6 May 2016
28 Nisan 5776
Yesterday was Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Memorial Day. Our commemoration began with a moving ceremony, after which two extraordinary survivors, Dr. Anna Ornstein and Mr. Israel “Izzy” Arbeiter, shared their stories with us. We then divided into smaller groups for some facilitated processing and discussion of our theme for the day, “Never Again.” We reconvened in our Beit Midrash for some final reflections and the singing of Hatikva.
One of the unique aspects of this Yom HaShoah was the guests who joined us. Israeli soldiers from CJP’s Hatikva Mission spent the morning with our students and participated in the commemoration. Also, for the first time we were joined by students, faculty, and administrators from the German International School of Boston.
The term “never again” is one with which most of us are familiar and probably associate with Holocaust commemoration and education. When I asked the students during my small-group discussion how they interpret “never again,” one explained it as a phrase of hope, longing, perhaps, even prayer: “May nothing like this ever happen to our people or anyone ever again. May no one ever perpetrate this sort of evil on other human beings again.” Several of her peers were unsatisfied with this interpretation and added that the phrase must also connote and inspire action. “Never again” is a rallying cry, a call to moral responsibility: “Never again will we stand by while someone assaults and diminishes the humanity and dignity of other human beings.”
My group unpacked the idea of “never again” together with two Jewish texts—one classical and one contemporary—that opened up questions about the particular and universal aspects of this theme. For our tradition, for our students, and for so many contemporary Jews, the relationship between particularism and universal humanism—between being Jewish, a member of “the tribe, and being human, a citizen of the world—is one of the defining features of our Jewish identity.
Here are the two texts which speak for themselves and the spirit of Yom HaShoah and “Never Again”:
Hillel said: If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, what am I? If not now, when? (Pirkei Avot 1:14)
“The more Jewish the poet the more universal is his message. The more Jewish his soul the more human his concerns. A Jew who does not feel for his fellow Jews, who does not share in their sorrows and joys, cannot feel for other people. And a Jew who is concerned with his fellow Jews is inevitably concerned with the fate of other people as well.” (Elie Wiesel)
During our discussion of these texts, it was particularly poignant and symbolic to have in our circle three students from the German International School sitting next to a young Israeli soldier in uniform who herself grew up in Newton.
These timeless words of both Hillel and Elie Wiesel illuminate what I consider to be the yes-and message of what it means to be Jewish, to live out what Rabbi Jonathan Sacks calls a Judaism engaged with the world. To be fully Jewish is to be fully human, connected to and responsible for both our particular people and other human beings and the world.
And vice-versa. One student pointed out that you could replace “Jewish” in Elie Wiesel’s quote with other cultural identities—to be fully human is to understand and care deeply about one’s particular story, cultural heritage, value system, family, community.
This is why Gann can serve as a model, not only of Jewish education but of what purposeful, moral, humanistic, high school education can be.
Rabbi Marc Baker