Article by Dr. Aaron Panken, President of the College, in memory of Elie Wiezel
As the sad news came of the death of Nobel Prize winner Elie Wiesel, I could not help but ask: who will be the next generation of those who, as he did, take tragedy and make it a force for good, compelling us to ever higher ethical standards that reflect the commitments of Jewish tradition? Elie Wiesel never let the enormity of his personal trauma overwhelm him or break his spirit. In fact, he turned that very trauma into an educational opportunity, bringing people from all faith communities to understand the tragedy and ensure that it (and others like it) never recur. Nor did he limit his work to the Holocaust, rather he wrote and spoke broadly, and shared the beauty of so many facets of Jewish thought in ways that brought a divided world together.
With the heat of the summer rising, signs are clear that we now live in a world coming apart. Whether one looks at the unbearable death of 13-year-old Hallel Yaffa Ariel, the ongoing wave of Palestinian violence against Israelis, the brutal acts of terror in Orlando, Istanbul, and Baghdad, the Dallas sniper killings of police officers and the racially charged police killings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, or the disgusting anti-Semitic tweets (quickly deleted and revised) by Donald Trump and the protracted divisiveness that pervaded the US Democratic primary campaign, it is shocking to see the levels to which our national and international situations and discourse have fallen. When one hears the astounding vitriol with which some Israelis attack Reform Jews in Israel, when women are spat at and Jews praying by the Kotel are shoved and yelled at by other Jews, one has to wonder just how we can ever constructively share a community with those who differ from us. Add in the unraveling of Europe by the Brexit movement and the continuing spiral of the deterioration in Syria, Iraq, and elsewhere around the Middle East, it becomes more and more challenging to muster hope for a peaceful outcome.
What unites all these phenomena is that opposing groups feel free to defame and denigrate, to attack and attempt to destroy their opponents in manifold ways that now far transcend the bounds of rational discourse and relationship. Elie Wiesel taught us that moments like this in history are not times to sit back and do nothing—rather they are the precise times when righteous action must be brought to bear, for if we do not act, events will simply continue to drag us downward. The difference between being a bystander to evil and a righteous force for good is knowing when and how to act for what is right in the most difficult situations.
What might be a better response to a world coming apart? What could we be capable of, if only we redirected our efforts to making a better world in the wake of hatred and animosity? A first example: in another instance of tragic and senseless violence just last year, 16-year-old Shira Banki was murdered for the simple act of joining a friend at the Jerusalem Gay Pride Parade. Amidst the waves of grief that followed, Shira’s parents were not content to let the memory of their daughter stand only as one of many in the long line of atrocities that dot our history. Instead, they have let their sadness propel them toward helping to improve their city, their country and the world.
During this special year, when we mark the 50th anniversary of the unification of Jerusalem, the Banki family has joined with the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR) in Jerusalem and the American Center (a section of the US Embassy in Israel), to create a program that addresses hatred and violence by bringing together teachers and their young students to learn about the different groups that inhabit this city. Zot Yerushalayim (“This is Jerusalem”) is a program that began simply within the walls of HUC-JIR’s Jerusalem campus, where we have a diverse team of staff and faculty who come from all walks of Jerusalem life: Reform, Conservative and Orthodox; Jewish, Muslim and Christian; of diverse gender and sexual orientations, and so on. Under the guidance of Dr. Michal Muszkat Barkan, a professor of Jewish Education and pluralism, our staff visited the homes and sacred sites of their peers, photographed them, and mounted a stunning exhibition that showed the broad array of places and outlooks represented among our community. The photos tell the story of just how divided this “united” city is, as people who have lived here their entire lives met new people and saw new places they had never felt comfortable experiencing before.
With the help of the Banki family and the American Center, we are now expanding this program and creating a teachers’ room for Jewish, Christian and Muslim elementary school teachers around Jerusalem. These teachers, who did not generally know one another before, are spending time learning about how their neighbors conceive of their shared city. They speak about the vastly different political, religious, educational, and cultural worldviews that surround them, and, inspirationally, are able to sit together and dream of collective educational goals, bring their classes together to meet across usually hostile boundaries, and plan for a brighter future that unites groups that rarely interact though they live mere blocks apart.
Thanks to the courage of individuals like the Bankis and Elie Wiesel, we have models to which we can and must aspire. Let us not allow base hatred and the growing discourse of division to continue to take its human toll upon us. Let us be better than this, working to unite our people, and all people, for the sake of our children, grandchildren and the generations to come. In a world coming apart, we must begin coming together.