The events in our country over the past 72 hours have left many pained, confused, angry, and frustrated. I sit and think about where our country is heading and how do I even explain this to my children? May justice prevail and we see better days ahead.
Sometimes you never know where inspiration will come in your life.
This past Shabbat we learned of the passing of author, Nobel laureate, and treasured friend Elie Wiesel, z”l. His story and accomplishments are well known – a boy from Sighet, Transylvania who survived one of the most horrific events in human history and went on to become a writer, activist, and standard-bearer for the preservation of humanity.
I heard Elie Wiesel present several times at Jewish Federation conferences. He was a passionate man with a zeal for what is right and just in the world. But, the first time I ever heard his name was as a 16 year old at the BBYO international leadership training program in Starlight, Pennsylvania. Each day, following lunch, we had what was known as “reading hour.” At the time I was not much of a reader, but the book, Night, was recommended to me by a staff person. The book mesmerized me. It brought me into a world I truly did not understand. Beyond the Diary of Anne Frank, this was the only other book I had read up until that time which put a personal face on the Holocaust.
Then, just two and a half years later in December 1987, I heard Elie Wiesel speak at the Soviet Jewry rally in Washington, DC. He and Natan Sharansky were the inspirational thought leaders of this event. As I have written before, it was that event and moment in time which changed my entire life and focus to Jewish professional leadership.
A few years into my career, while at the Baltimore Jewish Federation, we were honored to have Elie Wiesel speak at our major donor event. What I remember most was a 30 minute private conversation Elie Wiesel and I shared. How did that happen? Well, we were in a private home and the attendees all were too shy/intimidated (?) to speak to Mr. Wiesel. So, he was standing in the corner all alone. I went over to him and we engaged in a conversation where I shared with him the impact the Soviet Jewry rally had on my life. He was interested, asked me questions, and at the end of the conversation, he leaned in to me and whispered, “always strive to make the world a better place” and then thanked me for working on behalf of the Jewish people. I will never forget that evening.
In 1986, Elie Wiesel was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. In his acceptance speech, he shared:
I remember: it happened yesterday or eternities ago. A young Jewish boy discovered the kingdom of night. I remember his bewilderment, I remember his anguish. It all happened so fast. The ghetto. The deportation. The sealed cattle car. The fiery altar upon which the history of our people and the future of mankind were meant to be sacrificed.
I remember: he asked his father: "Can this be true?" This is the twentieth century, not the Middle Ages. Who would allow such crimes to be committed? How could the world remain silent?
And I tell him that I have tried. That I have tried to keep memory alive, that I have tried to fight those who would forget. Because if we forget, we are guilty, we are accomplices.
Perhaps better than anyone else of our age, Elie Wiesel grasped the terrible power of silence. He understood that the failure to speak out -- about both the horrors of the past and the evils of the present -- is perhaps the most effective way to perpetuate suffering and empower those who inflict it.
Wiesel therefore made it his life’s mission to ensure that silence would not prevail.
Natan Sharansky wrote:
“Elie Wiesel’s humanism, his active concern for the voiceless, hardly stopped with his fellow Jews. He spoke out against massacres in Bosnia, Cambodia and Sudan, against apartheid in South Africa, and against the burning of black churches in the United States. He became, as others have said, the conscience of the world. Yet he never gave up or sacrificed even a bit of his concern for the Jewish people. He did not feel he had to give up his Jewish loyalty or national pride to be a better spokesman for others. To the contrary: It was the tragedy of his people that generated his concern for the world — a world he felt G-d had abandoned — and it was his belief in universal ideas that helped him to ultimately reconcile with his Jewish G-d.”
Elie Wiesel swore never to be silent whenever and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation. He believed that it is necessary to take sides and that sometimes we must interfere. He wrote, “Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. When human lives are endangered, when human dignity is in jeopardy, national borders and sensitivities become irrelevant. Wherever men or women are persecuted because of their race, religion, or political views, that place must – at that moment – become the center of the universe.”
The world – and the Jewish community – lost one of its heroes. Elie Wiesel was the living embodiment of speaking truth to power. And on a deeply personal level, without my truly realizing it until now, he was a key inspiration in my own life. He is and will forever be a blessing.
On a happy note, mazel tov to the Oregon Jewish Museum and Center for Holocaust Education on the purchase of their new building. Read all about it. What a wonderful opportunity for our Jewish and larger community.