MEMORY (pages 1-34) Witness: Lessons from Elie Wiesel's Classroom by Ariel Burger

"Listening to a witness makes you a witness." -Elie Wiesel

Tradition vs Secular/Community vs Individual:

"The holy books we studied painted a picture of a community where each person’s uniqueness was supported and celebrated. But that community didn’t actually exist here. When I dared ask about the clear distance between our heritage and our lived values, the rabbis replied that I needed to study a lot more before asking such questions. I flirted with the thought that my religion was morally bankrupt, nothing more than a pose. But, although many of my classmates eventually left religion behind, something held me back. Maybe it was the beauty of my grandparents’ Shabbat table, maybe it was my elementary-school teachers, but I had experienced the gifts of the religious world and was reluctant to give up on it.

I was in a state of constant questioning. In my naiveté, I wondered: How could such rich teachings fail to transform people into agents of goodness? Was it possible for a spiritual community to nurture individuality rather than conformity? What would it take for human beings to stop staring and whispering at those, like my sister, who were different?

As a teenager, I looked around at the adults in my life, my parents and teachers, and it seemed to me that they’d all made a choice to privilege either tradition or creativity, dedication to the past or commitment to an idiosyncratic personal vision. I saw no one who fully embodied the bridge I sought between community and self-expression, religion and art." (Burger speaks: pages 9-10)

Wrestling with Text and Morality:

"Professor Wiesel modeled this kind of wrestling in each class meeting by consistently and sometimes defiantly reading literature through an ethical lens. His readings differed from the usual academic lectures students heard in other classrooms. He expressed sympathy for those characters whose authors made them suffer so much, and this sympathy guided his interpretations. Often, he would tell us he loved a particular character, and then he’d smile and explain why. At first I was surprised by this. I was used to professors who emphasized authors’ intentions and agendas, the historical context in which a work was created, the positions and beliefs for and against which it was arguing. I might sympathize with a character, but so what? Why should that matter? In my other college classes, the teachers’ likes and dislikes and what the students found resonant or dissonant were unimportant.

A student named Gina helped me grasp what our teacher was doing. 'I feel a little embarrassed by this,' she told me one day after class, 'but I think Professor Wiesel is nicer to fictional characters than I am to real people. Now I’m trying to be a little kinder to my family and friends.' Gina was beginning to see that reading literature and reading life were deeply entangled actions. So was I." (Burger speaks: page 25)

(יד) וַיֹּ֨אמֶר ה' אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֗ה כְּתֹ֨ב זֹ֤את זִכָּרוֹן֙ בַּסֵּ֔פֶר וְשִׂ֖ים בְּאָזְנֵ֣י יְהוֹשֻׁ֑עַ כִּֽי־מָחֹ֤ה אֶמְחֶה֙ אֶת־זֵ֣כֶר עֲמָלֵ֔ק מִתַּ֖חַת הַשָּׁמָֽיִם׃
(14) Then the LORD said to Moses, “Inscribe this in a document as a reminder, and read it aloud to Joshua: I will utterly blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven!”
(יז) זָכ֕וֹר אֵ֛ת אֲשֶׁר־עָשָׂ֥ה לְךָ֖ עֲמָלֵ֑ק בַּדֶּ֖רֶךְ בְּצֵאתְכֶ֥ם מִמִּצְרָֽיִם׃ (יח) אֲשֶׁ֨ר קָֽרְךָ֜ בַּדֶּ֗רֶךְ וַיְזַנֵּ֤ב בְּךָ֙ כָּל־הַנֶּחֱשָׁלִ֣ים אַֽחַרֶ֔יךָ וְאַתָּ֖ה עָיֵ֣ף וְיָגֵ֑עַ וְלֹ֥א יָרֵ֖א אֱלֹקִֽים׃ (יט) וְהָיָ֡ה בְּהָנִ֣יחַ ה' אֱלֹקֶ֣יךָ ׀ לְ֠ךָ מִכָּל־אֹ֨יְבֶ֜יךָ מִסָּבִ֗יב בָּאָ֙רֶץ֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר יְהוָֽה־אֱ֠לֹקֶיךָ נֹתֵ֨ן לְךָ֤ נַחֲלָה֙ לְרִשְׁתָּ֔הּ תִּמְחֶה֙ אֶת־זֵ֣כֶר עֲמָלֵ֔ק מִתַּ֖חַת הַשָּׁמָ֑יִם לֹ֖א תִּשְׁכָּֽח׃ (פ)
(17) Remember what Amalek did to you on your journey, after you left Egypt— (18) how, undeterred by fear of God, he surprised you on the march, when you were famished and weary, and cut down all the stragglers in your rear. (19) Therefore, when the LORD your God grants you safety from all your enemies around you, in the land that the LORD your God is giving you as a hereditary portion, you shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven. Do not forget!

- How do we live our values? What are those values?

- What do we see when we look in the mirror? Do we recognize ourselves?

- What keeps us connected Jewishly? What do we do for ourselves and what do we do our of respects for others?

- How do we find balance?

- How do we create that community that reflects the reality of our lives? What is the shul's role in that?

- If tradition is synonymous with community, what does that mean for secular nature and individuality?

- What does it mean to be agents of goodness?

- How does our religious tradition teach us how to be better and more ethical and moral people?

"Maybe that is why I believe so deeply in education. If there is a solution to the problems humanity faces, education must play the central role in it. I know that learning saved me. And I believe that it can save us." (Burger quotes Wiesel: page 4)

"I told you in class that you must tell your story. This is because, if even one person learns from it how to be more human, you will have made your memories into a blessing. We must turn our suffering into a bridge so that others might suffer less." (Burger quotes Wiesel: page 20)

"Whatever you learn, remember: the learning must make you more, not less, human" (Burger quotes Wiesel: page 26)

"Is it at the intersection of history and humanity, when we leave the script and step into the unknown, that powerful change can take place." (Burger quotes Wiesel: page 30)

What Happens When a Boca Raton Principal Denies the Holocaust

By Emily Burack

Jul 9, 2019

Close your eyes and picture Boca Raton. You’re probably envisioning bubbes and zaydes, beaches, early-bird specials, and maybe pop star Ariana Grande.

But, in an area with such a large Jewish population, here’s something you probably don’t think of: Holocaust deniers.

That took a sharp turn, right?

And yet, a high school principal in Boca Raton — yes, that very same Boca Raton — told a parent he needed to remain neutral on whether or not the Holocaust occurred. As he said— and we’re not kidding — “not everyone believes the Holocaust happened.”

The principal of Spanish River Community High School, William Latson, said in an email to a parent that his role as an educator is “to be politically neutral but support all groups in the school.” He continued, “I can’t say the Holocaust is a factual, historical event because I am not in a position to do so as a school district employee.”

These comments occurred in 2018, but was not made public until The Palm Beach Post published them last week.

Saying the Holocaust existed shouldn’t be viewed as a political statement: It’s simply a fact! After all, a public school educator — particularly one in a school district with so many Jewish students and a large community of Holocaust survivors — should know better: Holocaust denial is a form of anti-Semitism and should not be tolerated.

FWIW [for what it's worth], teaching about the Holocaust is actually mandated by Florida state law — so acknowledging the simple fact that it happened is part of his job as a public school employee. The code, cited by BuzzFeed News, reads “the systematic, planned annihilation of European Jews and other groups by Nazi Germany, a watershed event in the history of humanity, [is] to be taught in a manner that leads to an investigation of human behavior, an understanding of the ramifications of prejudice, racism, and stereotyping, and an examination of what it means to be a responsible and respectful person, for the purposes of encouraging tolerance of diversity in a pluralistic society and for nurturing and protecting democratic values and institutions.”

Latson apologized in a statement to The Palm Beach Post, writing, “I regret that the verbiage that I used when responding to an email message from a parent, one year ago, did not accurately reflect my professional and personal commitment to educating all students about the atrocities of the Holocaust.”

Nevertheless, there was widespread outrage. A petition was signed by more than 12,000 people — enough that the district removed Latson from his job.

In a statement, the school board said, “It is out of an abundance of concern and respect for the students and staff of Spanish River Community High School that School District Administration has decided to reassign Principal William Latson effective immediately… his leadership has become a major distraction for the school community.”

The only Jewish member on the Palm Beach County School board, Karen Brill, told The Palm Beach Post she was deeply troubled by the incident. “The Holocaust is a historical fact, and I am appalled that anyone in our district believes that its teaching may be opted out of,” she said.

American Jews are at a critical juncture: As fewer survivors are left with each passing year, collective memory of the Holocaust is fading. And yet, at the same time, anti-Semitism is rising across the country. Simply put, Holocaust education is a powerful way to combat anti-Semitism, and an excellent jumping off point for discussing themes that are all too relevant today, such as xenophobia, racism, and fascism.