Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Light Up the Future: Closing Remarks from Yom Hashoa Community Program

A year ago on Yom Hashoah, I marched in Auschwitz with teens and adults from our community on the March of the Living. We then flew on to Israel where we marched again, this time in Jerusalem on Yom Ha'atzmaut. I was awed by the thousands of teens who marched with us, and in particular the 60 in our New England group (and 16 from our Kulanu Stamford group). I couldn’t be more proud of them. They are now worthy witnesses, and they will light the way to a better future.

Last year, Yom Ha’atzmaut coincided with Hitler’s birthday. This year we commemorate Yom Hashoah while marking the death of arguably the most virulent anti-Semite of this century, Osama bin Laden. And we almost got Kadaffi the night before. What a daily double that would have been. And Assad is on the ropes. And Ahmadinijad...we hear he's in the midst of a major falling out with the boss, could well be next. What does this all mean?

It means that we have outlasted the haters. It means that the victims have been vindicated. It means that good is winning out over evil.

In Poland we stared into the face of the banality of evil, as Hannah Arendt put it, how perfectly normal people have the capacity to be utterly cruel. People who love their spouses and children and pets, could go to their "jobs" as death camp guards and perform unspeakable acts of sadism, well beyond the "call of duty." We saw that such cruelty lies within the capacity of every human being.

But we also saw signs of renewal. With thousands of teens from all over the world exchanging pins and email addresses, the marchers transformed Auschwitz into some sort of Olympic village, a pilgrimage to a death camp became a meaningful mixer, simple and pure. Teens being teens. We witnessed the banality of youth. The banality of good.

And on our trip we also saw that the human conscience is capably of unfathomable acts of courage and kindness - that people can create mind-numbing beauty. We saw that in Poland, and then especially in Israel, a nation built from the ashes, ashes that we had literally stood in front of in Maidanek and Treblinka.

As Israel celebrated her birthday with cookouts and picnics, The Jerusalem Post holiday supplement boasted about "62 years of brain power." When Hitler killed the 6 million, he failed to kill the Jewish mind, the paper said.

This is true – but more importantly, he also failed to kill the Jewish soul - the human soul in every Jew. Jews are not prisoners to hate and revenge. We love our neighbors, and we love ourselves.

Hence it was fitting that at the March’s closing event in Latrun, on the night of Yom Ha’atzmaut, thousands of teens from all over the world sang together the most universal anthem of hope imaginable – John Lennon's "Imagine." At first it seemed jarring to me that of all songs, that was chosen. It didn’t seem to fit the nationalistic agenda that colored so much of the March. But then I realized. This new generation, not raised on hate but on the memory of hate, has learned to love again. They have not been scarred by that evil, for the most part, and live in a world that is already so connected that it is not unimaginable to envision a world where people will truly love one another. And it is the kids who will lead us to THAT Promised Land.

Many years ago, Leonard Fein wrote that there are two kinds of Jews in the world:

There is the kind of Jew who detests war and violence, who believes that fighting is not the Jewish Way, who willingly accepts that Jews have their own and higher standards of behavior. and not just that we have them, but that those standards are our lifeblood, what we are about.

And then there is the kind of Jew who is convinced that we have been passive long enough, who is convinced that it is time to strike back at our enemies, to reject once and for all the role of victim, who will willingly accept that Jews cannot afford to depend on favors, that we must be tough and strong.

And the trouble is, most of us are both kinds of Jew.

Over the past decade, the same can be said for we Americans.

But maybe the teens will inhabit a better world. In the end, for the teens, it wasn’t simply about their becoming witnesses to the horrors of the past, but somehow they had become the catalysts for the promise of the future. They had taken the victim's soul and transformed into one that can love again. Precisely because they had visited the camps of death, they felt an added urgency to celebrate the potential of life - of life triumphant.

Take that, Hitler! Take that Bin Laden! We can still love. That is the best revenge. To love and to hope.

And we’ve got the kids to prove it!

They will light up the future.

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