In March of 1944 the Nazis invaded Hungary. There were by then almost 800,000 Jews here. In a period of eight weeks, starting in May that year, the Nazis rounded them up, deported them, and took them to Auschwitz to be murdered. About 437,000 people were killed. That’s a bit more than every man, woman, and child in Minneapolis today. It’s like killing every single Jew in London, Montreal, Detroit, and Cleveland, combined. That’s what was going on here, this June day, seventy years ago.
Seventy years on I’ve been here for a retreat, funded by the Schusterman Foundation, produced by Connection Points, and led brilliantly by Tomi Buchler and Limor Friedman, titled “From Me To We: Between Tribal and Global” – a gathering of young environmental and social justice leaders from three networks: Minyanim (a project backed by UJA-Federation of New York and the Jewish Agency For Israel), ROI (Schusterman), and Siach (itself a partnership led by Hazon and Heschel and supported by UJA).
It has been an indescribably rich experience. I find myself with thoughts that are disparate and contradictory:
The Shoah is over. Those most obsessed by the Shoah should let it go. Read something else. History repeats in certain ways, but not mechanistically. The murder of Israeli Jews in Belgium is appalling and evil – but that is not what our great-grandparents faced, and we should not confuse it as such. Ditto French anti-semitism today, or the rise of the far right in Hungary and elsewhere. We should be bothered by these things, and we should oppose them vigorously, but we shouldn’t fear that history is in some ways about to repeat, nor should we assume that all the world is out to get us. (Philo-semitism is also alive and well and no less prevalent than its opposite, though rather less newsworthy.)
Never forget. It is said in progressive circles, both Jewish and non-Jewish, in the US, in Israel and elsewhere, that the Jewish community is too focused on the Shoah and anti-semitism, that it is a trope, that it is used simply to support Israel or Zionism. If that’s what you think – go and read a book about the Shoah. Go to a commemoration. Talk with some of the last living survivors. Visit Auschwitz. As we were flying here on a beautiful clear day, I was looking out the window, over a distance of hundreds of miles – Belgium, Germany, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary – trying to imagine an entire continent in which it was not safe to be a Jew. This is not a “trope.”
The revival here is real. It is extraordinary to see the range of projects going on here, the people, the idealism, the energy – very moving. Music. The plastic arts. Jewish learning. Synagogues being restored. Connecting social justice and Jewish life. A gay and lesbian scene. Places to meet. Pubs. A desire to learn Hebrew. A desire to celebrate Shabbat. A sense of connection with Israel. A sense of pride in, and curiosity about, Jewishness.
On Tuesday night Andras Heisler, the leader of the Hungarian Jewish community, spoke to us. The community is standing up in public in opposition to anti-semitism, bigotry against minorities, and revisionist history, and it is doing so in a calm, strong, and united way. Very inspiring.
The organized Jewish community remains an extraordinary blessing. So much of what is happening here is backed by the Jewish Agency for Israel (supported by all the Federations) and in some cases UJA-Federation of New York directly. The MiNYanim project, for instance, is phenomenal.
We do not sufficiently thank the people who are supporting this revival, and we should. And we should also be supporting it ourselves. The 2013-14 campaign year ends in 18 days. Liz and I increased our gift this year; so did David Weisberg and many Hazon board members. If you haven’t yet made a donation to UJA-Federation of New York, click here, or support your local Federation.
Profound change is upon us. Rabbi Micha Odenheimer in the closing session made the astute observation that at every inflection moment in Jewish history – the good ones, as well as the bad ones – we have had to redefine our relationship to each other, to community, and to the wider world. This is happening now across the Jewish world. It is manifest at a gathering like this one, with its range of languages, experiences, identities, opinions. It is true in the United States and in Britain. And it is true in Israel too. I cannot begin to express how profound it is to see Europeans, Israelis, and Americans (not to mention a South African, an Australian, and a couple of South Americans) interacting together so richly, sharing so deeply
And what is true at the personal level is true institutionally also. Less than two weeks ago the Israeli government took a historic decision, to partner in a significant way with diaspora Jewish communities to support diaspora Jewish life. It is too soon to know if it will succeed; perhaps it will not. But we should give it the benefit of the doubt, and know that, even at the symbolic level, it is enormously profound in its significance. The two old asymmetries are ending – rich diaspora Jews supporting poor endangered Israel; strong Israelis looking down on pallid diaspora Jewish life. There is a new eco-system arising – multi-vocal, networked, interconnected. To be a part of it, as I have been this weekend, is to experience the richness of diversity when that diversity is bounded by shared interests, values, concerns, passions. If this can be played out on a larger scale, good things will ensue.
People are amazing: Manny & Annabel Lindenbaum.
I end with the story of Manny Lindenbaum and his family. He was the oldest rider in our NY Ride last year. Born in Germany, expelled with his brother at Kristalnacht, he came to England on the cusp of war, and to New Jersey in 1945. His parents and his sister were murdered. He started off as a chicken farmer, orphaned and penniless.
Skip forward to today. He and Annabel have been married for 57 years. They have three kids, nine grandkids. He was guest of honor at our dinner on the last night of our gathering, because he’s here at the start of what he calls his odyssey. Together with seven of his grandkids he’s about to ride more than 200 miles through Germany back to his childhood home. He rides both for memory and for the future; for Jewish particularism, and for a profound and passionate commitment to peace and reconciliation in the world. He has a twinkle in his eyes, and a smile that lights up the room. Check out his website – odyssey76.com – so-called because the journey he is making retraces in reverse the one he made fully 76 years ago.
He and Annabel are an absolute inspiration. To be with them and their grandkids is quite extraordinary. May we all be blessed to have inspiring role models, to live in peace, to renew Jewish life, and to create a more sustainable world for all.