As Jews, We Must Never Give Up — and Always Rise Up
“Mommy, who is going to hide us if there is another Holocaust?” I asked when I was seven years old. There was a moment of silence, and hastily, my mom assured me that there was no way a Holocaust would happen again: “We are very fortunate to live in America during this time, and we should always be grateful for the freedoms we have.”
I put aside my doubts. But when I was 10, my family and I went to Israel, and my fears and questions resurfaced.
It was during our visit to Yad Vashem (Israel’s Holocaust museum) that I lost some of my innocence. Video testimony of a woman who hid in the closet as her parents were forcibly removed, never to be seen again, haunts me to this day. New questions arose: Why the Jews? Why would the Nazis — or anyone — kill people for their beliefs? How did this happen? The questions were endless, and very few answers made sense.
The horrific stories and graphic pictures gave me nightmares, and I became scared of being Jewish. As my Bat Mitzvah approached, my anxiety rose. My greatest fear was that the people I loved most would attend my Bat Mitzvah only to be confronted by a shooter.
My mind eased after my incident-free Bat Mitzvah, but I dug more deeply into the event that defines my ancestors and my history: the Holocaust. Research raised more questions and the more questions I had, the angrier I became. I fixated on understanding how such horrors could occur, on discovering my family’s suffering during the ordeal, and exposing myself to the reality that cruelty exists in the world.
As I got older, the antisemitic comments began — ranging from that I was less of a human being, to not being date-able. My anger sparked a change in my perspective. I realized that if the Jews died for being themselves in their time, and I live for being myself in this time, I had better make it mean something.
My new purpose became trying to make every action, every decision, and every choice something that embodied and honored all those who were denied life.
However, when my so-called “irrational” fear of a temple shooting became a reality, I was horrified. Anger erupted when I saw the headline, “Shooting at Tree of Life Synagogue.” How could someone harbor so much hatred towards others? How could someone use his gift of life to ruin others? How could someone think that killing is the answer?
One friend tried to reassure me that only 11 people died. My heart sank. Have we become so immune to shootings and terror that we find comfort in the number 11? It is 11 souls, 11 hearts, 11 families, 11 dreams shattered. For what?
Six months after the Tree of Life shooting, there was another at Chabad of Poway in California; I crumbled inside. Despite the many precautions — alarm systems, security guards, metal detectors, cameras — people are still capable of entering our sanctuaries with guns.
How has this become our reality, the world we live in? Suddenly, there was so little fight left in me. Once again, the Jewish people were faced with yet another challenge. It led me to ask my most complex question: “How do the Jewish people always rise up, in spite of the hate?” For centuries, Jews faced discrimination, persecution, and antisemitism, but at just 17 years of age, I felt defeated. How had these people overcome for so long?
On Instagram, I saw more than 200 posts of support and advocacy swarming my feed. And there it was — the answer to my question. Once again, I was lifted by my Jewish community, and inspired to combat this hatred.
Those who deny that antisemitism still exists simply do not understand that discrimination takes many forms, and that while we have moved past gas chambers and ghettos, we now face new threats.
We, the Jewish people, realize that we fight and we rise simply because it is imperative to our continuity. Frankly, there is no other choice. As a people, we refuse to be silenced. We proudly live for those deprived of life, and we will never stop fighting to create the world that we know is capable of existing.
Avi Kurtz is a junior in high school and the 2019-2020 StandWithUs high school intern at Forsyth Country Day School.
A version of this column was originally published in The Winston-Salem Journal.