What content is appropriate and helpful to share with a group of 12-13 year old savvy New Yorkers when it comes to teaching about the Holocaust? And in today’s 2017 America, what does one highlight – or not?
I asked myself this question yesterday at the Museum of Jewish Heritage as I sat in a large circle with about 50 teens and parents who are part of Raising the Bar – Lab/Shul’s current B Mitzvah training program. Once a month the teens meet at Justice Club, where they learn about social justice issues, volunteer, and integrate hands-on care to their ongoing coming-of-age learning.
Our visit to the museum yesterday on the eve of today’s Holocaust Remembrance Day included a carefully curated and guided tour of the exhibit, as well as a conversation about the lessons we learned and what this legacy requires of us. To get us started I shared my father’s heroic story of survival. What to focus on? What to omit?
Like the young people in the room, my father Naphtali was just 13 years old when WWII began and his Polish hometown was invaded by Germany. He came of age, too fast and too brutal, in ghettos and camps. I focused on his resourceful decision making, on his resilience, and on how he chose to wake up every morning and keep on living because he wanted to make sure that his younger brother that was entrusted in his care remained alive.
Never lose hope, no matter what happens.
I choked up a few times as I told his story, aware of the responsibility to convey his legacy now that he is no longer living. The group was right there with me, attentive and deeply moved.
We ended up in the Museum’s hauntingly beautiful Garden of Stones, taking quiet time to reflect and process. One of the teens came to sit with me on the steps and asked me with a worried face, “Could this happen again? Could this happen In America?”
I couldn’t lie to her and proclaim “never again”. If anything, with nonstop crimes against humanity that are perpetuated daily, if on lesser scale, all over the globe, it seems like many people and leaders have learned nothing at all from this genocidal history. I didn’t want to share with her my own worse fears about “Holocaust Centers” popping up, if not for Jews then for other “others” in this land we now call home.
So I hugged her instead and reminded her that for now, we are safe and strong and here to remember. By remembering we can activate our moral muscles to make sure this does not happen again – not to us, and not to anybody else.
We ended up by standing in a circle and reciting the Kaddish, focusing on the closing words:
“Let there be more peace in the world, and let us be the ones to help make peace within and beyond us, in memory of all who had lived before us, and for all those still yet to come.”
– Rabbi Amichai Lau-Lavie