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Sunday, December 28, 2014

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It’s not enough to remember and feel bad

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Avrum Rosensweig

Yom Hashoah is when we remember the Holocaust and the six million Jews murdered by the Nazis.

Around the world, events are held to help us understand the atrocities, which included the brutal murder of 1.5 million of our children. Survivors remind us of the death marches, Jewish sex slaves and the medical torture of Josef Mengele.

Technology has enhanced our ability to remember the lives and deaths of one-third of our people, two million Roma, homosexuals and the disabled. On Yom Hashoah, you can watch March of the Living events on your phone from the comfort of your home. You can listen to former Israeli chief rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau, a survivor of Buchenwald, lead memorial services in Poland, along with the sweet voices of Israeli singers and orators.

Millions have been spent on such events. This year 10,000 young people flew to Poland for the March of the Living and joined in “death marches” and prayers at Auschwitz, draped in Israeli flags and singing loudly. The esthetics are breathtaking. The idea that we’re reclaiming our history in Europe through spirited horahs in the streets of Poland is encouraging.

Holocaust education is alive and attracts participants and donors at every turn. Books, theatre and buildings continue to be underwritten, so that we can remember. Kol hakavod!

However, here is a most disturbing fact: Holocaust education is predicated almost entirely on one thing, and that’s remembrance, not action. 

Let’s look at the March of the Living as a case in point. Since it was launched in 1988, more than 150,000 teens from around the world have made the trek to Poland and Israel to, according to its website, “study the history of the Holocaust and to examine the roots of prejudice, intolerance and hate.” 

There’s absolutely no requirement that alumna do anything but learn about what happened to our people (and so many others). There’s no obligation to commit time and sweat to remedy the injustices and inequities happening today, both in the Jewish and non-Jewish worlds. This is very troublesome.

A couple of years ago, two philanthropists decided there was something terribly wrong with this scenario – that young people would return from such a powerful and sometimes traumatic trip with angst in their soul and yet not have to, for instance, help impoverished Jews in Ukraine or Iran, fight on behalf of underfunded survivors living in Israel today, advocate on behalf of Jewish and non-Jewish shut-ins in Vaughan, Ont., or downtown Toronto, or help ensure the safety of Roma in Hungary and the rest of Europe. 

The two set about implementing a plan whereby March alumna would tap into various tikkun olam programs and initiatives. The plan failed. Among the reasons were a lack of Jewish federation support and the belief among March leaders that we cannot demand that our youth become involved in follow-up activism. 

The outcome, as Hillel professionals will tell you, is that March of the Living (and Birthright Israel) participants don’t flock to programs on campus to counter anti-Israel/Jewish programs. Ask Jewish volunteer organizations if they’re having problems attracting young people to counter the very serious challenges we’re living with today, including the rise of anti-Semitism, and they’ll answer “yes.”

So what of Holocaust education? What exactly are the lessons we’re trying to teach? Is remembering enough?

As we move forward, I call upon all Holocaust education organizations to establish sound and authentic follow-up programming, including leadership development and on-the-ground activism.

Similarly, I ask that a philanthropist reading this step up and pledge funds specifically for the purpose of getting our young people to become directly involved in issues affecting the Jewish world, the impoverished and the “stranger.”   

It’s not enough to remember. It’s not enough to know why. It’s not enough to feel bad. We must act, for if we do not, those who perpetrate evil will leave goodness far behind.

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