Holocaust and Hope

You and I are truly blessed. We live a country where we, the people, value our tremendous freedoms, and guarantee them by our very laws. The concerns we have, for ourselves and those around us, are most often about ailing health, family dynamics, job responsibilities, and in a totally different and pleasurable vain, choices we will make from the bountiful goodness of luxuries placed before us such as clothes, cars, and vacations. Agree or not with government policies and actions regarding our military forces and law enforcement agents, it is undeniable that due to their deployment and diligence, we here, in the United States of America, live a relatively stress free life; no bombs, no land mines, no air raid sirens. We are privileged to live free, to prosper and even be pampered; competent doctors, well equipped hospitals, and caring medical personnel in every neighborhood; supermarkets, shopping malls and spas around the corner. We live in peace, and enjoy a quality of life better than most.
Yet even those living in the lap of luxury should never take freedoms for granted. As Jews, we are particularly sensitive to this awareness which has repeated itself throughout our history. Joseph and his family, who were held in high esteem while living in Egypt, yet whose lineage suffered the oppression of Egyptian slavery; our ancestors who lived through the glorious kingdoms of David and Solomon, and the magnificence of The Second Temple, but endured the horrors of the twice fold siege of Jerusalem by the Babylonians and by the Romans; we who flourished during The Golden Age of Spain, then anguished during the Spanish Inquisition over the miserable choices of conversion, expulsion or death; we who lived peacefully in small villages throughout Russia, until the tide turned and we found ourselves bearing the hardships of the brutal Tzarist pogroms; we who kvelled as part of the thriving Yiddish culture of Europe in the 19th and 20th centuries, then saw it wiped out in The Holocaust; we know how fast that freedom can vanish, how we can be stripped of all semblance of Jewish culture and Jewish pride.
We read of these atrocious anti-Semitic accounts in history books. Perhaps a handful of Jews can trace some small branch of their family tree to the latter 1800's and the pogroms. But far more than just an historical record, the barbarities of the Holocaust remain vividly alive so long as we have survivors, children of survivors, grandchildren of survivors and even great grandchildren who know their bubbes and zaides. We will mourn the day when the final Holocaust survivor passes to the Olam Habah, the world to come, for that day will herald the transition from eye witness accounting to mere stories we are handed down, a transition from a victims' heart racing horror to pictures we see and cruelties we but imagine; a day when the deniers rejoice, as there will be no one to say "I was there".
Thankfully there are many individuals and organizations, from all walks of life, who work to preserve the memories and the legacies of those who survived the Shoah and those who perished therein. Steven Spielberg is one such individual. The Steven Spielberg Film and Video Archive of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum is a major repository for eye witness accounts pertaining to the Holocaust. Furthermore, his film "Schindler's List" is used as a teaching tool to educate students about the Shoah, and gain a greater understanding of the vast complexities of human nature. Our Ahavat Olam religious school students study the Holocaust, and relate its lessons to present day situations of bullying and ethnic cleansing. Our membership includes survivors, their offspring, concentration camp liberators, and dedicated Holocaust educators. Giving honor and strength to the survivors, and honoring the blessed memory of all who senselessly lost their lives, were the foremost reasons for procuring a Torah which also survived the Holocaust; a remarkable Book of Life which we will read from during these High Holy Days.
I wish to share with you the work of one more organization which Linda and I were made aware of this year, and a family we met, who's story serves as quite an inspiration. The Holocaust Remembrance Project is a national essay contest open to high school students from every faith, established and funded since 1995 by The Holland & Knight Charitable Foundation, designed to encourage and promote the study of the Holocaust. The top ten winning students, chosen teachers, and invited Holocaust survivors participate in an all-expense paid trip to a leading Holocaust museum or memorial. Additionally, scholarships are awarded to these students. This year the honored guests traveled to South Florida, visiting the Holocaust museum in St. Petersburg and the Holocaust Memorial on Miami Beach. Their trip culminated in a memorable banquet in downtown Miami. Linda and I were invited guests to the banquet by Kevin Packman, loving son of our congregant Cila Packman, and a local attorney with Holland & Knight. Kevin devotes much pro bono time helping the remaining survivors gain their rightful reparations. Kevin was also instrumental in coordinating the evening. Previously unaware of the Holocaust Remembrance Project, Linda and I didn't know what to expect as we drove downtown; maybe 100 people would attend, and the turnout would no doubt be diminished by the heavy rainstorm pouring down. We were greatly mistaken. As we arrived to the ballroom, there must have been 500 people milling about, everyone bubbling with conversation. A beautiful publication was on each seat. Gracing the cover was an emotive Holocaust painting by the gifted artist and Holocaust survivor, Tom Muhl, who often attends our Shabbat services. Leafing through the book I was proud to see that 2 of the past essay winners were former bar mitzvah students of mine. At our table Linda and I met Gary and Rachel Jacobs, and their essay award winning daughter, Rivka. At one point in the evening the survivors were called up to light a candle while Rivka sang Avinu Malkeinu. Her young, angelic voice, and the familiar haunting melody, brought bittersweet feelings amongst us all.
Gary and Rachel met at a Catholic hospital in Chicago, where they both worked. Rachel is Jewish and worked there as a nurse. Gary was studying for the priesthood, and was the hospital chaplain, but he had misgivings about Catholicism that he held inside. When they fell in love, he left the priesthood and agreed that if they were so blessed with children, the children would be raised Jewish. One of the patients in the hospital was a newborn whose mother was addicted to crack, a mother not capable of raising the child, who decided to give her baby up for adoption. This baby could have been destined to languish in foster care. This baby could have come to scorn the rejection of consideration of a true home because of the branding of having been born of a drug addicted parent. This baby may never have known the nurturing love of a mother and father, but Gary and Rachel adopted this baby and named her Rivka. Love transcended religious backgrounds. Love transcended the frailties of humanity. Love gave Rivka life.
As true of all of the 10 award winning students present that evening, Rivka's writing skill is but one of a plethora of G-d given talents and impressive credentials already amassed at her tender young age: member of the National Honors Society and Honors Spanish Society, state level awards as a first soprano, 5 years United States Figure Skating Association competitive ice skater, high school varsity lettered in Track and Field, and this past summer interned for Iowa Senator Tom Harkin and his staff in Washington, D.C.
Gary remarked that Rivka and a group of students were recently addressed by a famed American political activist, a 4 time candidate for President of the United States, whose name you would instantly recognize. As I was not present to hear him, I can only pass on what this former iconic fighter of citizen justice reportedly shared with these students: with little regard to the age of his audience, and abandoning all sense of tact, he said that given the deteriorating environmental regards and dismal financial outlook of our country, they were screwed. His defeatist attitude was what the students went away remembering.
It is easy to succumb to doom and gloom from the deluge of distressing news covered by the media. Stories are sensationalized, grabbing the headlines, opening news broadcasts, greeting us first thing in the morning; and the few stories of mitzvahs are buried within publications or saved for a short spot at the end of the broadcast. It is understandable how one can become so negatively impacted and affected by this great disparity.
We are well aware of the deplorable conditions we have created, or worsened, during our collective time on Earth. Yet in spite of what will no doubt be a difficult road ahead, sitting with these brilliant young minds served as a reminder to me that the future of our country, and the future of humanity, is indeed, in very capable hands. The challenges are colossal, but even greater is their drive, creativity and innate brilliance that will find solutions to the world's woes. If Rivka can go from birth as a crack baby to the outstanding individual she is today, there is hope for all.
I become further inspired for a bright future of our planet, as well as the assured sustainment of the Jewish people, when I think of our beloved Israel. In 63 years our Jewish homeland has transformed from desert and marshland into fertile soil yielding bountiful crops. Her medical and technological advancements are studied and used the world over. Through all of her modern day growth, Israel remains the holy land of our ancestors. Beautifully woven together is the spirit of progress and the spirit of tradition. True to G-d's promise, amidst all adversity, The Almighty has indeed sustained us throughout all generations.
One day, when the last walls of hate will crumble, the whole world will search for solutions to its problems together. The brilliant minds on all continents will freely, willingly, and lovingly join forces for the sake of tikun olam. This is not a dream, this is a reality, this is G-d's prophesy that will come to fruition in due time. As our sages wrote "bimheirah v'yameinu", may it come speedily in our days, dear Lord, that we may be so privileged as to witness this bliss. And let us say Amen.