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February 9, 2015 10:45 pm

Why My Students Attended the UN’s Holocaust Remembrance Day

avatar by Steven Lorch

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UN headquarters in New York. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

The entire middle school of the Solomon Schechter School of Manhattan commemorated International Holocaust Remembrance Day last month by going to the Holocaust Memorial Ceremony at the UN.

I’m very glad they did. And here’s why.

The first three speakers attested, through their participation and their remarks, that the Holocaust has been a transformative event for them – both in their public roles and their private views. They were an Arab, an Asian, and a Caribbean man: the Palestinian Director of Public Information, the South Korean UN Secretary-General, and the Grenadian Vice-President of the General Assembly. In other words, a veritable rainbow coalition stood shoulder to shoulder in the General Assembly Hall in condemnation of anti-Semitism and anti-Jewish incitement.

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In addition, two prominent Israeli speakers highlighted the broader implications of the Holocaust for combating hatred and intolerance against Jews and non-Jews alike. Israeli President Reuven Rivlin cited the words of Avshalom Feinberg, which date back 100 years ago – to 1915 – in responding to the Armenian genocide. He argued that it was a Jewish imperative to feel the pain and loss of non-Jewish victims of hatred. He also stated that it was the mission of the Jews to help them in whatever ways possible, recalling that the residents of Jerusalem offered shelter and comfort to thousands of starving refugees fleeing Armenia.

The Chairman of Yad Vashem, Avner Shalev, told the story of Dr. Kurt Heismuller, who subjected 20 Jewish children to tuberculosis infection in a pseudo-scientific experiment, and then sought to justify his actions by explaining, “For me, there was no basic difference between Jews and guinea pigs.” In light of this example, Shalev challenged the assumption that technological progress and moral advancement necessarily go hand in hand.

The message was unmistakable: the Holocaust is not a parochial issue; it’s a universal concern, and its remembrance is a human imperative.

This perspective is an important counterweight to the particularistic education these same students experience daily. They study Talmud, Tanach, and Shulchan Aruch; they daven and recite b’rachot; they give tz’dakah and practice menschlichkeit. They sing and listen to Israeli songs, read Israeli literature, and study ancient and modern Jewish history. These immersive experiences are invaluable in inducting them into the language and culture, the values and lifestyle, of the Jewish community. But their Jewish learning also sets them apart from their peers in other schools.

Of course, they also prove the Pythagorean Theorem, read the Federalist and Anti-Federalist Papers, perform science experiments, and study Shakespeare. They play basketball, program computers, and paint in the style of Kandinsky. And outside of school, in their spare time, they listen to the same music, watch the same TV shows, and frequent the same social media sites  as most other teenagers. But, despite our considerable efforts to bring the two domains together, these experiences are often seen by them as separate from their Jewish influences.

Moreover, Jewish history, current events, and sacred texts often seem to set Jews and non-Jews at loggerheads with each other. The chronicle of Jewish tragedy accentuates hatred, domination, and violence at the hands of powerful enemies of the Jewish people. The students’ learning tends to alienate them from the non-Jewish communities in whose midst they live.

The UN Holocaust Memorial Ceremony redresses the balance, counteracting an understandable but exaggerated sense of Jewish victimhood. Yom Hashoah and other Holocaust commemorations within the Jewish community, as valuable as they may be in promoting solidarity, identification, and identity, tend to reinforce students’ sense of particularity and isolation.

For similar reasons, I welcome, and seek out, opportunities for students to interact meaningfully with their counterparts in other faith communities. Before Pesach, our middle school students take part in an interfaith seder with the students of The Epiphany School, under the auspices of the Anti-Defamation League. Each year, our fifth graders collaborate in a months-long project with the students of two Islamic schools to develop a museum exhibition of family artifacts, sponsored by the Museum of Jewish Heritage.

I am not a Jewish public policy analyst, and so I cannot say whether it would be preferable to steer clear of the United Nations on principle even when its interests overlap with the Jewish community’s. However, I am a Jewish educator, and I am confident that my students benefited greatly from attending last month’s UN Holocaust commemoration.

Dr. Steven Lorch is the founding and current Head of the Solomon Schechter School of Manhattan.

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