20 April 2012
28 Nissan 5772
Yesterday was Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day, one of the more solemn days on our calendar. We continued our tradition of inviting Holocaust survivors to speak to our students, a tradition that includes hearing and bearing witness to their stories and the opportunity to be in the presence of these extraordinary Jews and human beings.
We began our day with two special programs. Immediately following tefillah and sicha, our community gathered in the Black Box theatre where students directed us to sit camp-style in concentric circles around candles. The room was dark with the exception of a few spotlights, and solemn music was playing. Soon the lights went down, and what followed was a well-choreographed series of students or teachers rising in the light of a lone spotlight and reading from poems, memoirs, or other historical accounts. What especially moved me was not only the power and flow of these readings but also the way our students and faculty gave voice to the different elements of this tragic story. Our students created and facilitated the entire ceremony, and the student leaders who planned the day clearly grasped the concept of a ceremony, as both the form and content of this experience captured the minds and hearts of our whole community!
We then moved quietly from the Black Box to the Beit Midrash, where guest speaker Jonathan Pucker, whose family art gallery is home to much of Samuel Bak’s artwork, addressed the school. As I wrote here several weeks ago, this program was made possible thanks to our partnership with Facing History and Ourselves (FHAO) and to the passion and hard work of one of our seniors, who has curated the exhibit as part of her Ma’avar (senior internship and independent study) project. Jonathan gave us a window into the life and artwork of Bak by bringing the artist and his paintings to life and giving us the language and the tools to make meaning of the artwork ourselves. One student exclaimed, “It was amazing to see slides of the art and to learn about it and then to walk upstairs and see the actual paintings hanging on our walls!”
Bak himself is a Holocaust survivor, and his artwork clearly tells the story of the suffering and tragedy of the Shoah. Yet, one thing that resonated with me most was Jonathan’s explanation that Bak’s works are meant to do more than commemorate his and our people’s experiences. They challenge us, the viewers, to consider what it means to be part of the collective narrative of our history and the history of humanity. Through their graphic and powerful symbolism, they raise more questions than they offer answers, as great works of art so often do. They force us to reflect on human suffering and the brokenness of the world and to feel compelled to play our role in repairing that world. It became clear why the Bak artwork is so important to FHAO and why it is so appropriate for Gann to host this exhibit.
Studying history and living an engaged Jewish life compel students to remember historical events and to see a reflection of themselves and their world, a world that will be profoundly shaped by the choices they make and the people they choose to be. When they remember and honor the memories of those we lost in the Shoah and those who have lived to tell their stories, our students take responsibility for the future of the Jewish people and humanity.
Rabbi Marc Baker