Wednesday, June 10, 2009

LAMH Reacts to White Supremacist Attack on USHMM

LAMH Board Member and survivor Miriam Bell recounts to KABC's John North how today's shooting at USHMM reminded her of the evening the Nazis entered the town of her birth in Lithuania. Miriam recounted how the Nazis arrived at sundown, just as she and her family were lighting shabbat candles and singing songs welcoming the sabbath. She then heard shooting and commotion; when the family went out to investigate she saw her father shot and killed. Click Here to watch the full KABC-TV news segment .

A Tragic Loss Is Also A Victory

The Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust adds its voice to the chorus of those wishing to comfort the friends and loved ones of Steven Tyrone Johns, of blessed memory, pictured at right.

Mr. Johns died violently, an innocent victim caught in the crossfire between a known white supremicist and the target of the murderer's obsessive hatred. His passing undoubtedly broke the hearts of all those who knew him and loved him.

Today was a tragic loss, but also a stunning victory. Today good triumphed over evil, completely the opposite of what happened during the Holocaust. There evil triumphed over good; the innocents were imprisoned, tortured and murdered, while the evil Nazi perpetrators flourished. Mr. Johns is not just a hero to the Jewish people or the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, but to mankind.

The history of Mr. Johns' murderer was known to law enforcement and private watchdog groups such as the Anti-Defamation League. He had been imprisoned for previous anti-Semitic acts, and actively engaged in white supremisist acts for decades. These facts only underscore the simple irony that instead of dying, the evil he represents will itself kill when given the slightest opportunity.

The perpetrator's evil flourishes when good people do nothing, as they did too often during the Holocaust. Mr. Johns and his fellow guards at USHMM responded as they should have. But brave and quick-acting security guards are only the proximate protectors of good. Each of must do something, today and in our own homes, in our schools, our places of worship, and our communities, to make sure virulent hatred may never have another opportunity to kill.
Executive Director Mark A. Rothman speaks with KABC report John North about today's tragic shooting at the USHMM. Click here to see the full segment.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

The Meaning of This Hour

Gather several parents, and you'll always get sympathy when you talk about the challenges of raising children. But you could just as easily talk about the gifts they bring us.

Last night the gift was an introduction to Abraham Joshua Heschel's essay, "The Meaning of This Hour." My oldest son, Saul, struggled through the essay and needed help understanding it for school. He'd been assigned it to study Heschel's commitment to the civil rights struggle. As soon as he told me it was a Heschel piece I felt his pain; I still would like someone to explain to me the prepositional pairing "over against" Heschel relied on in I and Thou. So I sympathized with Saul's challenge and agreed to help him.

Of course in trying to explain the essay to Saul, I learned it better myself. The first time I read it I heard Heschel's dual tone of immediacy and righteous indignation. But when Saul and I reviewed it I gained new insights into the causes of Heschel's fury.

Heschel places the blame for the Holocaust squarely at the feet of the world's inaction. He writes,

"The roar of bombers over Rotterdam, Warsaw, London, was but the echo of thoughts bred for years by individual brains, and later applauded by entire nations. It was through our failure that people started to suspect that science is a device for exploitation, parliaments pulpits for hypocrisy, and religion a pretext for a bad conscience."

To Heschel the onset of the war was no surprise, and the failure of the mechanisms of our society to stop it was only a proximate cause. The ultimate cause was the failure of the individuals behind those mechanisms -- the 'our' in his formulation -- to act.

Heschel's prose cascades upon the reader as rhetorical two-by-fours upside the head. But few blows strike as harshly as these:

"There has never been more reason for man to be ashamed than now. Silence hovers mercilessly over many dreadful lands. The day of the Lord is a day without the Lord. Where is God? Why didst Thou not halt the trains loaded with Jews being led to the slaughter...Like Moses, we hid our face; for we are afraid to look upon Elohim, upon His power of judgment...Indeed, where were we when men learned to hate in the days of starvation? When raving madmen [read: Hitler and his gang] were sowing wrath in the hearts of the unemployed?"

In several quick thrusts Heschel smashes a common post-Holocaust excuse for a lack of faith: if God truly existed, He would have stopped the Holocaust. Au contraire, calls the rageful Rabbi. Man was called upon to act, and instead he hid himself, slinking away like a chastised dog. For Heschel, inaction is the worst evil of all.

Saul read this essay in the context of understanding the civil rights movement. But this essay places before us an eternal demand for action against the failures of society, wherever and whenever they occur.

And here, for me, is my biggest difficulty with Heschel's exhortation. His call to action echoes within me. As does Heschel's scorn for the petty distractions that prevent our action: "We should not spend our life hunting for trivial satisfactions while God is waiting constantly and keenly for our effort and devotion."

Yet I remain intimidated by the call. The need is so great and so constant. How can I possibly meet it? Before reading the essay, I comforted myself thinking my only responsibility is to try; I am mindful of the Talmudic teaching, 'Neither may you complete the work, nor may you desist from it.' But have my efforts been sufficient? Is there more I could do? And what does it mean to be 'hunting for trivial satisfactions?' Am I not allowed to go to a movie with my children over July 4th weekend?

Ironically, once again my son has been an agent bringing me to a point of challenge. But he has also brought me the gift of self-examination, and with it the potential for growth. And, as I feel, ultimately, gratitude for my children, as I do so often.