A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of subbing for our sixth grade class on Sunday morning. Eitan had given me a lesson plan, but, as Rabbis often go rogue, I wanted to discuss three big questions. First – very important – what did they do this summer? Second, do they believe in God? And third, were they interested in learning about the Holocaust this year?
As for their summers – Wow… you planned amazing summers for your kids and I wish I could swap places with them. Do they believe in God? They have remarkably sophisticated understandings of God, in ways far beyond what you might expect for twelve year olds. (And I encourage you to follow up on this, parents.) And finally, are they interested in the Holocaust? At that question, every single student jumped to share their families’ stories, to ask question, to learn more. It was a familiar reaction because I too was once one of those kids.
I read every Holocaust book I could get my hands on and watched every Holocaust movie, perhaps seeing Schindler’s List and The Pianist a bit young. I met Holocaust survivors – a group of individuals that is rapidly dwindling – and listened to their stories. As a teen I visited The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. with my synagogue – something our community will bring our teens to do this winter. During our tour, I remember when our guide pointed out the famous author Elie Wiesel on the bunks at Buchenwald. Staring at his emaciated face, then and now, I think of his teachings on indifference: “the opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference…..And the opposite of life is not death, it’s indifference.” Wiesel focused not on the Nazis or Hitler, but on those who didn’t even lift a pinky to resist one of recent history’s most egregious moral catastrophes. Wiesel was a voice of the victims – crying out – why aren’t you helping us?!
Moved by the promise of Never Again and perhaps guilted by my own indifference, I got deeply involved in the Save Darfur campaign as a teenager. One Tuesday night at teen programs, I naively asked my rabbi, “Who’s Darfur?” Referencing the green ‘Save Darfur’ bracelet he wore on his wrist. I felt foolish when I received the answer. How could I not have known about a government-sponsored genocide in Africa? I quickly hatched a plan and created a fundraiser with some friends, helped educate my community, even brought a Darfurian refugee to my high school who spoke to us and helped direct our giving. He said their greatest needs then were flip flops and clothing. With Old Navy’s help, we donated hundreds of pairs of flip flops. One day, I was walking through the cafeteria trying to drum up support for our cause, and a kid I knew responded – “Why would I help? We have enough problems in America.” I’ll never forget that.
Shortly after, I traveled to Israel to study on Kibbutz Tzuba nestled in the hills outside Jerusalem. On our Reform Movement’s semester-long program for high schoolers – now called Heller High – I visited Yad Vashem, Jerusalem’s Holocaust Museum. I remember so clearly weaving through the impactful museum with my classmates. We eventually stopped at a photo. I remember the docent’s indignation with clarity: Here is an aerial photograph the United States had of Auschwitz-Birkenau in 1944 over a year before the war ended,” she said. The rail lines, the barracks, the gas chambers, the crematoria – seemingly everything to make the moral argument to strike. “Why,” she asked, “did the US do nothing?
One of the most significant ethical questions we face in life is the tension between “Why aren’t we helping to address a moral catastrophe we know is happening?” with the impulse to respond, “why would I help – my small slice of the world has enough problems.” Thanks to globalization, the internet, and the reach of social media, we have access to a staggering amount of information at an instant.
So, what do we do about the tragedies of the Uyghur Muslim people, oppressed by the Chinese government and forced to endure cultural “reacclimation” to erase their identity? But our streets of Santa Monica are filled with unhoused neighbors amidst an unsustainable housing crisis. What do we do when Russia attacks Ukraine unprompted and rains war on innocent civilians? But there are still cities across our country without clean drinking water. What do we do when the Taliban retake Afghanistan and families are forced to flee? But what about the unabated racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, antisemitism, Islamophobia, etc. within our communities that we still haven’t begun to remedy? This, as you know, is a false dichotomy. We can, and must, care about both.
Ken Burns’ new documentary “The US and the Holocaust” deals directly with the tension of “Why isn’t the US helping to address this moral catastrophe they know is happening?” and “why would the US help – our country has enough problems and we don’t want yours.” The documentary spotlights the US reaction to the Holocaust in an incisive and insightful three part series that I hope you will all take the time to watch. One of my first reactions to the series brought me back to Yad Vashem all those years ago and the docent’s question: Why did the US do nothing?
In the first 100 days of Hitler’s rule, American Papers published 3000 incidents detailing the alarming nature of Nazi power. American indifference in 1933 was not due to a lack of information. That year, Rabbi Stephen S. Wise pleaded with Americans: “The time for prudence and caution has passed…What is happening in Germany today may happen tomorrow in any other land on earth unless it is challenged and rebuked. . . . We must speak out.”
But in Hollywood, the opposite happened. Between 1933-1939, not a single word was uttered on screen against the Nazis. The German Vice Consul in Los Angeles had the power to approve or disapprove scripts before production – wielding the lucrative German market. But then Kristallnacht happened on November 9, 1938 – the night of broken glass – a pogrom destroying Jewish businesses, attacking Jews on the streets, a wave of arrests of 30,000 Jewish men simply because they were Jewish, and, after the violence calmed, the Nazis assessed a billion Reichsmark “atonement tax” on the Jewish community for inciting the pogrom against them.
American Newspapers covered Kristallnacht closely, making the front page and shocking Americans. How could a civilized country like German do this? As FDR remarked, “I, myself, can scarcely believe that such things could occur in a 20th century civilization.” Two weeks after Kristallnacht, a poll of Americans asked if they disapproved of the Nazi pogrom – 94% did. They were then asked if America should let in Jewish victims of Nazi aggression. More than 70% said no.
After Kristallnacht, Nazi efforts intensified to find a solution to their so called Jewish problem and began imprisoning and killing Jews. In early 1942, the Wannsee Conference made official the Nazi’s “Final Solution” to annihilate European Jewry. That same year, a representative of the World Jewish Congress, Gerhart Riegner, sent a telegram to Great Britain and the United States sharing his discovery of the Nazis’ plans to exterminate Jews, explaining that between three and a half and four million Jews in Nazi-occupied territory “should after deportation and concentration in east [be] at one blow exterminated in order to resolve once [and] for all Jewish question in Europe.” Riegner, unaware that mass murder was already taking place, sent word that the campaign was planned for the fall, and that the Nazis were considering the use of prussic acid [likely a reference to Zyklon B] to gas Jews.
“In mid-March 1942 some 75 to 80 percent of all victims of the Holocaust were still alive, while 20 to 25 percent had perished. A mere eleven months later, in mid-February 1943, the percentages were exactly the reverse” As Deborah Lipstadt, the historian and US Special Envoy for Monitoring and Combating Anti-Semitism says, “The time to stop genocide is before it happens…when Hitler is speaking out and saying these horrendous things and Germany is disenfranchising Jews and conducting things like kristallnacht – that’s the time to take action.”
When people tell you the evils they want to carry out, believe them – and work to stop them. Both Judaism and Islam famously teach that, “to save one life is to save the entire world.” Repeatedly, though, humanity fails to take action to save even one life.
A few years after the war ended in 1949, sociologist, author, and civil rights activist W. E. B. Du Bois traveled to Poland & Germany for the third time in his life. After his trip, he wrote: “The result of these three visits, and particularly of the Warsaw ghetto, was not so much clearer understanding of the Jewish problem in the world as it was a real and more complete understanding of the Negro problem. In the first place, the problem of slavery, emancipation, and caste in the United States was no longer in my mind a separate and unique thing as I had so long conceived it. It was not even solely a matter of color and physical and racial characteristics, which was particularly a hard thing for me to learn, since for a lifetime the color line had been a real and efficient cause of misery. It was not merely a matter of religion…No, the race problem in which I was interested cut across lines of color and physique and belief and status and was a matter of cultural patterns, perverted teaching, and human hate and prejudice, which reached all sorts of people and caused endless evil to all men. So that the ghetto of Warsaw helped me to emerge from a certain social provincialism into a broader conception of what the fight against race segregation, religious discrimination and the oppression by wealth had to become if civilization was going to triumph and broaden in the world.”
I think Du Bois’s revelation in the Warsaw Ghetto about hatreds cutting across “lines of color and physique and belief and status” is neatly summarized in a poem of the same name by Polish poet Wisława Szymborska (vees-lava sheembozka):
See how efficient it still is,
how it keeps itself in shape—
our century’s hatred.
How easily it vaults the tallest obstacles.
How rapidly it pounces,
tracks us down.
It’s not like other feelings.
At once both older and younger.
It gives birth itself
to the reasons that give it life.
When it sleeps,
it’s never eternal rest.
And sleeplessness won’t sap its strength;
it feeds it.
One religion or another –
whatever gets it ready, in position.
One fatherland or another –
whatever helps it get a running start.
Justice also works well at the outset
until hate gets its own momentum going.
Its face twisted in a grimace
of erotic ecstasy
Oh these other feelings,
Since when does brotherhood draw crowds?
Has compassion ever finished first?
Does doubt ever really rouse the rabble?
Only hatred has just what it takes.
Gifted, diligent, hardworking.
Need we mention all the songs it has composed?
All the pages it has added to our history books?
All the human carpets it has spread
over countless city squares and football fields?
Let’s face it: it knows how to make beauty.
The splendid fire-glow in midnight skies.
Magnificent bursting bombs in rosy dawns.
You can’t deny the inspiring pathos of ruins
and a certain bawdy humor to be found
In the sturdy column jutting from their midst.
Hatred is a master of contrast-
between explosions and dead quiet,
red blood and white snow.
Above all, it never tires of its leitmotif –
the impeccable executioner
towering over its soiled victim.
It’s always ready for new challenges.
If it has to wait awhile, it will.
They say it’s blind.
Blind? It has a sniper’s keen sight
and gazes unflinchingly at the future
as only it can.
Dr. Du Bois concluded his essay by suggesting the response to such bitter hatred is joining together to reassess the problems of our day “whose solution belong to no one group.” In other words, the answer to stemming the tide of apathy and indifference to rising hatred and human suffering – both domestically and internationally – is exposure and engagement with others. The answer to bigotry directed to individual groups isn’t to turn inward and burrow ourselves in a silo, but rather to reach our hands outward and stand with others through their moments of trauma. When we leave our comfortable bubbles, we exercise our empathy muscles and build relationships that broaden that provincialism, Dr. Du Bois speaks of. The answer to hatred – be it antisemitism, islamophobia, anti-black racism, AAPI hatred, homophobia, transphobia, or any other irrational hatred – is to build bridges with allies of different worlds, to break bread together, to sing together, to claim our rightful seat at a long table of people who have rightfully claim theirs.
This year, our calendar at Beth Shir Shalom focuses on just this – on building meaningful lasting bridges with as many people of different lived experiences as possible – and in fact we’ve already started. This past year, our community created a HIAS Welcome Circle for a beautiful family fleeing Taliban rule in Afghanistan. Ejaz, Marjan, and their baby Mahya made it out on the last plane from Kabul and were welcomed into a foreign land by the beautiful people of our community: particularly Jeff & Layne Lepes, Ellen Satkin, Terry Silberman, Ari Hahyar, & Lisa DeMattia, amongst others and many of you who donated to help them. The bond built was so strong that they consider them family and even call Layne grandma.
As we look to our calendar for this coming year – and I do hope everyone got our beautiful new program book that was put together by our past president Natalie Rothenberg – we invested a lot of time in building bridges, both internally with things like our progressive dinner for our community to get to know each other, but also externally, like our new four part series with First Presbyterian. Reverend Tim Vance and I will each teach two sessions where Beth Shir Shalom visits their church for the sessions I teach and First Pres will visit our synagogue for Reverend Vance’s sessions. I’ll be teaching the first one on Oct 9th – please join us. This winter our teens will travel to NYC and Washington, D.C. to explore new cities, meet new people, and be exposed to new ideas. In the spring, we are leading a trip to Mississippi and Louisiana to explore Civil Rights, learn about Southern Jewry, and spend Shabbat with the small town Jews of my student pulpit in New Iberia, Louisiana. And in 2024, we are planning a community trip to Israel to build bridges with our homeland and its people as well as explore its many challenges.
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel taught, “that morally speaking, there is no limit to the concern one must feel for the suffering of human beings, that indifference to evil is worse than evil itself, that in a free society, some are guilty, but all are responsible.”
Being a member of Beth Shir Shalom means that we know we are responsible – it means we can never settle for indifference – and it means we must advocate loudly for our Torah’s vision of a just society for all. Being part of our community means we build bridges – as Rabbi Neil has done for his entire rabbinate, a torch I proudly carry on. Being a member of our community means we can and must care both about our neighbors in Santa Monica and those suffering across the world.
We’re told every year at Passover that each generation must see itself as if they themselves came out of Egypt. The seder is our annual empathy exercise, encouraging us to use our story of fleeing persecution to defend the vulnerable in our day and stand with the oppressed in their darkest moments. This too is the lesson of the Holocaust – not to retreat inward, isolating ourselves and our community from the world. Instead, the lesson of the Holocaust – and the failure of the Allies to intervene in time – is what Rabbi Heschel said: “there is no limit to the concern we must feel for the suffering of others.” Our response to antisemitism in our day must be to continue to care deeply, to reach our hands outward, and to work in messy coalitions striving for a world of justice and equality.