25 October 2013
21 Cheshvan 5774
When I introduced myself to the speaker at Wednesday’s Limud Clali (community learning), and she shook my hand with her left hand, I realized that I was about to hear a story that our community would not forget. Our students sat transfixed listening to Jasmina Cesic, who escaped the Bosnian genocide of 1992 and who now lives in the Greater Boston area. She shared the painful story of her life in what was then modern, pluralistic Yugoslavia and of how the Bosnian War tore her society and her family apart.
What a profound history lesson for our students! The fall of communism and the Bosnian War happened before even our oldest students were born. One student shared with me afterwards, “I just can’t believe this happened so close to my lifetime.” This student was staring face-to-face with a story that he would, otherwise, only see on the news or relegate to “history,” and for him this was a paradigm shift. “I feel like I’m seeing things differently right now,” he told me.
But Jasmina’s story is not just a history lesson. It is a human story with profound messages for our students. One of the most chilling and poignant moments for me was at the beginning. “I knew about World War I,” she said, “but we lived in a contemporary, diverse, pluralistic society, and I was confident that what happened in the past had nothing to do with my life today. All I cared about as a teenager was where the next party was and where I would get my new pair of Levi 501’s.” This line pierced through the room as a wake-up call to our teenagers to expand their worldviews and break out of what, for natural developmental reasons, is so often the narcissism of adolescence. This was not intended to be an “it can happen again” message, and I don’t think it was received that way. It was a profoundly Jewish message, a call for awareness of others and the world beyond oneself, for recognition of human suffering and of the potential for evil acts in the world.
Jasmina shared with us how she lost her new fiancé, two brothers, one only 15 years old, and her right arm. With many of us near tears, she managed to speak with extraordinary grace and an outlook on life that was a second profound message for our students. After showing pictures of family members who were killed, she showed us a picture of her husband and daughter. “We all will experience challenges, and you have to keep on living,” she said. My immediate thought was, “Most of us don’t even know what it means to experience challenge, suffering, or loss.” And yet she brought us a message of hope and, most importantly, human resiliency.
Finally, when asked about her views on politics and what governments can do to prevent things like this from happening in the world, she offered a message of personal moral agency that underlies our Jewish notion of Tikkun Olam. “What we can do is remember to see the humanity in every human being.”
People like Jasmina and stories like hers make lasting impressions on all of us. We need to raise a new generation with increased global awareness and historical consciousness, a deep sense of moral agency and responsibility, resiliency, and compassion. When we do, this generation, through their actions big and more often small, will create a better world.
Rabbi Marc Baker