Left Coast Voices

"I would hurl words into the darkness and wait for an echo. If an echo sounded, no matter how faintly, I would send other words to tell, to march, to fight." Richard Wright, American Hunger

Archive for the tag “Elie Wiesel”

Bearing Witness: A Window Closes

I thought it was risky expecting college students to give up a Friday night and come to Hillel, the Jewish Student Center, to hear a Holocaust survivor. We usually invite speakers during the week and had already held two ceremonies, one on the SFSU campus. But sometimes you hold events just because they are popular, and sometimes: something needs to be said.

A student requested that we invite her grandfather, who has a tragic but amazing story. I was stunned to see our small family house fill with over 80 students. People stood along the walls, sat on the stairs and all listened in silence as Herbert Heller told how he was ordered as a boy to take some laundry for a guard’s son, and instead put them on and walked out the camp and escaped.

Herbert Heller talks with a student

Herbert Heller talks with a student

He told us of coming to America and trying to live a fulfilling life without hate and guilt guiding his every step. His voice was quiet and clear. He was not a polished speaker, which only served to make the experience so much more genuine. He was one of our friend’s grandfather. He could have been anyone’s grandfather.

I walked around afterwards asking students if this was their first time hearing a Holocaust survivor and why they had come. I was particularly interested in a small group of students I had never seen; a group that I decided was probably not Jewish. They had been invited by two Jewish students when they had heard these students talking about how important this was to them, they had felt a clear sense of purpose that this was something they wanted to experience.

The common response I received was that a sense of urgency, that a window is closing on the opportunity to hear first-hand accounts of the Holocaust. There is a genuine concern among millennials, who are fueled by a sense of justice and order, that the Holocaust will become just another massacre of a people in a long historical list of shame on humanity, but a page in a history book, nonetheless.

Gloria Lyon, San Francisco resident.

Gloria Lyon, San Francisco resident.

I fear for our ability to keep telling the story. I believe we must each find the opportunity to meet and hear a Holocaust survivor, especially if this someone is a family member.

Two 18-21 year old students said to me separately (paraphrasing): You have the opportunity to bring this amazing man to speak to me, but what will I do in order to pass on the story to my children, to my grandchildren?

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We need to hear the story. As Elie Wiesel said: we need to bear witness. When these students sit down with their children and grandchildren, they will begin their story with:

“One Friday night I met this amazing man and he told me his story…”

Yarzheit Candles Hillel

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Alon Shalev writes social justice-themed novels and YA epic fantasy. He swears there is a connection. His latest books include: Unwanted Heroes and At The Walls Of Galbrieth. Alon tweets at @alonshalevsf and @elfwriter.

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A Place At The Table – David Waksberg

Tonight is one of the most powerful nights in the Jewish year. The Passover Seder is traditionally seen as a family event. David Waksberg, CEO of  Jewish LearningWorks, offers a beautiful, universal perspective.

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God created humans, Elie Wiesel suggests, because God loves stories.

At no time do we tell more stories than at the Passover Seder, and above all, the story of the Exodus, the master narrative of the Jewish people.

All of us are commanded to participate in the telling. Everyone who tells the story is praised. And each of us is commanded to make the story our own – as if we ourselves came out of Egypt. In making the story our own, each of us is invited to make OUR story part of the master story, to fit our unique puzzle piece into the great jigsaw puzzle of the Jewish people.

There is a place at the Seder table for all of us. No wonder more Jews gather for a Passover Seder than for any other Jewish activity. 

 “Let all who hunger come and eat,” we say. Everyone is welcome.

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Never before have so many Jewish leaders voiced the desire to “reduce barriers to participation” in Jewish life. And yet, so many feel left out, as if their puzzle piece can’t fit. Jews with learning differences that are not accommodated in schools; LGBT Jews who don’t feel welcomed in some institutions; multi-racial families, told they don’t “look Jewish;” interfaith families, seeking inclusion.

And the list goes on – Sephardi and Ashkenazi, observant and secular, Russian, Israeli…so many ways we can divide ourselves and so many ways we’ve found to feel alienated, uncomfortable, “other” in Jewish settings.

Most everyone means well, one parent told me, “but good intentions are not enough.” If we wish to reduce barriers to engagement, we need to let go of the notion that Jews must look or sound or act in accordance with a set of images we grew up with.

Jewish peoplehood does not mean we are all the same. It means that across a wide spectrum of diverse culture, language, ethnicity, politics, sexual orientation, physical abilities, and yes, even beliefs, we share a common bond. How wonderful, and how much richer is that bond for the diversity that informs it?  Jewish comes in many flavors and until we truly understand, celebrate and institutionalize it, those barriers to participation won’t come down. 

Next week, the multi-hued mélange that makes up the Jewish people will gather around Seder tables around the world to celebrate our story of liberation and redemption. The Seder exemplifies our diversity, both in the story we tell and in the multiple ways we tell it. At our Seder table, an array of customs and practices – melodies from Poland, Lithuania and Turkey, customs from Iraq, Afghanistan, and North America, recipes from Syria, Spain, and the Bronx – coalesce around a common theme, story, and set of rituals and symbols.

Twelve tribes left Egypt. Twelve tribes remained, and, paradoxically, one people emerged. 

Not every Israelite left Egypt. But all were invited to make the trip.

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Alon Shalev writes social justice-themed novels and YA epic fantasy. He swears there is a connection. His latest books include: Unwanted Heroes and At The Walls Of Galbrieth. Alon tweets at @alonshalevsf and @elfwriter.  

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