This post is part of a regular series written by Rabbi Jay Goldmintz, Headmaster of Ramaz Upper School, and sent to the parents of Ramaz students.
I was teaching a class a few months ago about Migdal Bavel, the Tower of Babel mentioned in the Torah, which according to one school of thought was an example of man’s hubris, his arrogant desire to dominate. I suggested that perhaps that was one of the reasons that our enemies targeted the World Trade Center for they perceived it as our own such tower because it was, for a short period of time, the tallest building in the world. “Really?!” remarked a number of students. “We never knew that it was so tall.” It was another one of those moments when I was reminded how quickly time flies when teaching high school, how today’s events are tomorrow’s history. I recall the first time it happened years ago when a middle school student asked me which came first, the Six Day War or the Yom Kippur War. My youth became his boring history homework. It’s happened countless times since.
I reflect upon this as we get closer to what some of us refer to as “The Yom’s season” — Yom HaShoah, Yom HaZikaron, and Yom Ha`Atzma’ut. These are pivotal days in the Jewish calendar for anyone who is modern Orthodox and hopefully for anyone who is Jewishly committed. They are days which have helped shape us and have irrevocably shaped the identity of the Jewish people. Schools, therefore, make a deal about them, or at least they should.
And yet, commemorating these days is more challenging than one might think. Take Yom HaShoah, for example. Most of us have met survivors even if they are not our grandparents or great grandparents. But for our kids, Yom HaShoah is increasingly a day that we mark an event that happened a long time ago and, dare I say, to someone else. It’s not that they think it’s an irrelevant date, but rather that it’s hard (in the absence of survivors in the family) to connect to in a personal way. May all survivors live to be 120, but the day will one day come when we will no longer be able to invite them to speak at our commemorations. How will we convey the personal stories and the human dimension? How will we get students to truly understand and to feel the importance of these events? How will these days matter? One researcher recently suggested that the role that Holocaust Memorial Day plays in the American civil religion is on the wane and that it could well fade from the communal calendar one day. Even if that does not happen in our community, what will that day and the other “yom’s” mean to our kids?
One way to ensure their importance, I think, is for none of us to take these days for granted with our children. We should not be relying upon schools or community but rather should be using those commemorations to reinforce the teaching that we do at home. And by teaching I mean not history lessons, but rather to convey to our kids with passion and feeling a sense of what these days mean to us, why they move us, what we remember of our own family histories or observances. We want our kids to incorporate these days as part of the narrative of their own lives but they will do so only if we can begin to offer them the narratives of our own lives. Tell them stories, take them to communal events, prepare a special food for Yom Ha`Aztma’ut, tell them why you love Israel or about the Holocaust survivors you have met. Tell them about your family tree and how the Shoah tore away its branches and roots. Tell them about your first time in Israel and what it meant to you or why you keep going back. Tell them about the soldiers who have given up their lives instead of going to college so that we may have the privilege of visiting the country. Share family heirlooms, watch a movie or documentary together, light a candle, or play games in Hebrew. In short, make these days as meaningful, fun/serious and noteworthy as possible. They are the stuff that memories and identity are ultimately made of.
I recently returned from Poland and Israel with a group of almost 70 seniors. As part of a larger course I teach in the weeks preceding the trip, I require that students become more familiar with their family trees. For many, it’s boring stuff–just another homework assignment, but they will at least have spent time with parents or grandparents going over the details and gathering the information. And yet, once we get over there, it all seems to come together. One student was actually able to place a stone on the intact gravesite of his great great grandparents (an extraordinarily unique experience in Eastern Europe) and he and I traipsed all over the Warsaw cemetery finding gravesites of relatives he had heard about and some he did not even know existed. Our sense of discovery was palpable but so too was his sense of pride. We visited an ancestral shtetl of a couple of students and one of them subsequently told me “I have listened to stories of this town all my life but now, just being here, I finally understand.” Or another: “My grandfather always said we should be thankful for Israel. I didn’t always get it. Now I do.” Or another: “I’ve been to Israel many many times, but it feels different this time. I can’t explain it but it just means so much more. I get it now.” Or another: “When you leave Poland, you have a new unspeakable bond with your peers simply because they share your heritage, background, and religion. At that moment, I knew I would always be different as a person, but I also knew I would always be different as a Jew.”
And the list goes on. The point is not alone the power of the trip, for not all students will necessarily have the opportunity. Rather, it was the way in which the trip helped to trigger and reinforce the stories, the memories and the experiences that their parents, grandparents and schools and camps had been inculcating since they were young children. It was one of those moments when it all came together, but it could not have done so as powerfully and as meaningfully had they not been prepped for it by years of nurture.
“Going from Auschwitz to the Kotel,” one participant wrote to me, “I truly feel Hashem watching over us.” For her, as for so many of us, it was a new perspective on every Yom we had ever celebrated, coming to a place our ancestors had dreamed about, our parents had told us about, our schools and camps had taught us about, a place that we all understood is home. May all of our children feel the same way.
With best wishes for a meaningful and personal Yom HaShoah, Yom HaZikaron and Yom Ha`Atmza’ut.
Rabbi Jay Goldmintz, Ed.D., is the Headmaster of Ramaz Upper School.