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Using the Lessons of Our Gibborim (Heroes) During a Pandemic

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Using the Lessons of Our Gibborim (Heroes) During a Pandemic

 Nance Morris Adler – 27 Nisan 5780 – Yom HaShoah u’HaGevurah – 21 April, 2020

Yom HaShoah u’HaGevurah is Israel’s – and by extension the Jewish people’s – day of remembrance and commemoration for those murdered in the Shoah. Most people use the shorthand “Yom HaShoah” and don’t include, or perhaps even know it exists, the last half – u’HaGevurah.” This is particularly interesting as the date was selected to fall a week after the start of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising – gevurot was clearly on the mind of those who created this national holiday in Israel. Despite this, I was among those who did not know the full name for many years. Then I discovered the stories of Jewish Partisans and the Gibborim– the Heroes – became a core part of my teaching and my learning. These stories are now an integral part of my curriculum in multiple grades and in my wider teaching to Jewish and non-Jewish audiences about how to inspire Upstanders. 

It is vitally important that we never forget those who were murdered for no other reason than the facts of their birth. Their lives, cut short by the Nazis and their collaborators, deserve a permanent place in our consciousness. Recalling this dark and unimaginable time in history is absolutely necessary to continue the work of assuring that it does not continue to repeat – not just for Jews – not for anyone. But, while these memories and this commemoration remind us why we must be vigilant – it is the stories of the Gibborim that teach us how to be vigilant, how to work together, how to stand up to tyranny and to hatred, to sacrifice for the good of the community, to withstand more than we thought we could and get up and do it again the next day. How to be an Upstander even when we just want life to be “normal” again. 

The Bielski Partisans, the Ghetto Fighters of Warsaw, The Jewish Avengers of Vilna – Abba Kovner, Vitka Kempner, Ruzka Korczak and their comrades – these are the big names that come up when we think about the Jewish Heroes of the Shoah. But there are countless less well known stories of men and women, God I love the women partisans, who decided “If I was going to die, I was going to die a fighter, not because I was a Jew.” (Sonia Orbuch – JPEF interview) 

Some fought back without weapons. The amazing Oneg Shabbat archives that were recovered from the ruins of the Warsaw Ghetto are a testament to the wisdom of Emmanuel RIngleblum and his compatriots and of their bravery as well. And the information within the archive shows, in all too real detail, how people lived, and, far too often, died in the Ghetto. Acts of compassion, sacrifice and humanity, alongside “choiceless choices” that no one should ever have to make, show how these Jews dug deep into their reserves of gevurah and kept themselves and others alive as long as they could. It shows how they retained their humanity, their sanity, and their Jewishness in the face of overwhelming hatred and violence. 

The Jewish Partisan Educational Foundation has a lesson that I love to use with my students. It is called “Eight Degrees of Gevurah” and is based on Rambam’s Ladder of Tzedakah. This lesson has students learn about how acts of gevurot – heroism/bravery – are like acts of tzedakah – acts of righteousness to help others –  and think about what particular acts would be equal to each of the eight rungs of Rambam’s ladder. This equating of the acts of Jews fighting both for their own lives and for the lives of all Jewish people to acts meant to help those with less than us or in difficult circumstances can serve to put the need for armed resistance into perspective. 

Frank Blaichman providing arms and training to young Jews who had escaped shtelach or ghettos and wanted to join partisans in the woods of Poland, Lithuania and Ukraine is the highest level. Partisan groups only took those with a weapon that they knew how to use. Having weapons and training also allowed them to form their own groups and not rely on the uncertain welcome of Soviet or Polish partisan groups. 

The Bielski’s “family camp” allowed 1200+ Jews of all ages to walk out of the Naliboki Forest on July 8th 1944. Tuvia insisted on helping all Jews regardless of age, gender or ability to fight. His brother Zus, fighting with the Soviet Partisans, provided them with supplies and protection. The Bielski brothers did not know all the people they saved, but those saved all knew that it was the Bielskis who enabled them to survive. This is step five on the ladder- receiving help and knowing who is giving it but the giver doesn’t know who is receiving the help. 

Today we are all “hunkered down” to some degree or other due to the Covid19 Pandemic. We are days, weeks, a month or more (I am on week five) into quarantine or “stay home, stay healthy” confinement in our homes. We are scared. We are facing an “enemy” that we know little about and is easily spread. We don’t know what news or advice to follow. We want to see our friends, our family, our students and colleagues. We face weeks of teaching remotely, questions about the school year and even next year. Our students are stressed and miss their friends, their routines and, though they may be loath to admit it, their school and teachers. How can we use the stories of these Jewish Gibborim from the Shoah to help them cope? When I share these stories with my students, they often say “But I could never do that!” My response is twofold – “God forbid you should ever have to know if you could do that.” And “You won’t know until you have to know what you are truly capable of doing.” 

This pandemic is in NO way equivalent to the challenges faced in the Shoah, but for our students it is most likely the first time they have felt truly unsure and scared about the future and about the ability of the adults in their lives to provide assurance and to “fix” things. Having them look around to find the acts of gevurah being performed is a way to have them focus on the good being done and the ways that they too can contribute to making everyone safer. Some examples are the healthcare workers and first responders who are working tirelessly, often without proper personal protective equipment; employees of stores and restaurants working, also often without masks and gloves, to be sure we can all eat and have the other necessities of life; neighbors reaching out to help each other; those shopping and caring for the elderly and infirm; business which have swapped out their production lines from making haute couture or just regular clothes to making masks and gowns for healthcare workers. 

There are many other examples if we all look around (hint – teachers working hard to both support their students emotionally and help them continue to learn and be engaged in the wider world). Be sure your students think about things that their family members have perhaps done to help make all the time together more enjoyable and create positive memories in this difficult time. You might have them write them out like the strips included in JPEF’s lesson plan and rank them according to degrees of gevurah. This focus on “the helpers” as Mr. Roger’s called them, is a good way to reassure your students that positive things are happening and that people are working together to control the spread of Covid19 and help those who are sick.
The memory of the perished reminds us to continue to work for a better world where Anti-Semitism, racism, bigotry, and hatred of any kind have no home. The individual stories of those whose lives were terminated show us what was lost. They prove the Jewish teaching that “to destroy a life is to destroy an entire world.” The actions of the Gevurot prove the second half of this saying from Pirkei Avot “to save a life is considered by the Torah to have saved the entire world.” Ghetto fighters, partisans and others who took up arms, or pens, or song to fight back against the Nazis were doing so to save the Jewish world. They were choosing to give their, quite likely, death meaning and importance, dying a fighter, not just because they were a Jew. Their acts of bravery should inspire us to likewise give our lives meaning and importance by working for the greater good of all humanity. May the memories of all those who perished, along with those who fought and survived and have since passed, be for a continued blessing as we work to inspire our students towards lives of meaning.

Edited from an essay written for Prizmah https://prizmah.org/blog/using-lessons-our-gevurah-during-pandemic

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.

D’var Shabbat Shuvah 5778 (2017) 

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Hungarian Jews and the Dangerous Allure of Assimilation

As many of you know, from past divrei Torah, I travel each summer with Centropa – an organization that is dedicated to documenting the Jewish history of Central and Eastern Europe and the Balkans in the 20th century. This history is then used by teachers, like me, in classrooms all over Europe, Israel and the US – we use it to show how one person can make a difference, what happens when Civil Society falls apart, and the lessons of some of the darkest hours of history so that our students know to work to assure that they are not repeated. This summer I traveled to Budapest, Hungary and Belgrade, Serbia.

Hungary was different than Poland or Germany or Austria – other places I have visited and spoken about. Hungarian Jews had a very different experience – and I learned that this just didn’t start with World War 2. There is much about Hungarian Jewry that is a bit different than other Jewish communities in Europe. And it really begins with emancipation in 1867. Jews in Hungary were expected to say thank you for their rights by fully assimilating into Hungarian culture and pretty much ceasing to be recognizably Jewish. Within 40 years, the percent of Jews who spoke Hungarian as their mother tongue was 20% higher than among Catholic Hungarians. By the end of World War I, Jews were fully accepted as Hungarian – they were “Jewish Hungarians” or “Hungarians of the Mosaic Faith”. Intermarriage was rampant and a unique brand of Hungarian Judaism – Neologism – had surpassed Orthodoxy in number of adherents.

After World War I and the end of the Austro-Hungarian Empire – the government of Hungary moved ever rightward and this collapse of liberalism was felt by the Jewish community. Jewish veterans of the war – who considered themselves Hungarian patriots and heroes – were not shielded from the rising anti-Semitism and increasing difficulty for Jews in finding work. Previously prejudice was directed at the Orthodox Jews from Galicia who retained traditional practices and attire and were easy to spot and harass. Modern, assimilated Hungarians of the Mosaic Faith were not used to feeling its sting. Those in the upper classes of power and wealth foolishly continued, past 1938’s Anti-Jewish laws, to believe that their Hungarian patriotism and clear assimilation would protect them. In the Centropa film “The Mayor Who Worked in Hell” there is an amazing photo of Hungarian Jewish WWI Veterans in their uniforms and medals in the Dohany Synagogue on Rosh HaShana in 1943. It was their belief that these uniforms would save them.

And for some time, even after Hungary joined Nazi Germany in the battle against the Soviet Union, Hungary did protect “her” Jews – foreign Jews were deported, but Hungarian Jews were not. The men were rounded up for labor and many perished in the harsh conditions – but they were not in camps or being shot in large numbers or gassed. But even this ended when Nazi Germany invaded in 1944. Eichmann found, in the Arrow Cross fascists, Hungarians even more eager than his Nazis to deal with the Jews. One lecturer I heard this summer said that if the Hungarians had just done nothing – dragged their heels, refused to cooperate, stalled a bit – that the Jews of Budapest in particular would have survived. But, unfortunately, the Hungarian fascists were eager to be rid of their Jews.

Hungarian Jews felt they were fully Hungarian – they spoke the language, they Magyarized their names, they sent their children to state schools and they served proudly in the Hungarian Army. They embraced being Hungarian and minimized what made them Jewish. This was particularly true in Budapest. As a reward for this loyalty, synagogues in Budapest – unlike in other European cities – are large, on main streets, and are clearly Jewish. This equality with churches made Jews feel fully accepted. Dohany Synagogue is a massive structure on a Main Street with many Jewish symbols on the outside. Interestingly, this monument to the assimilation and full acceptance of Hungarian Jews is built on the property where the family of Theodore Herzl lived and where he was born. The man who dreamt of a state for the Jews was born into a community that felt it did not need one – it had one – Hungary. This may explain why I was shocked to find out he was from Budapest as he is always described as Austrian!

Neolog Judaism exists nowhere else and is a uniquely Hungarian expression of Judaism – it is a response to their history and patriotism as Hungarians. It was created by those Jews who said “We are Hungarians who are Jewish.” These Jews did not need a homeland. They were home – this really made me think about American Jews – and that of Budapest made me think particularly of Seattle Jews. As I toured Budapest and listened to a man in his 30s talk about growing up Jewish in Budapest and describe the Jewish community in Budapest today – I was struck by how similar it sounded to Seattle – low affiliation rate, cultural focus not religious, intermarriage, Jewish values being important and social action being a focus – the struggle to fill synagogues and schools – the lack of cohesion in the various parts of the community and the relatively young age of the community. Hearing about their current right wing government and rise in anti-Semitism as well as anti-refugee sentiment, made me think about the changing winds of our own country and my worries that our assimilation isn’t going to save us either. It made me think about how major political protests are all on Shabbat and the posts I have read begging the progressive community to have just one protest on a Sunday so observant Jews could attend. It made me think about having to choose between my Judaism and the rest of my identity and values when confronted with issues like this. I personally would most likely choose to participate, but what about those whose Jewish observance does not allow them to feel that they can make that choice? It made me think about the anti-Israel stream that runs through the progressive community and do i decide to participate despite this or do I remove myself? Do I break Shabbat to protest with those who then ask me to not include my Jewishness in my expression of outrage?

Truth is I don’t want to divide myself up – human/Jew/American/woman – it’s all me and I want to be able to act in way that is reflective of this. But it often leaves me adrift from true community, a fellowship of likeminded people, a place I feel fully myself but also fully a part of a larger whole. I find myself withdrawing from groups where I feel that some part of me isn’t welcome or accepted. And following the recent events in our nation, withdrawing from feeling welcome here at all. I know that we are a long way from where I should be panicking, but I also know that that distance can be travelled very quickly. A recent discussion online about whether or not violence against Nazis or Fascists was always ok reminded me how many people just don’t get how quickly. I was told that I should “wait till they are rounding you up to get violent.” I pointed out that if they were actually rounding Jews up, it would be far too late for a preventative violent response to be useful. That would mean there was a plan, and a place to send us. That this would not be the “beginning” as the person seemed to imply, but the “beginning of the end.”

I study and teach the history of the Holocaust and other genocides. I spend a lot, probably too much, of my time reading and discussing these events and the forces that allow them to happen. I know that the elimination of genocide is far more difficult than the saying “Never Again” seems to imply.We say that over and over as genocide continues to occur in multiple places. To end atrocities such as these, to end racism and homophobia, anti-Semitism and Islamaphobia, sexism and on and on – requires us to all be fully aware of our humanity and that of others. To be fully aware that we are – in the ways that truly matter – all the same – and that the differences are what makes life interesting and makes us each a unique gift.

Judaism teaches we are all made in the image of God – b’tzelem Elohim – and each contain a spark of the Divine. The Rabbi shared a midrash where the angels decided to hide that spark in each person because they would not find it there – but I think in reality we have a harder time finding it in others than in ourselves. Lord Rabbi Jonathan Sacks defines a mensch as someone who looks for and connects to that spark of the Divine in each and every person they meet. This similarity is what we need to see in all others – but without discounting what makes them unique.

By giving up our differences we would lose what makes us special and makes the world beautiful. But, by seeing only the differences, we will destroy our world. History shows – in Germany where Jews were highly assimilated, in Austria, and in Hungary – that you giving up what makes you different will not protect you from those who refuse to quit seeing that difference even when you have quit showing it. By being fully human, fully ourselves -by maximizing the uniqueness in each one of us – while also recognizing the vital sameness of us all – we can make a world where acceptance and love replace bias and hate. Working for this world is the t’shuvah (return to God/godliness) I am resolving to work on in the coming year. I hope you will join me.