Category Archives: D’vrei Torah

Arguing for the Sake of Justice – William Cooper and Kristallnacht

Standard
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

Standard
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. 

D’var Shabbat Shuvah 5777 – Two Modes of Reconciliation with a Difficult Past – Terezin and Berlin

Standard

Terezin or Berlin – Two Models for Reconciling with a Difficult Past
Shabbat Shuvah 5777 – Parshat Vayelekh
Nance Adler
I hadn’t originally tied my d’var to the Parshat this week – I was focusing on the theme of t’shuva for Shabbat Shuvah – but was struck by these verses as the Torah was being read this morning. I will read these two verses and leave them there – they will make sense later.
“Gather the people – men, women, children, and the strangers in your communities – that they may hear and so learn to revere the Lord your God and to observe faithfully every word of this Teaching. Their children too, who have not had the experience, shall hear and learn to revere the Lord your God as long as they live in the land that you are about to cross the Jordan to possess.” Deuteronomy 31:12-13

This summer I participated in my third Centropa Summer Academy. Centropa is an organization with its headquarters in Vienna, Austria that is working to document Jewish life in the 20th century in Central and Eastern Europe and the Balkans – that of the “Jews who went home after the Holocaust” as I refer to them. I use their materials heavily in my classroom and do many projects in collaboration with other Centropa teachers in Europe, Israel and other US schools. This year’s trip was to Vienna, Prague, Terezin and Berlin and focused on the experience of refugees. But I am not here to talk about refugees – though I could.
Today is Shabbat Shuva – the Shabbat between Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur – a day focused on the theme of return, repair and fixing the past as best we can. We are focused for these 10 days on tzedahka, teffila and t’shuva. But can we always fix the past? How do we repair what is broken when the break is so severe and those who were wronged are no longer here? How do we return to a point where “normal” life can continue in places where huge ruptures have occurred? Not individual ruptures or breakage – but cultural/national/regional ruptures that are not easily healed over. How do we dwell in the places where these things have happened and obtain a sense of normalcy again? Can we?
I would like to think about this question in relation to two places I visited this summer and then try to bring these analogies down to the personal level. I will start with a short blog post I wrote on the bus immediately after visiting Terezin.
“Terezin – Today I visited Terezin – Theresenstadt – the fortified city that became a Jewish ghetto during World War II. Prior to the 1940s and, again since then, Terezin was an actual town. First for the military and then for civilians as well. Walking through Terezin as visitors to a “museum” of the Ghetto, it was jarring and upsetting to be shaken out of the past by cars careening down the streets with their stereos blaring. The former housing and associated buildings used to imprison tens of thousands of Jews now house hair salons, bars, shops and even a pension – a small inn near where Jews would be loaded into trains for the trip to Auschwitz. The man in his speedo on the deck of this inn was really the final indignity. I personally can’t imagine living on the site of a Nazi created ghetto – a place where 33,000 people died from illness, starvation and poor treatment. How do you give your address? How do you invite people to visit you at your home? The atmosphere in the town is heavy with history – it was hard being there two hours – how does one live there? On the edge of “town”, just past the quaint little pension, there is a directional sign to the crematorium. I cannot imagine driving daily past this sign on my way in and out of town. Yes, evil and awful things happen/have happened in many places in the world, but some places are more tainted with this evil. For me, the idea of living in such a place is unthinkable. To try to have a normal, mundane life with the daily reminders of ultimate evil all around seems absurd. Perhaps the blaring radios and unsafe speed for streets full of museum visitors are just symptoms of this insanity.”
At Terezin there is both a memorial and museum to the past and an attempt to have life go on. They are side by side. There is no seeming connection between the two. Normal life goes on – or tries to – shoulder to shoulder with groups touring a place where people were starved and worked to death because they were Jews. I get that the Czech citizens living there now are not the descendants of Nazis who ran the camps. I get that it was on occupied territory and run by the occupying government. But, still, how does one wake up in the morning and start your day positively if part of your commute includes driving by sites of mass murder? How do you disconnect your reality from that reality?
Berlin – In Berlin we visited the “Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe.” Let me repeat that name – its official name –Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. There are no punches being pulled here. No euphemisms or soft selling of the fact of what happened and that this was the capital of the government that made it happen. It is a visually moving memorial with an equally moving and powerful “information center” built directly underneath it. This memorial is made up of different sized stelae or cement pillars. There are walkways between them which are uneven and give you the feeling of being off balance. Being in the center of it, where the pillars are tallest, is a whole body experience and very disorienting. While on the outskirts of the memorial – which is not well marked and very open to the public – people are not really aware of where they are, in the middle of it, it is hard to not be impacted by the experience.
When we entered the Information Center – it is not referred to as a museum – Ed Serotta – the founder and director of Centropa – spoke to our group before we toured the exhibits. Ed is not a man known for filtering his opinions or moderating his views – one of his more endearing features in my opinion. He said “When I first came here, before it opened, I went through looking for places where they had pulled their punches or been less than truthful. I found none.” To me this was a very high recommendation of the place – Ed is always quite happy to find where more could be said to take full responsibility for the crimes of genocide. As I went through the Center, I found that I was in agreement with Ed. Those of you who know me, know that the Holocaust is my specialty and I have spent a lot of time touring museums, reading books, going to seminars and otherwise immersing myself in this most horrible chapter of our history. The Information Center of the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe is the most brutally honest and upfront presentation of the horrors of Nazi Germany and the Final Solution that I have seen. That it exists in Berlin, near the Reichstag, in what was the center of the Nazi Reich, is amazing to me. There is no ignoring of the past. This is an airing of what was done, with no excuses being made. The crimes of the past are presented. Those guilty are named. There is no attempt at normalcy – the whole construction of the surrounding memorial is made to throw you off kilter and not allow you to feel normal or on firm ground. This is a place for coming to terms with the sins of the past and, even more importantly, educating those who visit about the importance of not repeating that past.
Other memorials in Berlin are similarly present and hard to miss such as the “Stumbling Stones” in the sidewalk outside homes lived in by Jews and the “Missing House” in the old Jewish Quarter, a plaque honoring homosexuals murdered and imprisoned on the wall of the UBahn Station in the part of town where these men would have likely lived. I know that for many Germans, particularly those living in Berlin, these constant reminders are perhaps too much. Airing one’s dirty laundry is not fun and having it constantly in your face, and also on display for all who visit, can be exhausting and embarrassing. I found Berlin to be one big museum – the outline of the former Berlin Wall is marked on the ground, the Stumbling Stones, the memorial for the Book Burning – it would be hard to live in Berlin and not have the mistakes of the past firmly in mind. The German Government works hard to show it has learned from this past – the acceptance of tens of thousands of refugees this past year is one proof of this. The final step of t’shuva is to not repeat a behavior and Germany, or at least their chancellor,, is working hard to show that Germany has truly learnt the mistakes of its past and does not plan to repeat them. Like in Terezin, life goes on around all of these memorials, but it was a very different experience than the frenetic experience in the ghetto. History is respected, not ignored.
In our own lives, when there is a rupture are we in Terezin – side by side with the reminders but doing our best to drowned them out with music and fast living? Or are we in Berlin – respectfully admitting our guilt and accepting the consequences – and becoming a better person for having done so? Do we allow others to view our past transgressions, but ignore them ourselves? Or, do we use those “stumbling stones” of our experiences to keep ourselves in line and move forward positively? Do we say “I wasn’t responsible, but just a bystander – this has nothing to do with me” and not concern ourselves with the wrongs done around us? Or do we use the errors of others to teach us to be better people as well?
As a student and teacher of history, I know that the power of learning history is to explore the mistakes of others and NOT need to repeat them ourselves. Seeing the patterns of history, the warning signs of future trouble, makes one able to step in and try to prevent that trouble. The USHMM has a Genocide Early Warning team, there are known steps that lead to genocide, known behaviors or events that can lead to mass atrocities. Knowing these allows us to prevent a repeat of humanity’s darkest hours. Yet, genocide continues to happen around the world and we continue, as a society, to not take such signs seriously enough. A speaker I heard this summer said “Knowledge isn’t power – until it leads to action.” Our knowledge of past trouble should lead to actions to prevent future ones.
Seeing the warning signs of trouble in our own lives can be just as hard – but we need to use our past experiences to help us move into the future more positively and more aware. Burying the past may make moving forward easier – but it also makes repeating the past more likely. As painful as facing difficult experiences head on may be, this type of accounting will help to prevent additional painful experiences in the future. We say “Never Again” while all the while genocide and crimes against humanity continue to occur. “Never Forget” is more realistic and will hopefully eventually bring us to a true “Never Again.” Facing our mistakes, fixing what we can fix, mending relationships and rebuilding community and then resolving to keep that experience in mind is what brings us to the final step – not repeating the action. I don’t mean an obsessive fixation on the wrongs – but an awareness that lack of attention can lead to trouble. Whether that trouble is a broken friendship or much larger, an awareness of the impact of our behaviors that is informed by our past experiences – and those of others we know – will help us to minimize the damage or avoid it all together.
I wish for us all the ability to fix the ruptures in our lives and to move forward wiser for the experience. Our world needs citizens aware of history and unafraid to face it and use it to know when our present or our future is about to repeat it. G’mar hatimah tovah. May we all be sealed for a good year.
Nance Adler
Edited to add in edits made during delivery
Note – I had several people come and tell me that I was wrong and people did not live in Terezin – they had been there 10 years or more ago and no one lived there then – I can assure you that all of the businesses I listed and attempts at “ordinary” life were there when I visited this summer.

D’var for Shabbat Shoftim 5774 – Education as Justice

Standard
D’var for Shabbat Shoftim 5774 – Education as Justice

D’var on Shoftim

Aug 30, 2014, 4 Elul 5774

Nance Adler

(This d’var was inspired by my Fund for Teachers Fellowship in Sarajevo with Centropa and my training as a USHMM Teacher Fellow)

צדק צדק תרדוף למען תחיה וירשת את הארץ אשר יי אלהיך נתן לך

Justice, Justice shall you purse, that you may thrive and occupy the land that the Lord your God is giving you.

Our Sages teach that no word in the Torah is extraneous – they all have meaning and the repetition of tzedek – justice – must mean something. Is it just emphasis – you will surely pursue justice – does it indicate the way that we will pursue it – through courts as Rashi interprets it or perhaps in a just manner – the ends don’t justify the means but the means must also be just. This verse is found at the end of a commandment exhorting b’nei Israel to set up courts and appoint magistrates and officials for each tribe when they are in the land. It states that judges will not take bribes and will judge impartially. Is the pursuit of justice merely the purview of courts?

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks would say no and I agree. In his d’var on Shoftim from a few years ago, Rabbi Sacks speaks about the unique nature of Judaism which commands a social order without a political structure to support it. Jewish law is followed without a government to enforce it, without a nation to even practice it in for 2000 years. The observance of Jewish law – and pursuing Justice through the application of that law – is the responsibility of each Jew and is assured through education. To show the efficacy of this, Rabbi Sacks shares a story from Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berdichev:

Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berdichev once said: “Master of the universe, in Russia there is a Czar, an army and a police force, but still in Russian houses you can find contraband goods. The Jewish people has no Czar, no army and no police force, but try finding bread in a Jewish home on Pesach!”

Rabbi Sacks continues by speaking about Moses leadership and its impact on Jews throughout time:

“What Moses understood in a way that has no parallel elsewhere is that there are only two ways of creating order: either by power from the outside or self-restraint from within; either by the use of external force or by internalised knowledge of and commitment to the law.

How do you create such knowledge? By strong families and strong communities and schools that teach children the law, and by parents teaching their children “when you sit in your house or when you walk by the way, when you lie down and when you rise up.”

Of course, as a teacher, the idea that education is the key to a just society is both appealing and not, at least to me, news. As many of you know, an area of passion for me is teaching the lessons of the Holocaust. I, of course, teach these because it is vital that my Jewish students know this important, and tragic, episode of our history. But I also teach it with a much deeper and, to me, important goal. We all say “never again” but we say it knowing that there is genocide occurring in the world as we are speaking these words. Never again has yet to be assured – just ask the Yazidi or Rwandans or Sudanese, or Bosnians. All of these people have experienced genocidal violence or are experiencing it right now. When I teach about the Holocaust I begin by teaching the steps – 8 or 10 depending on who you ask – that lead to genocide.  Knowing these steps and what they each entail allows genocide experts to predict where genocide is likely to happen and work to help prevent the escalation of violence.

This summer I was honored to have been selected as a United States Holocaust Memorial Museum Teacher Fellow. As part of our training, we heard a lecture from Susan Benesch who specializes in the area of genocide build up connected to language and incitement of violence. We are all familiar with the idea of hate language or speech and the debates about whether or not it is a crime or is protected by the First Amendment. Susan actually goes further to classify some language as “dangerous speech” and sees this type of speech as moving a society towards genocide. There are five variables that Susan has determined for judging if speech is dangerous and they are:

  • a powerful speaker with a high degree of influence over the audience
  • the audience has grievances and fear that the speaker can cultivate
  • the speech act is clearly understood as a call to violence
  • there is a social or historical context that is propitious for violence, for any of a variety of reasons, including longstanding competition between groups for resources, lack of efforts to solve grievances, or previous episodes of violence
  • and there is a means of dissemination that is influential in itself, for example because it is the sole or  primary source of news for the relevant audience

Susan told us about how detecting the use of this type of speech and countering it with positive speech and education can actually avert violence. An example of this was an election in Myanmar. During the previous election cycle there had been dangerous speech used during campaigning and when the results were announced there was serious violence. When this dangerous speech began during the next election, an intentional counter campaign of “positive speech” was undertaken. The elections were held and despite things looking quite dicey, there was no violence. This was seen as an indication of the role that counter speech can play in preventing a society from becoming violent and potentially genocidal.
Imagine if in Germany in the 1930’s academics in Germany had stood by their Jewish colleagues and spoken out against the Nazi propaganda machine rather than abandoning them to it? What if teachers had refused to teach “racial hygiene” and other information that ran counter to what they knew to be true? It is my goal when I teach the Holocaust and genocide that I am helping to educate my students to be people who will stand up, who will recognize dangerous speech and engage in counter speech to keep violence from happening. One cannot be expected to pursue justice if one does not know what injustices are occurring. Sadly we live in a world where finding injustice is far too easy– tracking on all that is going on in the world can be overwhelming and difficult for an empathetic person. Feeling impotent in the face of such violence and hatred is depressing and disheartening. So, how do we all help to do our part to create the just society that God commands us to work for? How do we pursue justice, justly?

I turn back to education – something I am passionate about both as a provider and consumer. This summer I was in Sarajevo as part Centropa’s Summer Academy which was made possible by a Fund for Teachers Fellowship. Prior to my trip I did a lot of reading to prepare. I read 1941: The Year that Keeps Returning – a history of the Ushtasha and the genocidal violence aimed at Serbians by the Croats during World War 2. I read about the siege of Sarajevo in the ‘90’s and the crimes against humanity that occurred elsewhere in Bosnia then. Then I went there. Driving into Bosnia from the border of Croatia to Sarajevo was a journey through a war zone despite the passing of 20 years. Bombed out remains of houses sat next to intact homes with well-tended gardens. It was surreal and upsetting. Sarajevo is full of newly renovated or rebuilt buildings next to those still pock marked with bullet and rocket holes. In the middle of Sarajevo, next to a major church and in the shopping/tourist district sits a hollow frame of a formerly beautiful building. There is a tree growing out the top of the ruins and flowers in the cracks and crevices. I was told its ownership is in dispute and so nothing can be done with it.

This building became an icon for me of the situation in Bosnia. The three groups who live there – Bosniaks who are Muslim, Serbs who are Orthodox  Christians and Croats who are Catholic- were divided by ethnic/religious status and, by order of the Dayton Accords which ended the war in the 90’s, this national identity determines the schools they attend. This means that children in these communities attend different schools. They are not learning together, they are not playing together and they are like this building – stuck in a legal wrangle that makes their future unsure. In addition, no one is learning about what happened in the 90’s – teachers are being asked to begin teaching about it, but don’t have a curriculum and if they did – Bosnians would learn a Bosnian narrative and Serbs a Serbian one. This will not help anyone learn to live together. Centropa, the organization that I traveled to Bosnia with, brought together teachers from these three communities for the first time and asked them to work together on a lesson plan for teaching the Holocaust. This was inspiring to watch and fraught with difficulty. Just being together was difficult. Just being in a majority Bosniak city was difficult for the Serbs. Visiting sites connected to the war in the 90’s was emotional and traumatizing. It also provided a teaching moment about the dangers of language.

We visited the museum of the Tunnel of Life – a tunnel dug under the runway of the airport in Sarajevo so that life sustaining supplies could be brought into the city and people could get out. This museum is private and staffed by the family whose home was at the end of the tunnel. As we learned later, the father usually gives the tours and is humorous and friendly. When we visited the son, who was about my age and lived through the siege as a young man, gave the tour. It was clear he was still very angry and had a great deal of trauma and aggression that he had not dealt with. He spoke about the actions of the “Serbians” whose goal it was to kill the Bosnians. His anger and hatred were clear and because of this I did not really give much credence to what he said. However, to the Serbs in our group, some of whom were only children in the early 90’s, his words were a personal attack accusing them each of being murderers and leaving them visibly shaken. When we returned to our bus one of the Serbians spoke to our group about what he had just experienced. He and I then spoke about the role of teachers in helping to educate so that people knew how to differentiate between the “Serbian Army of Milosovic” and Serbs who had no part in what happened and did not support his actions. There were Serbs who stayed in Sarajevo and suffered during the siege. You would not know that from our guide’s talk. We also had an hour long discussion as a whole group when we returned to the conference room. Each Serbian in our group and one Bosnian spoke about their feelings and concerns and helped us all to work through this situation and realize the power of words and the importance of using them carefully.

My experience in Sarajevo and my conversations with the Serbians and Bosnians convinced me that these people – these dedicated teachers – want their students to know how to live together but are not sure or in agreement about how to teach about the past in a way that will make a unified future a reality. It is important to know that during the 50 years between 1941 and 1991, under Tito and Communism, these three groups did mostly live in harmony. There was evidence all over Sarajevo and in the story of the siege that shows this unity is not unattainable. In “Logavina Street”, a book that tells the story of the residents of this street during the siege, it tells how prior to the war people intermarried and that everyone celebrated everyone else’s holidays along with them. We visited the public cemetery in Sarajevo where Muslims, Catholics and Orthodox are all buried together, literally on top of each other. There is a story from during the siege of a young couple known as the “Romeo and Juliet of Sarajevo”. She was Bosnian Muslim and he was Serbian Orthodox Christian. He stayed in Sarajevo with her at the beginning of the siege and then they tried to leave to go to his family. They were shot, despite being promised safe passage – no one knows by who and both sides blame the other – and they are buried together in the same grave. It seems to me that in a city that is half Hapsburg Austrian buildings and half Ottoman Muslim buildings and where a Muslim and an Orthodox Christian can be buried in the same grave, unity and coexistence are clearly possible. But how when the very system upon which a just and unified society is built – the education of the youth – is unable to create the foundation for that existence?

It is my hope to be able to take part in helping the teachers of Bosnia create curriculum that will allow them to, as my Bosniak friend Asmir put it “Teach their history even if it makes them cry.” Teaching my own students to try to create a more just future is one thing, but participating in helping these teachers to educate the children of an entire country in a way that will move them towards a more just future would be amazing. I was fortunate to meet a woman at the USHMM who volunteers with a group that is working in Rwanda towards this same goal. She mentioned that the group is hoping to expand their work to Bosnia. I hope to be there with them – working to assure that 1941 or ’91 does not repeat – not for Jews, not for Bosnians, not for Serbs – not for anyone.

D’var Torah – Parshat Eikev 5772

Standard

(This d’var Torah was given on August 11, 2012 at Beth Shalom, Seattle)

 

The last two summers, while in Jerusalem, I frequently went to Kabbalat Shabbat services at Mayanot – a warm and welcoming little shul in Sha’arei Hesed. At first I wasn’t sure I really wanted to go as it has a mechitzah and is Orthodox, but I was assured that the davening was well worth being out of my comfort zone. Truer words have never been spoken. The davening at Mayanot is amazing. It has taken me a few visits and a lot of reflection to figure out what makes it so amazing – coming from Beth Shalom I am used to good davening.  So, what was it that set this place apart – even from other kehillot in Jerusalem where great davening was also happening? Was it the tunes – beautiful Carlebach tunes – nope, heard them other places as well. Was it the fact that the congregation was knowledgeable and could participate? Nope, people elsewhere, people here, know the davening and participate.  There certainly weren’t instruments – unless you count the tables being enthusiastically pounded, the feet stomping and the hands clapping. There was nothing concrete or tangible that was different here than other places – particularly those also in Jerusalem in the same neighborhood. So, what was the difference?  Let’s find out…

This week’s parsha – Eikev – begins with the words “And if you do obey these rules and observe them carefully, the Lord your God will maintain faithfully for you the covenant that God made on oath with your fathers: God will favor you and bless you and multiply you…” המשפסים האלה – “these rules”. Moses and God have given a lot of rules by this point – 613 even. So, which rules are being referred to by this comment? All of them?  I will admit I wasn’t sure what I was going to say about this parsha and had even written most of a d’var on a very different subject than the one that you are hearing about today. Then, on Tuesday I received my weekly recording of R. Shlomo Katz giving over R. Shlomo Carlebach on the parsha. What follows is hugely indebted to both Shlomos – both Carlebach’s original d’var and Katz’s beautiful and insightful giving over of it.

Carlebach points out that Rashi comments that the mitzvoth being referred to by this phrase –  המשפסים האלה – are not the ones that have been carefully spelled out by God and Moses up to this point in the Torah, but rather those that have not been explicitly commanded but rather only implicitly. Carlebach points out that if God had to tell us these mitzvot specifically, it would lessen our real and close connection with God. If we are really connected to God and to Judaism and what true Yiddishkeit demands of us, according to Carlebach, we would know what this “extra” is that is being commanded here and would be doing it. But, sadly, too often we don’t know what this extra is and only focus on the explicit commands of Judaism and the careful observance of what we have been instructed that we are supposed to do.  But, as a result of just doing what is spelled out in the Torah, the Shulchan Aruch or other halachic guides, we end up with something missing in us and in our Judaism.  Katz says “If you do everything right and holy, you should be walking around with a smile on your face – but most of us aren’t because something is missing and we don’t even know what it is.”

Carlebach uses an example that reminds me of a lesson I used to teach in my fifth grade ethics class. Here is my example – Two men are approached by a homeless man who asks them for $100.00. One of the men makes a face, pulls out his wallet, takes out the requested amount, crumples it up into a ball, throws it at the man and says “Get a job, bum!” The second man smiles, takes out his wallet, only has $20.00 but hands it to the homeless man and says “Sorry. This is all I have today, but please feel free to ask me again.”  So, who has done the bigger mitzvah? The one who gave him the full amount might seem like the right answer and, judging only by the halacha of giving to the poor according to your means, he is in the right. But the second man, who gave b’simcha – with joy and a smile and in a humane and respectful manner, has gone beyond what is commanded to what isn’t commanded. Carlebach and Katz hold that it is this extra – being Jewish b’simcha – and I would add with ahava – love, hesed – lovingkindness and rachamim – compassion –that is really the core and soul of Judaism.  Looking at what a true understanding of all of Torah- what remains with us after we have experienced it – not just the 613 mitzvot – commands of us will bring us to this missing “extra” that Carlebach refers to in his d’var. He makes as strong statement “Friends, I want you to know that all of Yiddishkeit is basically things you don’t have to do. You can get away with everything.”  Or as Katz elaborates “It is what you don’t have to do that makes Torah beautiful.” It is when you know that you have to smile when you give charity that you really get Torah and are living as a Jew in the way God really wants. It’s when you celebrate Shabbat and the haggim b’simcha that you are adding that extra.

Carlebach gives a beautiful example of Jews doing what they understand to be right and being led into great sin as a result. When the spies return from Canaan they are told to tell the truth about what they saw and encountered in the land. They do. They tell the good – big fruit, milk and honey flowing – but they also tell the bad – big people, we felt like insects. They did not lie. Their sin is not lying. Their sin is not trusting that God would take care of the bad and just reporting the good. As Carlebach says “How could you, how could you?” Katz urges us to be machmeer – careful – in what we don’t have to do rather than so much in what we do have to do. We don’t have to tell the whole truth if it will be hurtful or damaging. Carlebach goes on to use examples of how we would talk about our children or spouses – do we really need to let others know their faults? What does love compel us to do?

Rabbi David Hartman addresses this issue was well in his book – “The God who Hates Lies”. He speaks of the intellectualization of halacha and the break from the experiential and communal nature that is essential for Judaism to be a living religion and culture. He states “One of the most important terms in the halachic lexicon describes a person’s status upon performing an obligatory act. Upon doing so, a person has yatza yeday chovatah: fulfilled = literally “exited from” – his or her duty. One effect of this reassuring and oft-repeated declaration is to affirm that, in performing a particular set of halachic requirements, we have done what is required of us. Halachic practice thus becomes to be seen as an end in itself, the fulfillment of a finite set of duties, without being contextualized within a deepening of the relationship with God. This mindset would not seem likely to nurture the kind of religious personality who strives for ever-increasing awareness of the Divine presence…When the relational feature of God-consciousness is present, how can a person ever truly feel that he or she has fulfilled his or her duty? When the currency animating the relationship is love, how can one ever have done enough?” 

Hartman goes on to quote Maimonides who holds up Abraham as an exemplar. “It is the level of Abraham, whom God called, “My lover,” because he worshipped only out of love. And it is the level that God commanded us through Moses, as it says:  “and you must love the Lord your God” And in the moment that a person will love God with the appropriate love – immediately he will perform all of the mitzvoth out of love.  For many modern Jews, it is difficult to connect to halacha based on s traditional Orthodox approach. Hartman, quoting Heschel, addresses this early on in his book – “His (the modern Jew) primary difficulty is not in his inability to comprehend the divine origin of the law; his essential difficulty is in his ability to sense the presence of the divine meaning in the fulfillment of the law.”  We are indifferent to halacha because it does not fit into our moral or ethical mindset. It offends our sense of what is right. It is missing something. It is missing the something extra that Carlebach alludes to and that Hartman states is “putting God consciousness back into our Jewish practice”.

Rabbi Hartman spends much of his book urging Orthodox and other observant Jews to “retool” their communities to this ideal – the performance of mitzvoth out of love not obligation.  He provides a tool for making this change by presenting the question “Which God are we worshipping?” I have used this idea quite a bit since reading his book and feel that it fits in well with the message of Carlebach. What is the true nature of God and what is it that God wants from us as a result of that nature?  If you believe that God is a God of love and that Judaism is founded on a few simple principles – rather than 613 things to do or not do – then getting to what it is that has been missing is easy.  Hartman gives this example “…what would it mean to take seriously the theological implications of this verse encapsulating the ethos of the God of Creation – “The Lord is good to all, and God’s mercy is upon all God’s works” (Ps. 145:9)…” He is discussing it related to the laws of marriage and divorce in an attempt to solve the problem of agunot – women who are “chained” to a husband who will not give them a get and therefore they cannot remarry.  Hartman goes on to say that if we believe God is good to all then we cannot allow gender based imbalances and, I would add, sexual identity or ability based imbalances. Carlebach states he would rather sit in Gehenom with those who break Torah than in Gan Eden with those who spank their children because the Shulchan Aruch says they can. He gets that God wants us to show love and treat others with hesed and rachamim – even when not doing this would be within the bounds of Torah. Hartman tells us to adjust our halacha to fit our moral understanding of what God really wants from us.  I would point out that this is not a new idea – our sages over two thousand years ago created a very high bar for considering a son to be a rebellious or a glutton and a drunkard. Why? Because they could not bring themselves to believe that a God of love really wanted parents to request that their children be stoned. Just because the Torah allows it, doesn’t mean we should do it.

Carlebach goes on to point out that only the first four books of Torah are Torah sh’bichtav – written Torah. Oral Torah begins with Sefer D’varim because it is Moses retelling what is in the previous four books. Moses does not give a faithful retelling – look at the Eseret Hadebrot – the Ten Commandments in Yitro versus Etchanan – they aren’t identical and some of the changes are huge – shamor versus zachor, as I outlined in a different d’var, for example. Carlebach states that D’varim is what was left in Moses after his experience of God and that it is this idea of what is left when you are by yourself or yontif is over that is really important. According to the Ishbitzer Rebbe “When G-d talks to me, the questions isn’t what I feel when God is talking to me, the question is what do I feel when it’s over? What do you feel when you are left by yourself?…what do you do when Yom Kippur is over…when Shabbos is over?”  We all clop our chests and repent on Yom Kippur because that is what we are supposed to do. Do we also do it the other days of the year when we don’t have to do it? We love Shabbat between candle lighting and havdalah. Do we miss it when it is gone? Do we long for it all week? Are we in touch with what God wants and with what we feel Judaism means AFTER our encounter with prayer or learning?  As Carlebach puts it “God wants to see do you know the letters of the Torah or do you know the inside of the Torah?…What is left inside you after you learn Torah?”

And this brings me back to Mayanot and their amazing davening.  The last Friday I was in Israel this summer, I turned to Yiscah during Mizmor l’David and said “How the hell am I supposed to go home after this?” The davening at Mayanot is so beautiful – it elevates my soul and makes me cry. Why? Because the members of this holy kehilla LOVE Shabbat. They are in true ecstasy at welcoming Shabbat. They are celebrating with their voices, their hands and their feet. Men, and women, dance and sing and stomp with pure unadulterated love of Shabbat. They love Shabbat, they love being Jewish and they are connected in a strong and meaningful way to God. They welcome strangers to their homes for meals and their love of Shabbat and Judaism shines there as well. Shabbat morning is equally spirited. They drag out the end of Shabbat with spirited seudat shlishi gatherings that linger through havdalah and into the new week. They aren’t there because they have to be there – because there are required bits of davening to be done in addition to Kabbalat Shabbat. They are there for that extra – for a true love and joy at being Jewish.  They aren’t concerned with the checklist of what needs to be done, but rather with the spiritually fulfilling task of what isn’t commanded but is really at the soul of Yiddishkeit.

Of course, how I come home is that here I have my husband, my friends, my communities at Beth Shalom and JDS and a job that I love. I see this idea of the power of this extra piece – what happens when we serve out of love rather than duty – most clearly in my work as a teacher. Despite the long, uncompensated, hours rewriting curriculum, dealing with hormonal teenagers and having to grade all that work I foolishly assign, I love my job. It is this love that makes all of the other – potentially negative – parts unimportant. When one loves what one is doing, it isn’t work. It is a calling. When one loves being Jewish and living Jewishly then that will reflect in how they live and what their Judaism looks like. They will walk around with a smile and will perform the required mitzvoth with joy. They will also not perform things that are technically allowed but not in keeping with the ideas of ahavah, hesed and rachamim. It will be the doing of what is not required that will set them apart.  May we all be moved to do what isn’t required and doing it b’simcha – with joy.

 

Grasping for Moshiah or How Not to Hasten the Messianic Age

Standard

So, after reading this morning about a rabbi in B’nai Brak who has banned the use of tap water or flushing of toilets on Shabbat due to the fact that it will cause an electronic water pump to kick on, I got to thinking about all of this recent extremism among the Haredim. I try to operate from a place of assuming that most people, other than sociopaths, are basically good people. I like to be able to think that “religious” people really are trying to do what they think God wants even if we can’t understand it and that they must have a positive goal in mind. I know that Judaism teaches ethics and focuses on moral living. We are repeatedly reminded that we were strangers in Egypt and therefore must care for the stranger, the widow and the orphan. Hillel summarizes all of Torah as “love your neighbor as yourself” and on Pesah we decrease our joy by removing wine from our glasses in memory of the Egyptians who died during our escape from slavery. So, how to understand all of this working from these assumptions?

This summer I was in Jerusalem during the Three Weeks which lead up to Tisha B’Av and there was much focus on bringing Moshiah. Let’s face it; this world is majorly screwed up. Wars, terrorism, starvation, human trafficking, child slavery, poverty, inequality of rights and means, homelessness, bigotry, I could go on but I will stop before it gets too depressing. We NEED Moshiah. The world is deeply broken and we are desperate for repair and wholeness – true Shalom/Shalem. We need what Moshiah represents – a time of peace and completeness. A time where religious hatred and rivalry will end. A time when people will live together in love and will all have what they need. Jews have been waiting for Moshiah and the Messianic Age patiently – and sometimes not so patiently – for thousands of years. It is the hope that has kept Jews Jewish through pogroms, expulsions and the Holocaust. Maimonides includes belief in the Messiah – not matter how long it takes – as one of the 13 principles of faith. As a Jew, it is our job to help to complete God’s creation and to bring the time of Moshiah closer. We each have a job that is ours and ours alone to do in this world and we must discover it and complete it so that we can have our part in a renewed Gan Eden. So, if, based on my assumptions, we are all working for this, why all this strife and anger? Why all this tension and dissension?

It is my belief that we don’t know what to do to bring the time closer and this makes some desperate. We have been trying for 2000 years, give or take, and we aren’t sure what we have been doing wrong. For progressive Jews, perhaps this means bringing in those who haven’t been equally welcomed at the table. God wants us to care for the “orphan.” So, perhaps that means gays and lesbians and others in the community who have been orphaned by the Jewish people for so long. So we ordain and marry them just like anyone else and that will bring us closer to the world God wants us to make. For many, that seems ethically and morally the right thing to do. But, for those of a more traditional mindset, it probably doesn’t seem like the right thing to do. It might even seem to make things worse and that makes people angry. Grasping at straws, those who have been so observant, keeping each iteration of halacha, protecting the Torah with higher and higher fences, begin to build even thicker walls around the Torah to keep it safe and hope to bring Moshiah. If using tap water on Shabbat hasn’t brought the Messiah – then maybe forbidding it will. It reminds me of an article about a ruling after the Shoah on the necessary size of a Kiddush cup. This ruling made many families’ centuries old Kiddush cups (for many all they had from their past life in Europe) p’sul – ritually unfit. Included in the cups that were made p’sul was the cup of the Holy Rabbi, the Hofetz Chaim. How could this be?

It can be because we don’t know what is needed. We can’t understand God and we can’t know what will be that final act that brings Moshiah. We are unable to see clearly what we should be doing and must rely on those who think that they do. But even they don’t really know. They can’t. So, we turn to what we do know – progressive ethical living in the Modern world OR traditional Orthodox (ultra or Modern) living, engaged to varying degrees in the Modern world – and we let that help us try to discern what we have been missing. If we live a life fully dictated by traditional halacha, we create more halacha and if we live a life directed by an understanding of modernity and ethics, we try to be more ethical. Not to imply these are mutually exclusive, in many places they are in full agreement – but on some issues, I truly feel you have to pick one or the other. God of the Prophets or God of the Wilderness? A God who is good and wants good or a God who tells us to stone those who sin? Again, not to imply that there are two Gods – they are one and the same – which makes understanding what God wants all the more impossible. How do we mere mortals understand and make sense of what God wants when what God wants appears contradictory? It is no wonder there is so much disagreement and infighting among Jews!

Unfortunately, what we are doing is keeping Moshiah from coming, not bringing him/her closer. We are creating so much desecration of God’s name and so much sinat hinam – baseless hatred – in the process of each group of Jews doing what they think is the right thing that Moshiah may never come. What is missing is a sense of balance and an effort to understand each other’s ways. This can be very hard when what is being done seems to fly in the face of all that one understands Judaism to stand for or mean. I am as guilty as anyone. I, like many people, find the idea of a grown man considering an 8 year old girl as a sexual object and protesting her “immodest” attire by spitting on her appalling and the act of a sick mind. A mind driven to extremes by its desire to bring the Messiah and who sees this little girl, and others like her who do not adequately (by his standards) cover themselves, as preventing this from happening. But, try as I might, I can’t believe that the God in which I believe would want what this man wants. I can’t believe that the God that I believe in would want people to do without basic hygienic facilities on Shabbat. How can you honor Shabbat when you can’t wash your hands or flush the toilet? In his book, The God Who Hates Lies, David Hartman talks about how we need to figure out just “which” God we believe in and what that God wants. I believe in a God who is loving and kind and who wants all of us to remember that we are all made in God’s image and therefore all holy. I believe in a God who wants us to treat each other with the dignity and respect due to someone made b’tzelem Elohim – in the image of the Holy One. I believe in a God who wants me to act in a way that is in line with what I say and how I want to be treated – as Hillel summarized the Torah. That God would not spit on an eight year old no matter how she was dressed.

Perhaps if those who yearn for Moshiah more than they engage with the world around them would pause in their pursuit and truly look around, they would begin to see this God. Judaism has never been about a focus on The World to Come – it has been about the life that we live here on God’s Creation and how we live that life is what matters. Shlomo Katz teaches in his song “Veaf al pi” about awaiting Moshiah and that the Hebrew word translated as “to await” can also mean to “imitate” and that we need to each imitate the Moshiah in order to bring the Messianic Age. This is based on Shlomo Carlebach’s teaching that if you change the hard chaf to a kof (they both make the same sound) you become a part of the solution rather than passively waiting for change to happen. You need to become what you understand Messiah to mean. By being “moshiachdiche” you will hasten the coming of Moshiah by living your life in a way that actively brings more wholeness to the world. We can’t afford to just sit and wait. The world is so broken. People are so desperate that they are grasping at thinner and thinner straws and causing more chaos and darkness rather than bringing the light of Moshiah. The world is horribly broken and we need a real solution. One of my favorite stories to read to my students is “The Village of the Messiahs”. In this Chasidic tale, there is a village that is sad and broken. A man from the village visits a wise Rabbi who says he can’t help but shares a secret. The Messiah is someone in this village. The man goes home and tells his neighbors this news. They all begin to treat each other with love and care because they don’t know which one of them it is. They begin to treat themselves with love and care because it might be them! The town becomes a place full of laughter, light and peace. If only we could remember that each of us has the potential to be the Messiah and treat each and every person with that love and care, rather than with fear, derision and hate, we might translate the miracle of this story to the whole world and that would bring the Messiah.

Good Shabbos.

Nance Adler

January 20, 2012

My D’var for the Farewell Lunch

Standard

On Sunday a request was made for someone to give a short d’var – talk based on a Jewish text usually – on Tuesday at the farewell lunch. I had a lot I had been thinking about as a result of all the learning I have been privileged to share in here in Jerusalem and so offered to speak. My d’var is below. I hope that you will find it meaningful. I have added some definitions and explanations in parentheses.

Pardes SCW

D’var for last day of Summer Curriculum Workshop 5771/2011

In addition to the great learning that I have been privileged to partake in here at Pardes, I have had the zichut (merit/honor) to share the Shabbat table and to learn with some amazing people since I have been here in Jerusalem. At every table and at every learning the theme that seems to run through and connect what is being brought down is a need for ahavat Israel (love of Israel (the Jewish People). The fact that all of this learning has taken place during the three weeks leading up to Tisha B’Av might have something to do with this. The Rabbis teach that the Beit HaMikdash (Temple) was destroyed because of sinat chinam – baseless hatred. To counter this baseless hatred and to work toward a time when we would merit the rebuilding of the Temple – we need to practice baseless love – a love of all Jews – no matter how different and far apart we might seem to be. As we traverse the nine days until Tisha B’Av, let us all bear in mind that while we may not be able to connect to the idea of mourning something we never had, we can all connect to the idea of mourning a feeling of disconnection, frustration or alienation and perhaps work to heal that divide through the practice of ahavat chinam – baseless love – and ahavat Israel. Here are Pardes, we have heard that we need to build relationships with each of our students and that, to manage behavior and be effective as teachers, we need to convince every child that we care about them – this can, at times seem to be ahavat chinam when the child in question regularly makes our jobs difficult. Finding the spark of the Divine – the tzelem Elohim (image of God) – in each child allows us to see them as they are and to search out a way to reach them as an individual rather than just seeing them as another student in the room. Reaching out to that student “where they are”, rather than where we would like them to be, will allow them to see that we care and truly want them to be successful. In Proverbs 22:5 we are told חנוך לנער על פי דרכו גם כי יזקין לו יסור מימנה – “teach to the child according to his way so that even when he grows old, he will not stray from it. This line from Mishli (Proverbs) is telling us to individualize our teaching so that we truly reach each child. Seeing the humanity and the Divinity in each and every student – or each and every Jew – and honoring what we share rather than emphasizing what separates us, makes ahavat chinam much easier to accomplish. And while we may not merit the rebuilding of the Temple for finding something to love in each and every student – we will create a space where every student can grow and learn and feel safe – perhaps, for some, the only such space. By spreading a love of all Israel – the country and the people – in how we teach and live, we will also help to grow a world where Jews are able to see more clearly, not that which separates us, but rather that which holds us together.