Arguing for the Sake of Justice – William Cooper and Kristallnacht

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Arguing for the Sake of Justice – William Cooper and Kristallnacht

In the story of Sodom and Gomorrah  Abraham has the holy chutzpah to argue with God about God’s plan to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah along with all of their inhabitants. Abraham bargains God down to an agreement that 10 righteous people will save the cities. We learn from this story that we need to speak up, that we need to be brave to face those in power when we feel they are planning unjust actions and that even if we feel completely powerless – either in relation to those whose actions we are questioning – like God – or perhaps because we truly are – we cannot be silent in the face of injustice.  In my classroom, this awareness is fostered so that my students learn to be Upstanders – rather than bystanders. I have been teaching towards creating Upstanders for 12 years and this summer I was brought to Perth, Australia through a grant from the US Department of State, Office of Cultural Affairs to speak about what and how I teach to create Upstanders. This grant was awarded through We Are Here! Foundation for Upstanders, which was founded by Eli Rabinowitz for the purpose of promoting my work and the Partisan’s song as tools for inspiring Upstanders. For my speaking tour, where I would be speaking mostly to non-Jewish audiences, I wanted to have an Australian angle to my presentations and so looked for an Australian Upstander. I would like to share about this Upstander today.

 

In my 8th grade Jewish History class I teach my students about the Emancipation of Jews under Napoleon. They learn that almost immediately after the Declaration of the Rights of Man awarded the Jews of France equal rights, they had to fight to keep the rights they had just won.The Jews had to prove that they deserved these rights and to show that they were ready to be French Jews, rather than just Jews who lived in France.  We look at the questions posed to the Jewish Notables by Napoleon to determine if they were worthy of being full citizens of France and possessors of equal rights. Students work to answer these questions on their own and then we look at the answers given to Napoleon by the Paris Sanhedrin. We learn that they got to keep their rights, then lost some of them, and then got them back again.

 

After we learn about French Jews getting and, eventually,  getting to keep their rights – and about the spread of this equality across Europe as Napoleon built his empire, we then turned to our “going further” portion of our unit – I teach using an Inquiry model and this penultimate step in the Inquiry Cycle is about taking your learning and applying it in a new way. For this unit we skip ahead to today’s world and look at the rights we would all like to have – the rights we are meant to have -the rights proclaimed as “universal” in 1948 in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This document lays out 30 articles giving all humans rights meant to guarantee them a life of dignity and a world where all of one’s needs – not wants – are met in a way that does not cause embarrassment or require feeling beholden to anyone. This document was produced after WWII and the horrors of the Holocaust and was meant to work towards a world where “Never Again” was a realtity for all populations. We review this document and the students are meant to mark any article that they feel is not being “upheld” in today’s world – and I make it clear that I do not mean not upheld in developing nations where one might expect a lapse in full human rights, but right here in their affluent Seattle or Bellevue communities.

 

When my students ask how this project connects to our learning or to Jewish history, I remind them that once we have rights, it is our job to make sure others have them as well and to work towards making the world more equal and kind. It is one thing to think about the rights of others when your own are secured. It is yet quite another to make a stand over the treatment of or loss of rights by another group when the group you belong to has not yet won its own rights – or is even considered fully human. I teach my students that it is their responsibility to fight for the rights of others EXACTLY because they have them and enjoy the benefits of being full citizens. But to belong to an oppressed group, a group deprived of their ancestral lands and still not viewed as equal and full citizens in a nation created on territory where their people have lived for millenia and to go and fight for the rights of others is quite extraordinary.

 

Kristallnacht – or the November Pogrom as it is also called – happened November 9th – 10th, 1938. It was meant to look like a spontaneous popular uprising against the Jews remaining in Germany and Austria in response to the shooting of a minor Nazi diplomat in France by a Polish Jewish teenager. “Regular” Germans were meant to be the main participants in this action and the official Nazi party and SS were meant to be less visible. Evidence from Nazi Party documents shows that this “spontaneous” uprising was carefully planned and carried out according to detailed instructions from the Nazi leadership. Who and what could be attacked was specified in a way to make it so that it was a German issue – no Jews from other countries were to be touched, nor was their property. The goal of keeping other countries out of a German issue was very clear in the instructions. That it was also supposed to be carried out in every town, village and rural corner of Germany was also clear. All the plan was waiting for was an excuse for it to be “spontaneous” and the shooting provided this cover. In addition to millions of Deutsche Marks worth of damage to Jewish businesses, homes and houses of worship, around 30,000 Jewish men were rounded up in the first mass arrest of Jews and taken to Dachau and other concentration camps. Thousands of Jews were beat up and at least 100 died. The Jews were billed 1 billion Reichsmark to clean up and repair the damage done by others to their properties! The message “you are not welcome here” was now heard loud and clear and those Jews who had remained to this point realized that they needed to leave and as quickly as they could. In our own congregation there are several people who left Germany within days of Kristallnacht. My husband’s family only left then, urged on by the arrest of his great- uncle Paul. It was a clarion call that no, you are not “more German than Jewish” and no, this will not “just go away.” News of the events in Germany were reported around the world and the message of the dire situation in Germany was clear to not just the Jews living there.

 

The news found its way to Australia and reached even those in the Aboriginal community. One of the people who read about these events was William Cooper. Cooper was a leader in the Aboriginal Rights movement and had spent much of his adult life advocating for recognition of the Indigenous population of Australia as humans, as citizens and has having equal rights and equal access to a productive and meaningful life. He had petitioned the Australian Parliament and even wrote a letter to the King of England because, while he was not recognized as a citizen of Australia, he was still a subject of the English Crown. William Cooper was a leader of the Australian Aboriginal League and was a member of a people who had suffered much at the hands of white settlers in Australia. Much like the native peoples of North America, the Aborigines were victims of attempted genocide, cultural genocide, loss of land and were viewed as unequal to white Europeans. I was horrified as I read about the treatment of Aboriginals by European settlers and the continued oppression of them. That they were classified as “flora and fauna” – literally equivalent to rabbits and other pests that could be shot if they were on your land – up until the year I was born – actually until just 8 days before I was born – is mind boggling. While state laws in the early 1960s had given the Indigenious rights in parts of Australia, the 1967 Referendum, is seen as giving them full status as Australian citizens, and was passed on 27 May, 1967. I was outraged as I read about their struggles for their rights and recognition as human beings deserving of equal treatment.

William Cooper learned about the events of Kristallnacht and assumed that there would be a protest in the white European community. He waited to hear what would be said and done to get Germany to stop their oppression of the Jews. But there was no outcry. So, on December 6th, 1938, William Cooper  tried to present a resolution condemning the actions of the Kristallnacht to the German/Nazi Consulate in Melbourne. He had made an appointment but when he arrived with a group of protestors and was discovered to be Aboriginal, he was refused entrance. Cooper left the letter at the Consulate and, despite some press at the time, the story was quickly  forgotten until a few years ago.

 

So, why did this man and his fellow Aboriginal activists take this action? Why did they write a letter and then walk 7 kms from Footscray to downtown Melbourne to try and present it to the German consulate? Shouldn’t their concern for their own fight for rights have taken all their focus? How did they have energy to fight for others when they were still deep in their own fight? They had suffered much of what the Jews had experienced over centuries in Europe and what they would go on to suffer at the hands of the Nazis in the next seven years. They were able to see beyond their own suffering and humiliation to recognize another group similarly suffering and to speak out on their behalf. They knew, all too clearly, the atrocities that are committed against those with no rights and who are seen as less than human. They did not want this to happen to anyone else. This is the empathy one would hope that suffering creates in one, but it is often hard for those still actively oppressed have the ability to step outside their own fight for justice to fight for others. They just don’t have the energy or time or bandwidth. Even more rare when those others are thousands of miles away, and when even those who should be raising an alarm are not doing so. While many other groups in Australia went on to raise concerns and call for a stop to the inhumane treatment of Jews by the Nazis, that the first group was Aborigines is quite astonishing and worth investigating and honoring.

 

In learning about the history of white, European settlement of Australia, it is clear that the Aboriginal population were seen as racially inferior and dispensable. The parallels between their experiences over 150 years and those of the Jews under Hitler are startling. These similarities give rise to the idea that perhaps the appeal on behalf of the Jews by William Cooper was also a call to give attention to the treatment of Aborigines in Australia. Perhaps if people could be directed to give their attention to pending genocide on the European continent, they might have their eyes opened to what was occuring on their own. Encouraging Australians to protest the treatment of Jews could lead to a confrontation about their attitudes towards their own minority that was being oppressed and eliminated. This brings to mind the story from King David’s life where Nathan the Prophet gets David to see his crimes against Uriah by telling a parable about a rich man with many sheep who steals and slaughters the one sheep of his poor neighbor rather than one of his own for an unexpected guest. David – who had stolen Uriah’s wife and had Uriah killed – declares this man should be harshly punished and Nathan says “This man is you.” Perhaps Cooper and his colleagues hoped the same could be accomplished with the Australian government and society.  It is also common that those who have suffered come to the support of others who are suffering the same oppression – Jews were allies of Blacks in the fight for Civil Rights in the US, and also involved in the work to gain rights for Aborigines in Australia. But this is usually after the first group has freed themselves from oppression – It is easier to work for others when you feel secure – so much braver and harder when you don’t yet have that security of equality before the law.

 

Viv Parry, an amazing Australian woman who uses art therapy with Aboriginal men who are in recovery, learned the story of Wiliam Cooper and decided to make a film about it.  Viv is Jewish and she was already using the lessons of the Holocaust to help counter prejudice in her clients. Having them hear the stories of Holocaust survivors was impactful as they connected to the commonalities of experience. She brought Alf Turner- known as Uncle Boydie – who is William Cooper’s grandson – and Moshe Fiszman – a survivor from Poland together to talk about their experiences and the histories of their two people. In the film “The Ties that Bind” – Moshe  tells Uncle Boydie, that he can’t believe that the Aborigines would come down and protest at the German Consulate when they themselves were “not treated as others by the Australian government.” Moshe continues “The Aborigines could feel it – because they themselves were subjected to a lot of problems…” This film is a record of a meeting between these two men in 2016 to discuss their experiences and the parallels in them. Moshe shares his story of survival and the miracle that he is alive and “here” to have this conversation. Uncle Boydie reaches out to pat Moshe’s knee and tells him “Well, I am glad you are here mate.” It is the place in the movie that got a response from every audience I shared it with in Australia – from middle schoolers to adults – they all loved this moment of human connection between these two survivors of hatred and oppression.

 

Uncle Boydie, as a young boy, went with his grandfather and the others on that march from Footscray to the German Consulate – a walk he has since re-enacted as seen in the film. He shares in the film, and also told me when I was privileged to get to speak to him by phone while in Melbourne, that he “knew my grandfather would do this – that was the man he was – he was not fussed a bit to go down there and protest. I lived with him for 8 or 9 years and I knew he would do it.”  Moshe Fiszman compares Cooper to Gandhi in terms of a fighter for the rights of his own people, and for the Jews.

 

When a group is being oppressed, it often relies on the help of those not in the group to survive and escape persecution. During the Holocaust, Jews in many countries were helped by their non-Jewish neighbors and friends – and often by complete strangers. These people were motivated by many things – religious conviction that what was being done was wrong and needed to be resisted, friendship and love, a shared humanity that made not helping not even a possibility, past favors being returned and a shared resistance to the Nazis, Hitler and fascism in whatever form it was in their country. These individuals have earned the distinction of “Righteous Gentile” or “Righteous among the Nations” from Yad Vashem. To earn this title, one must have acted out of altruism – this means that there was no reward, or payment for what they did. These people almost always acted at great risk to themselves and their families. If caught, they, along with the Jews they were helping, would be likely shot on sight. The vast majority – in fact almost all – of these Righteous lived in countries were the Holocaust was happening. They were giving material aid to Jews in their country, town, village, neighborhood. Some were from countries not directly impacted, but were serving in a diplomatic capacity in those countries – Ambassadors Sugihara and De Sousa Mendes come to mind. Each of these men wrote hundreds of illegal visas so Jews could escape to a safer place.

 

William Cooper is a Righteous Gentile. As he did not live where the Holocaust was occurring and did not provide direct aid to Jews, he cannot officially be given this title by Yad Vashem, but I have little doubt if he had lived there, he would have acted in a way that would earn him that title – as Uncle Boydie said “He wasn’t fussed a bit to do it.” He was honored at Yad Vashem by the establishment of an endowed Chair of Resistance Studies in the International School of Holocaust Studies at Yad Vashem. The Jews of Australia were not many, and they were not at risk. It is William Cooper’s actions, as an individual, as a member of a disenfranchised group himself, that have earned him his place in history. While other groups in Australia may have spoken out and called for Germany to cease its inhumane treatment of Jews, they were usually motivated by a connection to those being persecuted – and all of them, other than the Aboriginal League – were full citizens, with full rights in their country. Unions protested the persecution of unions, communists and other political groups – which likely included Jews but they were not the first concern. Discussion of providing a haven for Jewish refugees is peppered with mentions of their hard working attitude, assumed wealth, and the benefit they would have to Australia as settlers in all that open land – likely taken from those Cooper represented. That Cooper and others from the Aboriginal community took it upon themselves to protest is a striking display of their sense of a shared fate with the Jews of Europe. Of their awareness of what could happen when you were seen as less than human. Of their desire to prevent the Jews from suffering what they themselves suffered. William Cooper stood to gain nothing from his actions. He had no connection to the Jews of Europe. But he knew what it was like to be persecuted based on one’s racial or ethnic identity and did not wish that on anyone else. We should all be so inspired by the sufferings of our people to work for all who are at risk.

Dancing with the Remnants – My Reflections on The Bielski Partisan Gathering

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Dancing with the Remnants – My Reflections on The Bielski Partisan Gathering

Dancing with the Remnants 

Marking the 75th Anniversary of Liberation from the Nazis with the Bielski Partisans

Nance Morris Adler

Shabbat Shuva 5780 

 

Shomer Yisrael, Sh’mor Sh’erit Yisrael

V’al yovad Yisrael, ha-omrim: Sh’ma Israel.  

 

Guardian of Israel, guard the remnant of Israel; and preserve the people of Israel, who proclaim: “Sh’ma Yisrael. 

 

Shomer Israel is one of my favorite pieces of liturgy. I love singing it each Sunday morning that I lead minyan. As a student and a teacher of Jewish history, I know far too much about our remnants and the importance of remembering them. This summer I was privileged to be invited to attend the first ever reunion and gathering of the descendants, and one surviving brother, of the Bielski Partisan brigade. These truly were the remnants – children and grandchildren of the less than 10% of Polish Jews who survived World War II and the Shoah. While we were in what is currently Belarus, Naliboki and Novogroduk were in Poland at the start of the war and the residents of those places would be counted as Poles. 

 

I have taught about the Bielskis – brothers Tuvia, Zus, Asael and Aron and their partisan brigade – for 10 years – really since I first learned about them at a workshop of the Jewish Partisan Education Foundation – and before they were made “famous” by the movie “Defiance”. It is because of this that I was encouraged to attend by the organizer of the event, Tamara Vershitskaya, who is the main historian of the Bielskis and Novogroduk. I have proudly worn my shirt with the image of Zus Bielski on it on every trip I have taken to Israel with my 8th graders, usually on the day we go to Yad Vashem. My students learn about Jewish Partisans and Ghetto Fighters and know that there are Jews who fought back. Never did I imagine that I would be able to visit the Bielski Camp – a place that I try each year to describe to my students, using a crude map that was drawn after the war, and GoogleEarth images of dense Eastern European forests. That I would sit and eat breakfast several mornings, as well as lunch and at least one dinner, with Aron Bielski – the youngest of the four brothers – and become friends with children and grandchildren of Tuvia, Zus and others of the Bielski clan – never ever could I have imagined this. And I am sure that Tuvia and Zus never imagined that I, a Jewish history teacher from Seattle would help their grandchildren hang a mezuzah on a tree in the Naliboki Forest – Forest Jerusalem – in the middle of the site of the Bielski Camp. But this summer I got to do these things. 

 

The city of Novogrudok was multicultural and there were good relations between its Jews and Gentiles. When WWII broke out, it was firmly in the part of Poland that had been given to the USSR in the secret Molotov-Ribbentrop agreement. When later the Nazis invaded and came to Novogrudok, neighbors helped neighbors. It was this many years of cooperation and relationships that contributed to the events that followed. The arrival of the Nazis meant that a ghetto was of course formed and the Jews were put there. As time passed and it became clear that the ghetto would be liquidated and what that meant, the leaders in the ghetto decided that something must be done. They decided to build a tunnel. They had contacts outside the ghetto and they knew that if they could get out they could get to the Bielski Camp and have a place to be safe. This history of good relations was evident still today in the welcome that this gathering received both in Novogroduk and in Naliboki. The gathering began on the 75th anniversary and the same dignitaries and nonagenarians with their chests covered in Soviet war medals that were at the commemoration in the center of Novogroduk were present at and participated in the welcoming ceremony for the Bielski reunion. In a land where Jews visiting the sites of their ancestor’s homes often return with stories of stony silence and a less than friendly reception, we were greeted like long lost relatives and friends. 

 

One example of actions of the citizens of Novogroduk is the Kozlowski family who sheltered over 500 Jews over the occupation. When someone was able to get out of the ghetto or was passing from another village or town through Novogroduk to the Bielski Camp, the Kozlowski’s would hide them for a few days until it was safe to travel and then send them on their way. I met Lola Bielski and her two grandsons. As a very young child Lola was hidden in Novogroduk by a Polish family during the occupation. She shared her story with us at breakfast one morning, including photos from an earlier visit when she went to see the house where she had been hidden. The two ladies who worked in the kitchen of the hostel where we were staying were so excited by these photos. They knew the house, they knew the people. They knew the family that had hid Lola. They knew her friend, or at least his children, who had kept her company when she was a hidden child. They were so excited to see the photos and hear Lola’s story.

 

Back to the tunnel – so the tunnel was dug. It was hard work – hard to dig – hard to hide the digging -hard to hide the dirt. But 203 meters later, they were sure they were past the ghetto wall and were ready to plan the actual escape.  120 people successfully escaped from the Novogroduk Ghetto – it is the most successful escape from a camp or ghetto in the entire Holocaust. They were able to survive because they had help outside the ghetto and a place to go – the Bielski Camp where Tuvia Bielski was known for his policy of accepting every Jewish person -men, women, the elderly and children – into the camp and keeping them safe. Tuvia believed that every Jewish life saved was a victory over Hitler.  100 of the escapees went to the Bielski camp. 

 

At the reunion, when I would meet someone new the usual greeting was “Partisan or Tunnel?” I would answer “Neither.” The person would generally look confused and then ask why I was there. I would explain I was a teacher and had been teaching about the Bielskis for 10 years. This slowly turned me into a bit of a celebrity and instead of “Partisan or Tunnel” by day 2 the greeting was “So, I understand you are a famous American historian who knows everything about the Bielskis.” To which I would reply, “I am sure you have the wrong person.” (Apparently they didn’t) But it was a bit less awkward than being quizzed so I learned to say “well, not quite, but yes.” This at least made me feel like I was no longer crashing someone’s family reunion and more like the second cousin no one met before. 

 

And in reality by this time, I did feel a bit like family. I was staying at the Catholic Hostel in Novogroduk and Aron Bielski and his wife were also there along with Lola and her two grandsons and Bella Bielski Rubin and her two sons and other Bielski relatives. This meant we spent a lot of time together visiting and sharing meals and a few l’chaims. Aron and I had become buddies the first night over l’chaims with the priest. Shahar and Uriyah Rubin and I spent a lot of time talking and they, in my mind, most truly embodied the spirit of their grandparents and the partisans. Shahar lives in the Carmel Mountains in Israel and teaches survival skills. He was clearly at home in the woods and very much in his element here where his relatives had provided a haven for the Jews who could reach them. 

 

Aron spoke to this the first evening – very briefly – public speaking was not his favorite activity. What he said, says a lot about the realities of Polish Jewish life in this area – a Jewish world that was lost and is not really understood today. 

 

“When the Nazis came, our father told us “Go to the woods and live.” And we did. And we survived not because we were the smartest, the most educated or most worldly. We weren’t. We were country folk. We knew the woods. We knew how to take care of ourselves. We knew how to survive in the woods. And so we lived.” 

 

The Bielskis were the only Jews in their village. They ran the mill. The boys ran wild and were – as lovingly described by Uriyah “hooligans” – they survived because they were tough and knew how to get by. Their Polish was perfect without a Yiddish accent. They passed as Polish and were able to move about in the towns and villages finding Jews who needed their help. They were tough as nails and had to make tough choices to protect those in the camps – but also saved 1200+ Jewish lives because that was the right thing to do. We forget that Jews in Eastern Europe were as or more likely to be millers and farmers than urban intellectuals. This awareness is part of what was lost in the destruction of Jewish life village by village by the Nazis. 

 

On the second day we went to the “Forest Jerusalem” – the Naliboki Forest where the Bielski camp was located. On the way there we stopped in the village of Naliboki where we were greeted again like returning heroes. The mayor, the head of the local Communist party, and a troupe of traditional musicians/singers greeted us in the Main Street. The Mayor presented us with a beautifully decorated loaf of bread – the traditional greeting in this area – and the group sang. A downpour began in the middle of this and it did not stop the welcome or the singing. The local villagers were all going about their morning and were also welcoming and friendly. Uriyah joined a group in the bus stop and asked me to take a picture.  This “what might have been” snapshot is one of my favorite pictures from the trip. The same troupe welcomed us back after our visit to the Forest and the locals provided our group with a “Partisan’s lunch” which featured local produce and lots of homemade vodka. The head of the local Communist party was preaching love and togetherness of all peoples facilitated by “more vodka” as she worked the room filling (to the top) people’s cups with her peace-making liquid. And yes, I did finish all of mine. 

 

We then moved on in a long caravan of vans and cars and locals who joined in as we headed into the forest. There is a sign at the entrance to where the camp was and I was thrilled to see the familiar map of the camp that I and my students look at each year as I teach them about how developed the camp was – with a bakery, hospital, school and various workshops as well as ziemlankas – underground bunkers covered in logs and branches as camouflage – for living in. I wandered off into the woods on my own as the speechifying went on a bit long – there was a representative from the Israeli Embassy to Belarus there as well as other dignitaries. In the quiet of the woods I wandered through looking for signs of the camp, indications of where bunkers might have been dug into the ground. It was an amazing feeling walking through this place that I have tried to imagine and then describe to my students for 10 years. I reached a point in the path where a tree had been used to make an arch over the pathway and entered a wide meadow. Past this meadow I went off the path and into the woods. I found what appeared, and was confirmed later, to be a small storage ziemlanka/bunker that was still intact. I continued to meander back towards the group and found others exploring on their own as well. These were the children of those whose lives had been saved in these woods and, based on my own emotions,  I have to imagine this was a very emotional experience for them. 

 

When I rejoined the main group, many were standing in the deepest of the remaining ziemlanka depressions. Some metal artifacts from the camp had been found and people were looking for others. We then all moved back towards the center of the space where Shahar had determined that we needed to dance. Fiddles were brought out and a circle made. The Bielski children and grandchildren joined in the middle of the circle and danced as everyone else clapped and sang. I was standing next to the daughter of Asael Bielski – born the day he died and named Asaela in his honor. Watching the children and grandchildren of those whose lives were saved in this very spot was an amazing experience. I wept both for joy at their being alive and here and in sadness for those who were not there. The sheer joy in their faces and the sense of vindication and victory over Hitler, the Nazis and their collaborators was overwhelming. Dancing with the remnants of the Jewish community of Novogroduk and Naliboki was a spiritual experience and I felt so blessed to be part of it. 

 

After the dancing Sharon, the granddaughter of Tuvia, wanted to put up a mezuzah she had brought with her. She had brought it on her first trip to the camp years before but the weather had prevented her being able to hang it. I offered to help with the blessing and rituals of hanging a mezuzah and set off with Sharon, her cousin Matty (Zus’s grandson) and a few other Bielskis. They picked a tree to the side of the path and began to look for something to pound in the nails. Before we hung the mezuzah, Matty put on his tefillin and said the Sh’ma. He was wearing them as he hammered in the nails using a thick branch – this felt very authentically “Partisan style” way to hang a mezuzah. I have amazing photos of him putting it up and then Sharon saying the blessing and the Sh’ma. This was also an incredible experience – to be marking these woods, this camp that kept safe 1250 Jewish lives during the Shoah, as a Jewish home was so significant. Lola brought over her grandson to kiss the mezuzah as well. This sense of reclaiming the woods, of making it a Jewish place, of honoring those who lived and died there 75 years before was quite holy to me. It might have been the Bielskis and the other partisans who were physically guarding the remnant here during the war, but the sense of the Divine was clear to me in those woods. They were and are a holy place where the sanctity of Jewish lives was not dependent on the ability to fight or having shown up with a weapon that could be used to kill Nazis. Tuvia made sure that every Jewish life that could be saved, was. Those who joined him and supported this mission did their part to keep safe women, children and the eldery. And the non-Jews who helped, protected, fed, and hid their Jewish neighbors were all doing holy work as well.  To be able to celebrate this with the descendents of those who were saved, or did the saving, was truly inspiring.

 

I teach my students about the partisans to show that Jews did fight back, they resisted and they helped each other survive – what that looked like was not always as impressive as the Bielski camp and the lives they saved, but each act of resistance was done by – to quote Eli Wiesel – those who were “beaten, starved and tortured” and whose ability to resist was almost nonexistent. I want my students to know these stories so they can feel pride. So they are inspired to also be Upstanders and help when they can – even when they themselves might feel powerless. Being able to bring back to my classroom this experience, the pictures, the stories, to tell a boy who made a copy of the camp map for a project last year – “I stood right here” and point to a place on his map and see the look on his face is so powerful. I danced in the Bielski Camp in the Naliboki forest on the anniversary of their liberation – and even though it is not my story or my history – even though I am not “Partisan or Tunnel” it will count as one of the most emotionally powerful moments in my life – a moment when God was close – perhaps even dancing with the remnants as well. 

Eulogy for My Sister

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Eulogy for Colleen Ann Morris Cashell 30 November, 1965 – 21 March, 2019

Delivered 27 March, 2019 Clear Spring Maryland by Nance Morris Adler

 

Colleen was taken from us all far too soon and suddenly and we are all still struggling to understand what happened last Thursday morning. While we are shocked and devastated by her Death, in this space we want to focus on her life and share what made Colleen Colleen. I know there are people here from many parts of her life and all of those parts go together to make up a full picture of her life. We hope that in this room we can create a circle of love and memory to celebrate Colleen.

 

I always looked up to my big sister and wanted to be like her. Our mother told me that as soon as Colleen started school I wanted to be in school and had to be put into a part time pre-school so I would be happy. We are only 18 months apart in age and only two grades apart – Colleen started school young so that we wouldn’t be only one. We were great friends growing up and often mistaken for best friends rather than siblings as teenagers. We shared friends and hobbies and spent many winters ice skating and summers roller skating together at North Park.

 

Colleen and I both loved music from infancy – her first album was a Johnny Cash album – which is why he is our soundtrack today – and mine was Glenn Campbell or Cher. We stayed up late to watch the tv shows of all three of those entertainers. Colleen and I shared multiple memberships of Columbia House records and fought over who got to pick which records to play on our father’s stereo each Saturday morning growing up. She introduced me to British New Wave music when she brought home albums from a friend of hers in high school – Echo and the Bunnymen are still one of my favorite bands and when I saw them recently I thought of her bringing home that album. Colleen also introduced me to Punk rock when she went to college. Many of my favorite bands to this day are ones Colleen introduced me to and my “birthday” song is from this album (hold up Colleen’s copy of The The Soul Mining) – we found her copy in her house yesterday – that she shared with me in 1984.

 

Another area where Colleen was a huge influence on me was on the need to be involved and make the world a better place – to see the issues beyond your community and recognize the world is all connected. Colleen became very involved in a number of causes in college and it was her activism that encouraged me to become involved as well. As a high school student hearing about her work to end Apartheid and forward the cause of peace and human rights, I couldn’t wait to go to college and get to do important things like she was doing. While she moved on to other focuses in life, working for many of those same causes are still a vital part of my life and I never forget that it was Colleen who first lit that fire in me. I have often reflected on how dedicated she was in college and how it is me that has carried on the work. I always give her credit for that part of my life.

 

Colleen has always loved animals. She always had whatever pets our parents would let her have. Dogs, cats, hamsters, rabbits, turtles. In college Colleen spent much of her allowance on caring for her pets and would come home with worn out shoes because her rabbits needed their nails trimmed or the cats needed something. Caring for others – even animal others – always came first. In Clear Spring she adopted I don’t even know how many feral kittens and cats and I hope someone else takes up feeding them all now. Her love of cows developed during our years living on a farm and raising calves for 4H. Her desire to be a veterinarian developed early and it is unfortunate she was not able to achieve that. Her love of animals got in the way of her desire to care for animals and the demands of veterinarian school did not sit easily with her after choosing to become vegetarian in college. She switched her major to Dairy Science, and that led her to her work here in your community the past 20 years and for a total of 30 years with the Dept of Agriculture. Her love of Holsteins was never more clear than at her wedding where every decoration was cow themed. I had been told to wear something western and in black and white. When I saw the theme I said “I didn’t mind the black and white, and even the western was easy (I lived in Montana then) but if I knew I was being made to dress like a Holstein I might have complained!”

 

“Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.” Corinthians 13:4-8

 

As I am sure all of us in this room know, these words describe how Colleen lived life. It did not matter to her that others did not live by these same values – Colleen was endlessly giving and kind. She was eager to help anyone who she saw was in need of a helping hand. She always felt things would turn out well, and worked with that as a goal. I have heard from many of her friends and coworkers in the past week on Facebook and in messages about how helpful she was, how kind she was, how she helped their career, or spent time with their family. I have heard from our friends from high school who remember her as someone who was always smiling, was kind and friendly to all. I chatted Sunday evening with our friend Jim who Colleen and I convinced our parents to take in when he needed a place to live. He remembered her care for him when he was in need and is grateful to this day for that help. She had hope and she gave others hope as well.

 

Colleen, my dear sister, you are a child of Earth and starry Heaven. You are loved by many – both those here and those who could not be here but send their love and thoughts – may all that you gave to others in this life be given to you in your soul’s next journey.

 

We know that many of you know Colleen in settings we, her family did not, and we look forward to you sharing your memories of Colleen so that we can add them to ours.

 

(Allow others to share)

 

Closing –

 

In Judaism, when a loved one dies, and on the anniversary of their death, it is traditional to wish that “their memory be for a blessing”. It is believed that it is in the memories of those that we leave behind that eternal life is most easily found and that as long as the memory of a person persists, so does their influence and blessing on the world. Thank you for sharing your memories of Colleen with us – Colleen’s life was a blessing to many – and may all of our memories of her be for a blessing and may her influence live on for many years.

The Command to Remember

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The Command to Remember

Creating Collective Memory as a Moral Imperative

By: Nance M. Adler

Originally published in HaYidion March 2014

We have all heard the adage – “Those who don’t study history are doomed to repeat it.” I would like to add to it “Those who don’t remember their people’s history are doomed.” Much of how we are to behave as Jews is based in our remembering. Both God and our own modern experience exhort us to “Never forget” – we are to remember what was done to us and work to keep it from happening to others.  If we don’t know what was done, we can’t participate in this work to better the world. In the Torah we are reminded numerous times to “remember that you were strangers (or slaves) in Egypt” and as a consequence of that memory we are to treat others better than we were treated. We are to care for the widow, the orphan and the stranger in our gates. We are to treat others as we want to be treated and we are to remember it was God who helped us escape and be faithful to God as a consequence of this memory.  The study of history – or even the idea of history – comes late to Judaism. Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi in his book Zakhor differentiates between “collective memory” and history.  Yerushalmi points out that memory is a religious commandment in Judaism. The root zakhor appears 169 times in Torah. What God commands in the Torah is collective memory. It is looking at an experience as if it happened to you rather than in its proper historical setting.  The best example of this is the Pesah Seder. We do not say “The father of my ancestor was a wandering Aramean.” We say “My father was a wandering Aramean.” We say God took “me” out of Egypt. The Pesah story is told as personal memory. It is also the most widely observed Jewish ritual. Secular, unaffiliated, otherwise totally assimilated Jews hold and attend seders – this collective memory experience speaks to them and reminds them of who they are and how they are supposed to be in the world.

For Jews, as Yerushalmi points out, up until quite late, all of history was seen as collective memory. It was all seen as a playing out of God’s plan for God’s chosen people and all connected no matter how far apart in time events occurred. In my sixth grade Jewmanities class I combine teaching the stories of Tanach with the teaching of history. We look at the early kings of Israel as the Jewish archetypes they have become – memory – and then we look at them in their historical setting and as real people. We look at the prophets and their warnings of divine punishment and then learn about the Assyrians and the historical events of the conquering of ancient Israel and the destruction of the First Temple. By seeing our story both as history and memory, connections can be made and lessons learned beyond what doing it as one or the other allows. One of the most valuable things, in my opinion, about the heroes of the Tanahk is that they are real people. To learn about Solomon as only wise and to not see that he also made bad decisions, mostly connected to women, makes it hard to connect to him as a role model. Knowing that our problems were also the problems of our ancestors makes their experiences and lessons apply to our experiences. This is the power of collective memory. Knowing how your people have handled problems – how Jews handle problems – allows you to make Jewishly informed choices in all areas of life.

Our history teaches us what it means to be a Jew – the good and the bad of it. Much of Jewish history is depressing and awful. It is regularly debated just how appropriate it is to even teach it to various age groups. Parents ask me why I want to make their kid hate being a Jew by teaching about the Shoah or the Inquisition or other dark episodes of our history. A seventh grader recently asked why we always learned about such depressing stuff. He wanted to know when we were going to learn something “sunny” about Jewish history. Unfortunately, seventh grade JSS is 70 CE – Middle Ages, so, other than the Golden Age of Spanish Jewry and Babylonian Jewry, there isn’t a lot of sunshine. But, there are still lessons to be learned here that should make students value their Judaism and want to cling to it as strongly as their ancestors, who did so often at cost of life. How much in life today is worth dying for? To Jews in Ancient Israel, Spain, Babylonia, the Ottoman Empire, Eastern Europe, Germany and so many other times and places, the meaning and value of being Jewish was clearly a prize worth protecting and nurturing even when the cost was high. Loss of privilege and loss of life were not enough to dissuade Jews from being Jewish in those places, but today not getting to attend a concert on a Friday night is enough to make a kid wish he wasn’t Jewish. So, how do we inspire a deep and abiding love and value for being Jewish? For me, it is through the teaching of Jewish history and memory; in creating a sense that all of Jewish experience is part of my Jewish experience and figuring out how to understand that so I can be a part of making the world a place where some of those experiences will never again occur. Sharing in the collective memory of one’s people allows one to partake in the ongoing history of that people in a way that will hopefully one day allow “never forget” to become a true “never again.”  By remembering and teaching our students to remember as well, we can perhaps one day place those events in the historical past where they belong.

Full Immersion Learning – JCAT

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(Originally printed in RAVSAK journal HaYidion in Spring 2013 – No longer online on their site)

Each fall, the seventh grade students in my Jewish Social Studies (JSS) class begin the year by participating in The Jewish Court of All Time (JCAT) online simulation. JCAT is an innovative learning adventure that is a joint venture of the graduate programs at the University of Michigan School of Education and the University of Cincinnati and is supported by RAVSAK. JCAT is a virtual trial that is moderated by graduate students and whose participants are middle school students at Jewish schools around North America. Participants select a historical persona whom they will portray for the duration of the trial, which takes place at a virtual Masada. Students, in “character”, consider, and gather, evidence, post responses to questions and proposals and get familiar with each other’s points of view. Justices are then nominated and must gather votes of confidence from fellow participants before they can rule on the case. At the end, participants are asked to reflect on their experience and on the decision of the court. Participating schools are asked to work on JCAT two periods a week. I usually do one period of learning related to the topic and one or more of the students online completing assigned tasks related to the trial process.

This may all sound rather dull, but, done well, it is anything but. The experience of watching my 7th grade students fully engaged and excited about their learning as the events of this past fall’s JCAT trial unfolded was amazing, and anything but dull.  Each year, the JCAT coordinators select a timely and Jewishly relevant dilemma to be considered by the students. This year’s trial was based in events in France related to a law forbidding the wearing of “ostentatious religious items” in public schools. The co-plaintiffs were a Muslim girl and a Jewish boy who had both been expelled for wearing religiously required items to school. I began the unit by doing several lessons about the situation in Europe related to Muslim immigrants and the wearing of the hijab by young Muslim girls. We discussed the pressure from observant or fundamentalist Muslims for all girls to wear it and related this to pressure in other religions as well for everyone to meet a certain standard of observance. We also learned about the history of secularity in France and their commitment to both freedom of and freedom from religion in the public realm.  Armed with this knowledge, and a better understanding of the subtleties of freedom of religion and freedom of expression in a country dedicated to secularity, the students were ready to participate in a meaningful way in the JCAT trial.

Character selection is a tricky thing. Students all want to be someone famous and deciding for which of the five kids who want to be Anne Frank or Lady Gaga you are going to list that as one of their choices is not an easy job. Students often make the mistake of thinking representing someone popular will be easy and it is my job to help them make good choices. In a trial related to freedom of expression, Lady Gaga might be an excellent choice; in a trial about reparations to survivors of the St. Louis, last year’s topic, she might not.  Once they have their final assignment, it is their job to get to know their person well enough to be able to speak to the issues at hand as their person would have responded. They write a “resume” or letter of introduction, as I call it, and post this online so that others can learn about their opinions and experiences, and they begin to build alliances. The personal opinion of the student becomes unimportant, as their job is to present the opinion of their assigned identity. Some students choose to play against their views and do well with this, others find choosing someone closer to their own view more comfortable. Being the “odd person out” can be fun if you have the self-esteem and independence for it, or disheartening if you don’t. I have seen both in my class.

This year’s trial was especially exciting as a movement to unseat the “host”, Benazir Bhutto, developed over Thanksgiving break. The rationale was that a Muslim woman should not be hosting the trial of a Muslim girl. Students returned to find a putsch underway and not much time to respond. Within days, Bhutto was out and a cohort of strong minded leaders – Napoleon, Charlemagne and Rasputin to name a few – had taken power under the leadership of Geert Wilders, a Dutch politician who is rabidly Islamophobic. This group froze the trial, raised the number of votes of confidence needed and added their own members to the list of justices.  I carefully presented this new reality to my class and then set them loose to respond. It was amazing to see them fly into action. Quickly groups formed and alliances were made. Leaders were chosen, goals set and strategies outlined for getting Bhutto back or at least getting rid of Geert. Revolt Against Geert (RAG) was formed by a group of girls in my class and RAG became the group to rally around for all the JCAT participants who wanted to restore order.  A day of protest was allowed for a Wednesday, which happens to be a day I don’t have this class. I invited students to come in during their lunch and recess and the RAG group showed up in force for 50 minutes of high powered action and strategizing. It was truly a teacher’s proudest moment to see these students scrambling to be successful in their plan to unseat Geert and his cronies. I trust them to save the world when the time comes after seeing how hard they worked and how well they planned for something related to a virtual trial in their JSS class.

JCAT offers students an opportunity to think outside the box – even outside their own brain as they participate as someone else. My students reflect on this aspect of JCAT and find it one of the most challenging and rewarding parts. They learn new things, see new perspectives and experience someone else’s thoughts. Interacting with the other people out of history also allows an opportunity to learn about people who they might never otherwise encounter. I find JCAT to be an amazing experience for my students, and this year in particular it offered learning experiences for which I could have never written a lesson plan. I watched quiet and timid students find their voice and see its power and I know that they will never be the same. To feel that your actions might change the outcome of something important, and to be motivated, at 13, to get up early to check online and see what has happened since the previous night in a school project – it’s not what is expected in middle school, but JCAT makes it happen.

Why I Teach the Shoah in Fifth Grade

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(This article appears to not be available online at the site of the journal it was published in, so I am posting it here)

Why I Teach the Shoah in Fifth Grade

By:

Nance M. Adler

Nadler@jds.org

The controversial nature of teaching the Shoah (Holocaust) to Fifth Graders was not well known to me when I was asked in 2006 to teach in this grade. I knew it had been taught previously but not by the most recent teacher. The Head of Judaics wanted me to teach it and so I began to do some research and I found that there were strong opinions on this topic. “Pedagogically unsound” and “developmentally inappropriate” were words that I repeatedly heard as part of these discussions. Considering all the gore and violence our students are exposed to on a daily basis on TV, in video games, movies and books, I found it hard to believe that there was not a way to teach the Shoah to Fifth Graders that would be both pedagogically sound and developmentally appropriate. Armed with the concerns of my colleagues but equally with my conviction, I began to put together a curriculum for my classroom that would teach my students about this important time in Jewish History and help to create in them the sense of urgency necessary to insure that such crimes would never be repeated.

For me, teaching about the Shoah isn’t just about teaching the horrific history of what happened in Germany and Europe during the Third Reich. It is about creating young people who understand that it can be a few short steps from name calling to genocide, that prejudice isn’t harmless and that propaganda and a good orator can lead people to do horrible things. With this in mind, I knew that I needed to teach about the history of Germany from 1933 -1939 as this is the time period during which history could have changed but didn’t. This decision was affirmed when I took the “Holocaust and Human Behavior” course through Facing History and Ourselves (FHAO) the summer of 2008. To hear that I had focused on the right historical period confirmed what I already knew from the work of my students – understanding what happened to create a world where the Shoah could occur was vital if we are to keep it from occurring again. I also learned from FHAO the idea of creating “Upstanders”. An Upstander takes action when a wrong is being done rather than being a bystander and allowing it to happen unchallenged. This is now a byword in my class and a goal of my Shoah curriculum – to create Upstanders who, based on their knowledge of this history, will work to assure that it is not repeated.

We begin the year reading Vive La Paris by Esme Raji Codell as a read aloud. This is the story of Paris, a young African American girl in Chicago, and her Jewish piano teacher, Mrs. Rosen. This wonderful book not only introduces the Shoah through the eyes of Paris but also shows the prejudices she faces. We discuss the similar experiences of Blacks and Jews, the evils of prejudice and how life experiences impact faith. We then read stories of child survivors from a book called Survivors: Stories of Children Who Survived the Holocaust. The students then chose a book for an individual book project. This brings me to my main guideline for Shoah stories read in my class – the main character has to survive. This is based on the concern that forming an attachment to a character and then having them be killed is too hard emotionally for Fifth Graders. This means that Anne Frank’s diary would not be allowed to be read for a book report in my class even though many of my students have already read it.

My students keep a Shoah Journal where they write their thoughts and/or questions or to respond to my pre-reading prompts for these stories. These journals are our private conversation and are not shared without the student’s permission. It is here where real growth and understanding develops on these hard topics and it is here that I see beautiful evidence of the deep thinking of my students. They write questions, poetry, gut reactions or draw illustrations for the story that they have just heard. Some students write pages and others are so dumbstruck by the story that they can’t write much of anything. I have had conversations about faith, human nature and what it took for these people to survive. Responding to each journal is a time consuming but extremely worthwhile and important part in achieving my overall goal of creating Upstanders.

The next step is a lesson on the power of hate which I do so that the students are able to process the events they are about to study in an informed manner. I use the Pyramid of Hate to teach about the various levels of hate and show just how few steps there are between prejudice and genocide. Armed with this frame of reference, the students are then able to study the events of 1933 – 39 and see the unfolding climb up the Pyramid of Hate towards genocide. At the FHAO seminar I learned that a frog will jump out of a pot of boiling water but if placed in a pot of cold water that is slowly heated it will allow itself to be boiled to death. This is an apt illustration of what happened to both Jews and Germans during these years. Having this framework allows the students to see the slow boil and perhaps understand why the Jews didn’t leave earlier. It doesn’t excuse but helps to explain why Germans went along with a leader who, step by step, dehumanized the Jews and created a society where the Shoah occurred largely unquestioned. Having this framework helps make the study of these events relevant and interesting. Another way that I make this history accessible and interesting to my students is by using the writings of young people who lived through this period. We read diary entries and story excerpts as we study each time period thus allowing the students to form their own impression of both the events and what it was like to experience them. All of this leads to our culminating activity – the Shoah Character Narrative.

The Shoah Character Narrative is based on an assignment that was created by the Head of Judaics at my school. The character each child creates only experiences the events of 1933-39 and not the camps and mass killings of the 1940’s. In keeping with my requirement for stories which we read in class, the character must survive and many of the narratives are written as memoirs. Characters are created using a “reverse identity circle.” We start with a blank circle and create the pieces of each character’s identity. Students give their character a name, parents, birthplace and date, siblings, a school, level of Jewish observance, hobbies and economic class. They have fairly free reign in this process other than that their character must be Jewish, live in Germany and be at least eight in 1933. They then write a “back story” to introduce their character and show what their life was like prior to the election of Hitler in January 1933. Their character then lives through 1933-39 and experiences formative events such as the election of Hitler, early laws affecting Jews, The Nuremburg Laws, Kristallnacht and wearing the Yellow Star. While the minimum requirement is 14 paragraphs, most students write much more. They create a whole world and life for their character which is then impacted by the realities of being a Jew in Germany during this time period. The resulting stories show a command of the history, an understanding of what it was like to live through these events and a sense of not wanting this for anyone else. This assignment creates a memory for the student writer – a memory of living in Germany in the 1930’s. It is this memory that I have now come to believe will most help these young people grow into Upstanders working to make our world a more peaceful and equitable place.

So, how did I come to this belief? I was asked to be the guest speaker at my synagogue this past spring on the Shabbat after Yom HaShoah. The parsha was Tazria and I had no desire to speak on skin diseases and decided to speak about Yom HaShoah instead. I was working on writing my d’var as my students were watching “Paperclips” on Yom HaShoah when an idea came to me. The previous week I had taught my students about the difference between the two sets of Ten Commandments in the Torah. (In the Torah we are given the Ten Commandments twice; the first time by God at Sinai and the second by Moses in his farewell speech. There are major and minor differences between them.) As I thought about the experiences of the non-Jewish children in “Paperclips” and heard them speak about the stories that were shared with them and the “memories” they were safeguarding, my thoughts turned to my own thoughts on the difference between the two sets. In the first set of Commandments we are told to “zachor et yom hashabbat” (remember the Sabbath). Remembering can be very passive, requiring little action or real effort. The next forty years prove that the Children of Israel are not so good at remembering and so we can understand why God and/or Moses feel that making this commandment a bit more active might be a good thing. In D’varim we are told, by Moses, “sh’mor et yom hashabbat” (guard/preserve the Sabbath). This is an active and participatory commandment and makes our observance of Shabbat much more intensive than it might have been had we just had the first version. It is my belief that, much like Shabbat, which, as it is said “more than Jews have kept Shabbat, Shabbat has kept the Jews”, the Shoah requires not just remembering but guarding. Guarding as an active remembering, guarding as forming our own memories of events we did not live through so that when those who did live through them are gone we do not forget what they suffered. On Passover each year Jews say “My father was a wandering Aramean” and “I went out of Egypt.” Jews today no more did those things than my Fifth Graders lived through the Shoah but by guarding the memory in an active and personal way we have made Passover the most universally observed Jewish Holiday. Using this same technique, of creating personal memories of historical events, we can make the lessons of the Shoah part of the mindset of every young Jew. Guarding these memories by planting them in our own psyches will keep the lessons of these horrific times alive and relevant for future generations.

Teaching the lessons about what went wrong in a given situation and discussing how things might have been different is an activity without age boundaries. It is done with Kindergarteners when speaking about problems during recess and it can be done in relation to the Shoah in Fifth Grade in a way that is both age appropriate and pedagogically sound. My students love learning about the Shoah; for many it is their favorite subject. Even those who find some of the stories hard to hear know that what they are learning is important and meaningful and therefore are eager to learn more. Guarding our younger students from the horrors of the Shoah – the pictures of dead bodies and stories of the camps – does not preclude us from teaching them the lessons of this difficult period of history. Done with care and planning, teaching the Shoah to Fifth Graders can sow the seeds of concern for our People and our world and create a generation of Upstanders. It is with this ultimate goal in mind that I will continue to teach this history to my students and hope that others will follow suit.

(This article was originally printed in Jewish Educational Excellence – Volume 8:1 – Fall 2009 and is reprinted here by permission.)

Love, Justice and Religion

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Love, Justice and Religion

D’var on Shabbat Ha-azinu 5779

Nance Morris Adler

This d’var is given with gratitude to all those who helped make a summer without a “formal” learning trip to Europe into my most interesting, educational, and wonderful trip yet – Simonas, Michał, and Alan in particular, with many others also having a role in its success and of course much appreciation to Steve for supporting my need to learn and travel. It is no small coincidence that a d’var about love and unity was made possible by lots of love and international unity. Simonas and I in Vilnius before visiting the US Embassy to discuss a grant proposal for me to come to Lithuania and teach about Jewish Partisans. Michał and I outside the Polin Museum in Warsaw, Poland

Alan and I at the Anti-fascist Punk Music Festival in Potsdam, Germany

Over the summer i was in Berlin for a few days. While there I was invited to attend an anti-fascist Punk music festival with a emphasis on footballer culture. My German friend Alan, who invited me- is all of those things – a punk, anti-fascist and a footballer – he is also a high school teacher and a strong supporter of Israel. He does an exchange with Israel every year with his students – they go there and Israeli students come to visit their school in Eppingen. Alan is not Jewish – nor are his students. I have known Alan for five years and consider him to be a tremendous mensch. We were joined at this festival by two friends of his from Serbia – Pagan, so named because of his staunch anti-religious views, and Zeka – who was just as staunch in such views. Considering that these two come from a region that has been repeatedly torn apart by wars and crimes against humanity fed by religious differences, I can hardly say I blame them. Nationalism also contributes to the issues in the Balkans and so their anti-fascist stance is also not so surprising. Attending this event in Potsdam – a suburb of Berlin – was quite fascinating. We were greeted at the entrance by a “No Nazis” sign and it was chilling to realize they meant literal Nazis and not some hyperbolic use of the term. Inside every t-shirt had an anti-fascist, pro-humanity and pro-music message. My favorite, and I still want to find one of my own, was “I love music and hate fascists.”

During the evening, Zeka and I had a number of conversations. He realized during these that I was actually a “believer” as he might put it. He was stunned. I seemed so enlightened and intelligent. What could be going on? So, he began, with apologies if he was getting too personal or invasive, to question me about religion, God, and myself. All of his questions were answered with some version of “to be a better person” “love” “to remind me of my job to make the world a better place” “rules to live by so I make the world a better place” “reminders of the work I have to do”. He finally realized that this really was my reason for being “religious” – love, being a good person and knowing my job here on earth was to make it better than I found it. He was stumped by my lack of condemnation of other religions, judgement, desire for miracles or any other of the stereotypical answers he had heard or believed he would hear. He walked away. After about 10 minutes he came back and looked at me with deep respect and said “You are the first person in 20 years of asking that question who has given me an answer I can accept.” I laughed and said “I am sure the fact that I do this for a living might have helped me.”

I certainly don’t believe I am the only person who could have given Zeka that answer, but the fact I was the first was significant for him. I hope that he is able to be more open to those who do believe and who use that belief to do good. Current events in the Balkans make it hard to hold out too much hope, but every bit helps.

When in graduate school and multiple times since I have heard the advice to ask those who don’t believe in God about the God that they don’t believe in. As Rabbi Ed Feinstein says “I probably don’t believe in that God either.” I think it is equally important to think about the God YOU do believe. R. David Hartman talks about a God who hates lies and a God who demands justice, decency and compassion. His son, R. Donniel Hartman, states that he believes in the God of Sodom and Gomorrah, and not the God of the Akedah – the binding and near sacrifice of Isaac. Many teach that the core of Judaism is love – from Hillel on one foot stating that we are to “do to others as we would have done to us” and that the rest is commentary, to the prophets who call on us to treat the most needy well and to create a world filled with tzedek. The God I believe in is the God of love and justice – but also the God who gave humans free will. Which means that the enacting of love and justice here on Earth is our job – not God’s. I always tell my students that God gave us the guidebook, gave us wise teachers, parents, community members, and other role models to show us the way to treat each other. Sadly these role models often fall short, or the rewards of behavior not full of love or justice are more fulfilling.

R. Jonathan Sacks writes in “Not in God’s Name” about the “almost irresistible drive towards tribalism” that religion leads to – something my friends Zeka and Pagan are well familiar with. Catholic Croats kill Serbian Orthodox who kill Bosnian Muslims – who are ethnically the same as Serbs and Croats and descended from Slavs who converted to Islam under Ottoman rule – but are perceived as literal descendants of Ottoman Turks – who killed both of the other two. The threat of a new civil war or worse lingers in Bosnia as the Republika Srpska hints at a desire of independence and land. A Serbian friend sent me a picture from Croatia of a “Serbian family reunion” that would be recognizable in our country as a tree hung with “strange fruit”. R. Sacks speaks of the impulse in religion to feel that God’s love is finite and if God loves your religion, God must not love the others. He speaks of a need for religious leaders who “embrace the world in its diversity and sacred texts in their maximal generosity.” We often hear the argument that your freedom to practice your religion can’t limit my freedom to practice mine – or my lack of one. When we see the purpose of religion, and God, as love – when we see our connection to God and to humanity through love – when we remember that Judaism teaches all humans are made in the image of God – not just some of them – then moving to a practice of Judaism centered on love, justice and equality becomes the next logical step. A Judaism that makes the world better for all – one where righteousness and uprightness are the focus of a “religious” life and being observant doesn’t involve “bean counting” of mitzvot observed, but rather making sure everyone has their just share of beans – will help people to reconnect and find meaning in tradition and want to be closer to God because it will mean being closer to their fellow humans.

R. David Hartman states that “God would no longer be found in miraculous intervention, but in the materials of everyday human life. It is for this reason that the Talmudic Rabbis, and their successors, so tirelessly dedicated themselves to finding new opportunities to tie mitzvot to daily activity. We fill our lives with mitzvah in order to cultivate the habit of mind that we live within the encompassing presence of God.” I see this idea as seeing the mitzvot as opportunities to do good and to make the world more just and to create equality and fill the world with love. R. Hartman continues – “We cannot know God, but we can know how to live with God. We can know, for example, that God requires decency, compassion, and justice. For Maimonides, the lived experience of that imagery constitutes my understanding of God. I always relate to halakha with that question. Does halakha, which structures lived experience, bring me into ever-deepening contact with a God that wants me to act justly?” If the answer is no – then R. Hartman – and many others – would question the validity of that halakha. In his book he takes on the Orthodox on no lesser topics than agunot – women trapped by the lack of a get – a Jewish divorce – and unable to remarry while their former husbands are free to do so – and conversion in Israel – particularly the status of immigrants from the former FSU and their children who fight and die for Israel but are refused Jewish burial.

In a world where religion is equated with decades of pedophilia, war, genocide, patriarchal views and practices, homophobia, racism and other unjust and unloving behaviors – it really is no wonder that one might question why an educated person would participate. Judaism thankfully is not a religion that asks you to mindlessly obey, it demands your intellectual engagement. Judaism does not have one answer – there is little dogma and much discussion and disagreement. One of my favorite things about Judaism is the month of Elul and the Yamim Noraim (Days of Awe) – our yearly time for taking an accounting of our soul. The fact that I am given the oblitunity each year to assess my past behaviors and figure out what I need to fix and that I have to fix them – no one else can do my work – is such a gift. Confronting my sins and the sins of the community in the prayers of these days makes escaping self reflection impossible. The expectation of both the seeking of forgiveness, and the giving of it – the clear guidelines of what actually constitutes true t’shuva – all of these make me have to confront where I have fallen short and how I am going to do better in the future. This year much of my reflection has been on how I can be sure I am making the best use of my skills and opportunities to make the world better. As a teacher, I am fortunately in the position to impact the way young Jews think about Judaism and approaching the world Jewishly. I try to instill in them the sense that being a Jew isn’t about just religion or just culture – I try to show how it should influence their life choices on a daily basis and big picture. We talk about tzedahka – about tzedek – about being upstanders – about living one’s values every day. I teach prayer as a conversation with self as well as with God and quote R. Zaiman – and others I am sure – when I say prayer should make us different.

Practicing a religion – or non-religion – of love is always important and should be the goal of all humans always – but the state of the world today makes it all the more necessary. We are being swallowed by hate and division and those who truly believe in love and unity need to speak loudly and often. This summer I also traveled through Lithuania and Poland and heard stories of those who saved Jews and never told their stories or wanted to be acknowledged – I explained to a grandson in Vilnius why his grandparents had likely never told anyone but family their story and helped him realize that it wasn’t that Jews weren’t grateful – but that the Soviets and perhaps his grandparents’ neighbors were murderous. I then thanked him. I saw shock on the face of Polish teacher I had spent a whole day with touring churches and Polish sites as he realized I was a Jew. “She’s a Jew?” he asked my friend Michał in Polish. I explained to a Polish teen, a student of Michał’s, whose first question to me was “do I feel safe in America” that as a white woman I felt pretty safe. But as a Jew I felt a little less safe though far safer than others at this point. I then went through the various groups who didn’t feel safe and we talked about racism and guns and police violence in the US. It gave him a lot to think about. Again in Lithuania, I visited WWII sites where a very thin tightrope was walked between memorializing murdered Jews and honoring LIthuanians who fought the Soviets after helping kill some of those same Jews. My friend and guide in Lithuania, Simonas, is proud to be Lithuanian, but wishes his fellow Lithuanians were more enlightened and able to see the shades of gray necessary for moving forward. He often assures me he is not a “casual Lithuanian”, meaning his views are not those of the ordinary Lithuanians or “homo Sovieticus” as he refers to them. Michal, while guiding me in Warsaw was openly angry at the Poles who insist on calling attention to their suffering in the middle of the area where the Jewish Ghetto had been. I was sure his ranting about the “holy suffering of Poles” was going to get us lynched on the train. All of the tension in these situations is due to division and hatred based in religion, ethnicity, and race. Do I know if we can overcome this impulse in humans? I don’t. But I know we need to try if we want to survive.

Ha’azinu – the parsha this week – is Moshe’s last message to B’nai Israel – it is not a cheery one. It begins with a declaration of God’s perfection and faithfulness – “The Rock! God’s deeds are perfect, Yea all God’s ways are just; a faithful God, never false, true and upright is God.” God is just and wants us to be just – but the rest of Ha’azinu makes clear that already, after 40 years in God’s daily presence in the desert, human beings – b’nai Israel – will fail to be faithful to God. Despite being “fed honey from the crag,and oil from the flinty rock, curd of kine and milk of flocks; with the best of lambs and rams of Bashan, and he goats; with the finest wheat…” we cannot be faithful to God. God threatens vengeance on those who stray. Life today is not lived in the daily presence of God – God’s bounty is not easy to find in many places. Daily miracles are no longer found – but we can make them. We are meant to be partners in perfecting this world. We are the hands to do the work to bring about peace and prosperity for all. Staying engaged and focused on being godly – bringing love and unity into the world – is hard. It was hard in the desert, it is even harder today. R.Donniel Hartman in “Putting God Second, Saving Religion from Itself” urges us to live as God wants us to live, rather than to live FOR God. God wants us to be love, to create justice, and care for each other. This is our guiding torah – and if following it does harm – then we need to revisit the first part and make changes. Our world depends on it.