold.

That simple fact transmuted despair and anguish into thanksgiving. They had been missing so long.

“There is a God who answers your prayers,” said Doris Berkowitz, mother of Rickey.

Rosh Hashanah, which began at sundown last Sunday, initiates a 10-day period of soul-searching for Jews that ends with Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. During the intervening Days of Awe, Jews are supposed to beg forgiveness of those they have wronged, and forgiveness sincerely sought may not be withheld. It is a time to examine lives, relationships, what is really important.

Time for Reflection

Rickey and Judy had plenty of time for that during their 21 days on a 16-foot boat floating off the coast of Sumatra. On a trip across the Sunda Straits to an island game preserve, the boat’s engine broke down. After the boat disintegrated, they swam ashore in southern Sumatra.


While native fishermen, missionaries, the U. S. government and the Indonesian coast guard looked for them, the two 26-year-old women played charades and instituted a daily toothpaste “happy hour” to keep up their spirits when the food ran out.

They rigged a sail out of a poncho, part of a tent and a sarong. The sail saved their lives. Winds eventually drove them away from the Indian Ocean, with its monsoon winds and 30-foot waves.

It was truly a case of God helping those who help themselves, said Martin Berkowitz, Rickey’s father.

The women had a lot to think about.

‘A Lot of Soul-Searching’

“Some things I thought were big deals aren’t at all,” Judy said.

“On the boat, you do a lot of soul-searching,” said Rickey.

“You have your own personal prayers. The hardest thing was knowing how much pain was going on. Our family and friends--that was our backbone. We had to come back.”

At the Berkowitz house, someone stayed around the clock in case there was a call.

The Berkowitzes and Judy Schwartz’s mother flew to Indonesia to aid the search. But five days before the women were found, the search was called off. The parents were given clothing the women had left behind. They returned to Rancho Palos Verdes.

Special Prayer Service

Two days later, during Friday night services at Congregation Ner Tamid in Rancho Palos Verdes, a special prayer service was announced for the two women, to be held the next Wednesday.

Many interpreted it as a memorial service. Friends and neighbors came to the Berkowitz residence to offer comfort throughout the weekend. By coincidence, Sunday was also Martin and Doris Berkowitz’s 30th wedding anniversary.

Rabbi Bernard Wechsberg, a retired rabbi of Congregation Ner Tamid and an old friend of the family, arrived not with condolences but with a stern lecture. The rabbi had known the missing women since they were small girls. He had prepared both of them for bat mitzvah, the rite-of-passage service for girls that signifies acceptance as an adult member of the congregation.

Wechsberg was disturbed by the parents’ attitude.

“They had given up totally. I had to shake them out of something that was not to be accepted--not as fact or as Jewish religion--to throw in the towel. . . . I got through to them.”

Too Much for Brother

The scene was too much for Norman Berkowitz, 28, Rickey’s brother.

“I had a hard time coping. People were coming over, like to pay their respects. I couldn’t bear up anymore. I had to get away,” he said.

“The strongest part of me was saying she was OK.”

But even he wavered. “I was talking to myself or to God: ‘Why? Why?’

“When I first heard that she was OK, I cried openly. I had felt guilty all week that I had not cried--maybe a sniffle here or there. If it had turned out badly, I don’t know how I would have dealt with myself.”

He left the house that Sunday to get away.

So he missed the call from Djakarta, from U.S. Consul General Susan Wood, to Rancho Palos Verdes, to the Berkowitz home.

Phone Rang

Doris Berkowitz was in the kitchen with a woman friend who insisted that Doris eat something to keep up her strength when the phone rang. The friend picked it up and turned to Martin Berkowitz.

“Marty, it’s Indonesia,” she said.

Doris Berkowitz said, “I was afraid to take it so he took it.

“We waited about five minutes to get through. My heart was in my mouth. I was clutching my friend.”

“They are safe!” Marty cried. “They found them!”

Later that night, the two women called.

The first thing Rickey said to her parents: “We are fine physically and emotionally. We are sorry we put you through this.”

Since then, the Rosh Hashanah holiday has provided an opportunity for further reflection.

Rickey’s father said, “You know the depths of emotion when you go from despair to happiness. It is unreal.”

“It was very comforting to be in synagogue,” said Rickey, who went to services two days this past week.

“If anything, this experience has given me an enhancement of life. How important life is--to live life to its fullest, to act as if every act and every day can tip the scales, you are going to make the world a better place.”