Remembering Elie Wiesel

For many of us, summer conjures up moments of family and personal fun.  Summer camps, specialty camps, teen trips, college programs, internships and family vacations make up the cacophony of activities that so many of us or our children participate in during the 10-12 week break between school endings and beginnings.

Growing up in Chicago in the 1950s and 60s—there were far fewer offerings than today.  In 1966 I expressed interest—I don’t recall from where it emerged—to go to summer camp, specifically Olin Sang Union Institute Camp—the midwest regional camp of the Reform Movement in Oconomowoc, Wisconsin.  As I applied late, I was on the wait-list for several months—I remember calling at least weekly to see if I had made-it off the wait list.  One day, I received the call that I was in—I was elated.   Like its URJ Northeast sister camps, Eisner and Crane Lake—Oconomowoc was a camp dedicated to fun, singing, swim, friendships, bug juice AND an immersion into Jewish learning and life.  Hebrew, worship, Jewish-themed learning whether on immigration or Israel became part of the camp daily experience.  There is no doubt in my mind, that attending Olin-Sang, now called OSRUI, deeply impacted my Jewish identity and was a principal driving force in my choosing to be a rabbi.

It was during that first summer of camp that I was introduced to a Jewish author, who would forever influence my life.  Before lights out, our assistant counselor, Diane, sat with a flashlight, and for nearly the entire two week session, she read to us a chapter each evening, from Elie Wiesel’s chilling and heart-wrenching memoire, Night.  How many here have read it?  Night was not about statistics…it was about personal experience.  In April, 1944, Wiesel, at age 15 ½, was deported from Hungary—from where his family sought refuge, to Auschwitz, where he witnessed his mother and sister perish. Through the lens of a 15 ½ year old, we heard, through the black and white print, how his innocence, his perspective, his faith, his humanity were tested, over and over again. Originally written in French in 1956—after a 10 year self-imposed silence about the Holocaust, Night was published in English in 1960—the same year the first successful pacemaker surgery occurred, and three years before the invention of the touch-tone phone.  It was published one year before Alan Shepherd’s first manned-space launch.

Indeed, Elie Wiesel has been the riveting spokesperson for Holocaust memory.  Having had the privilege of hearing him on many occasions—Wiesel’s deliberate, tempered and poignant articulation of Holocaust facts and emotions, like a beacon in a storm, lit the way for generations to grapple with the worst annihilation of the 20th century—the worst genocide in modern history.  Elie Wiesel was a statesman, not married to politics or self-gain, rather, his life’s calling was to be the consummate moral conscience against atrocities and to represent the Jewish soul of those who survived and those who perished in the Shoah.  His death, symbolizes for us, the passing of an era—for the generation that served as first-hand witnesses to the Holocaust—that generation is slowly fading into memory and with its passing we will no longer be able to hear the stories the same way…feel the tears….touch the horror.  For those of us who have family members who survived the Shoah…just think of how different it is, or will be for the generation who did not know them personally, to grasp the impact of the horror and darkness that blanketed the world.  I sometimes shake my head in disbelief, knowing that I was born less than a decade after the liberation of Auschwitz, less than a decade after bombs fell on Hiroshima and Nagasaki…and just 9 months after the Korean Conflict ended—all through lower and middle school—these wars were ancient history to me, as they were not engrained on my conscious memory.  Similarly today—those children born in 2010, outside of NY, will sadly think of September 11, 2001, in the same distant manner.

But Elie Wiesel leaves us so much more than memory—he leaves a legacy that is embodied in his writings—both in his published books and in his quotes that have been memorialized for posterity.

On July 4, NASA’s space probe, Juno, traveling at 165,000 miles per hour arrived in Jupiter’s atmosphere after traveling hundreds of millions of miles – what a 4th of July celebration took place at NASA this year!  Despite its many setbacks—Columbia, Challenger, the launch pad fire—how far space travel has come since Alan Shepherd’s orbit around earth in 1961

How sad it is, that the same number of years have passed since Wiesel’s Night was published in English, and yet, the world seemingly spins in an orbit of despair, hatred, prejudice, racism and genocide.

Wiesel, in his life gifted humanity with quotes that evolved out of his life experience—his relentless drive to hold the world accountable—not only for the horror of the Holocaust—but for current catastrophes that tear at the fabric of the human spirit.  There are three Elie Wiesel quotes I want to share this Shabbat that remain timeless and are most poignant on this Shabbat.  The first is, “The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference.”  Indeed, it is indifference of good men and women who, through their silence or their politics, pave the way for those filled with hatred to unleash their wrath on innocent victims.

I am grateful that America is a county of free speech—it is one of our most precious rights AND….AND…when we hear word and see images on TV that shake the foundation of our country, we need to act with words and actions that rip apart those foundations of hate. I respect and uphold the right of every American to bare arms—to defend her or himself.  BUT–I do not understand or support individuals having the ability to purchase assault weapons—whose only purpose is to create havoc and pummel human life into bloody and lifeless carnage.  If there is a time for our voices to be heard in Washington—if there is a time for politicians to shatter the bottleneck of political posturing–this is the moment to seize—Im Lo Achshav—Ai Matai—If not now when.

Indifference must not be the lens through which we, as Americans, experience violence and bias in our own cities—including here in New York.  I visited with a congregant late yesterday afternoon and took the L train from 8th Avenue and transferred at Union Sq to the 4 train—so I had no idea of the protest that had formed above me in Union Square.  It was only when I got home and watched the news did I see the outpouring of anger and pain—emerging from the overflow of frustration involving the recent shootings of Black men across America at the hands of law enforcement officers. Delrawn Small, Alton Sterling and Philando Castile—all black men—all shot dead in situations that appear not to have warranted extreme police reaction….Add their names to Michael Brown and Eric Gardner of two summers ago—and we can connect the bullets to multiple shootings of black men for which we scratch our heads and wonder, why?  In December, I and a thousand other clergy, attended the Clergy All In Day at Police Headquarters—the goal was to establish better community relations with neighborhood police officers and precincts.  In my mind I know there is sincere intentionality in bridging the schism between police and communities of color, in particular Black communities; however, it is clear, a growing percentage of the black communities—not living in neighborhoods at risk—feel threatened when in the presence of a police officer.  I remember when studying for my doctorate nearly 25 years ago—how a black woman minister shared being flagged through a red light by one officer to make way for an ambulance, only to be pulled over by another police officer a block down the street.  When she tried to explain what had happened, the second police officer put his hand on his holster and, holding fast to his gun said, ‘this gives me my authority’.  25 years ago—indeed negative police relations have not abated—only intensified over time.  As New Yorkers, we must find a way to raise our voices—not to remain indifferent—to bridge the chasm of racial tension in our midst.  And at the same time, our hearts go out to those family members of the officers killed last night in Dallas—non-random anger and hatred wreaking irreversible tragic results. It was not ISIS, rather, an Afghanistan veteran who unleashed terror in the streets of Dallas.  Nothing can justify the taking of innocent human lives, and, we must make every effort to understand Micah Johnson’s utter frustration turned violent. Serious efforts must be made to engender feelings of trust between law enforcement and communities of color—acting and being perceived as ‘other’ will only result in escalating violence—especially during the upcoming hot days of summer.

The second quote that serves as our moral compass regarding our obligation not to turn a deaf ear or blind eye to the suffering of others is:  “Wherever men and women are persecuted because of their race, religion or political views, that place must—at that moment—become the center of the universe.”  Each time human carnage is reported on the news—the result of terrorist deathly venom—whether in Orlando, Newtown, Columbine, Santa Barbara, Fort Hood—Israel, Belgium, London, Paris, Turkey or Iraq—we must take a moment to mourn—to fight our inhuman—human tendency to become indifferent to bombings and mass shootings.

The third quote that speaks to our Jewish core, is, Wiesel’s last line of his 1966 personal report on Soviet Jews, entitled, “The Jews of Silence.”  He wrote, “What torments me most is not the Jewish of silence I met in Russia but the silence of the Jews I live among today.”  His words, like a Shofar must stir us out of our complacency.  The Jewish people is enmeshed in a history of persecution.  We are commanded to remember and protect the stranger for we were strangers in a strange land.  It was that last line that compelled me in the 1980s to protest the Soviet Union’s ban on Jewish emigration by traveling with colleagues to Washington, D.C.—spending a day in jail—and knowing, a year later, that our efforts helped open the final door for Soviet Jews to leave Russia.

Throughout history, the synagogue has been a beacon of light piercing the darkness of hate, indifference, prejudice and fear.  We have a moral imperative to kindle that light in our own day.  In the coming year, here at Village Temple, guest speakers whose lives have been dedicated to doing social justice will guide us in ways to make a difference—to turn our indifference or inaction into steps that can bring about positive change.   Perhaps our own Martin Luther King, Jr. observance can be an opportunity to build bridges—to engage in dialogue and healing.

This past Yom HaShoah at Shaaray Tefila—a teen, in her remarks, shared a quote from the British Graffiti artist, Banski—who wrote, ““They say you die twice. One time when you stop breathing and a second time, a bit later on, when somebody says your name for the last time.”

May Elie Wiesel’s name be forever remembered—not only because of those who will say Kaddish for him—but for his legacy of memory and words and actions—that are now placed squarely on our shoulders to bear with pride and courage.  Shabbat Shalom.