My synagogue, Kehilat Moreshet Avraham, is located in the southeastern Jerusalem neighborhood of East Talpiot, the same neighborhood as one of Jerusalem’s immigrant absorption centers, Beit Canada. Over the past few years we’ve had several families join our congregation while living in Beit Canada. Some have benefited from our communal support during their transition into Israeli society and then moved on to establish themselves within other communities, while others have become active members of the synagogue.
About five years ago new immigrants from the Washington, D.C. area joined us as they first settled at Beit Canada. John and Judy arrived in Israel with two young girls, aged six and seven, after realizing that the time to come to Israel was before they moved on in their careers and their children went further in school. Their eldest, Evie, had completed first grade in a communal day school and the transition to the Israeli school system was not always easy.
However, this past Shabbat, the congregants of Moreshet Avraham had the privilege of sharing John and Judy’s joy as Evie became a Bat Mitzvah. Evie lead services on Friday night and Saturday morning. She read the Haftara and portions of the weekly Torah reading. She also gave a well-researched talk about the Torah portion citing varying sources from the Talmud to the New York Times. Our rabbi commented how in this season, when we are moving from Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day) to Yom HaAtzmaut (Israeli Independence Day) and Yom Yerushalyim (Jerusalem Day), Evie symbolized the Jewish people’s ultimate victory in the wake of the Holocaust: returning to Israel and leading a full Jewish life.
As I look at our children, I think back to our forebearers who came to the United States. They hoped to pass along enough of the traditions they brought with them from the Old Country to their children so we would remember our Jewish traditions and keep our identity as Jews.
It is ironic to me that for those of us who have chosen to tie our primary identity with the future of the Jewish people by immigrating to Israel, we too worry about passing on values from the Old Country to the next generation. However, our Old Country is the United States of America, and the values we treasure are tolerance, pluralism and diversity; civil liberties and democracy. Our challenge, as we raise our children in an almost totally Jewish environment, is to instill within them those American values which enabled us to be a minority with rights and privileges.
This Yom HaShoah I saw an incredible film about a community which sought to instill these values in their youth. As a homogeneous community, their children were growing up not knowing anyone very different than themselves, surrounded by a supportive community full of large loving families. In order to help their children, the staff of the middle school in Whitwel, Tennessee decided to teach their eight graders about the Holocaust. When one student said that he could not understand six million, the school decided to try to collect six million of something, and so began “The Paper Clip Project.”
Responses came in from all over the world and the Whitwel Middle School collected close to 30 million paper clips, many coming with letters, stories and photographs representing loved ones who were murdered in the Holocaust.
The collection is now housed at the school in a German boxcar used to transport victims of the Nazis donated by two German journalists. The project has begun a new phase with eight graders teaching groups who visit this beacon of tolerance located about half an hour from where the Scopes Monkey Trial took place and about 100 miles from the birthplace of the Klu Klux Klan,
We in Israel also often use the Holocaust as our own insular measure, trying to learn its lessons. Parallels have been drawn between our interaction with Palestinians and the interactions which took place during World War Two. There are those who liken the Jews to Nazis, abusing state and military power using policies of segregation, discrimination and violence against a civilian minority population. Others claim that just as giving land for peace did not satisfy Hitler, it will not bring peace with the Palestinians and those who propose such a policy of appeasement in our time have not learned one of the lessons of the Holocaust, especially when the extreme elements in the Muslim world do not hide their calls for the destruction of the Jews, just as the Nazis did not.
As Evie’s generation comes to age in Israel, these are the issues they will be forced to confront. I do not need to wory about my children’s Jewish education. They will be fluent in Hebrew. They will know the Bible, the Talmud, Jewish practice and history as well as their prayers. However, every child learns values from his or her home, rooted in their ethnicity. In a country of Jews, my ethnicty is American and it is my role to instill in my children values which whether expressed in Tennessee or in Jerusalem are a source of pride for me.