With my daughter Sarah’s permission I would like to share her words delivered at the Yom HaShoah memorial on May 24 at Kol Shofar, sponsored by partners for Jewish life in Marin. She was honored to be asked to speak by Rabbi Michael Lezak.
~Susan Goldwasser, WRS President
There is a lot of anxiety about the state of young American Jews. They say we are assimilating; apathetic; growing out of touch. Soon, a new generation will grow up without any survivors of the Holocaust, which raises concerns that its memory will eventually fade.
I’m here to speak to you today to offer my perspective as a young American Jew. I’d like to talk first about the current campus climate for many Jewish students, and then explore my vision of the future through the ways we take on Jewish values in a multi-faceted, universal context.
I’m a sophomore at UC Berkeley, which probably means that some you just winced a little bit. There’s an association that’s driven home these days equating Berkeley with anti-Semitism. You hear a lot about the occasional piece of graffiti or aggressive anti-Israel protest, but rarely about the Shabbat dinners that students go to every week. I’m not trivializing how tremendously serious these aspects are, but I want to illuminate what everyday life looks like.
Under the infrastructure of organizations like Hillel and Chabad, Jewish students across the country are thriving, meeting like-minded people with whom they do community service, play music, study, discuss Israel, go to Israel, observe holidays, pray, eat, mourn, and celebrate. It’s happening every day of every week throughout the entire year.
This semester I attended a Co-Op Shabbat, where a hundred students spent the night raucously circle dancing and chair-lifting to a live Klezmer band. We feasted on Trader Joe’s babka, vegan challah, and many bottles of wine. It wasn’t traditional, but it was an unmistakable celebration of being Jewish in 2016.
Yes, there is anti-Semitism on college campuses, but there are also Jews on college campuses who have every intention of enjoying and embracing their identities. Hatred does not, and will not, stop us from lighting candles every week. This is especially pertinent to think about on Yom Hashoah – that we as a people have faced persecution, yet survived and flourished in spite of it all.
As for my two cents on what the future holds, I don’t have a crystal ball, but I have been paying attention to what’s working well right now.
With social justice issues emerging in (of all places) pop culture, young people today possess an extraordinary fluency in the discourses of inequality. And as 21st century Jews with access to a growing global perspective, we are using the stories of our cultural past as a lens to understand the injustices of today, spanning across races, religions and boundaries.
The Jewish history is defined by its tragedies of slavery, genocide, and displacement. During Passover, it’s a commandment to remember as if we ourselves were slaves in Egypt. On Yom YaShoah, we listen to the stories of those who survived and perished, so that the atrocities are always remembered and taken upon our hearts.
The Holocaust was not a hate crime – from registration laws to the railroads, the gas chambers and crematoriums, the Shoah was a machine of violence and murder. We remember this – that discriminatory violence happened under a legitimate framework of power, unstopped for years on behalf of the ignorance and/or complacency of the rest of the world.
And so we, as young people, stand with migrant farm-workers who are trafficked, raped, and withheld basic rights in a system designed to disempower them;
We stand with the millions of women and children, from Thailand to Oakland, who are enslaved for sex and labor;
We stand with the victims of genocide in countries around the world;
And we stand against politicians who seek to bar immigration into this country against an entire religious people.
Through community organizing, fundraising, and engagement in local, state, and federal politics, I believe young Jews today are honoring their past while compassionately striving towards a righteous future.
Reuven Rivlin once said, “Unless the moral fire burns within us, the lessons of the Holocaust will never be learned.” I close today by saying with conviction that this moral fire still burns in the hearts and minds of young people today. And as we move forward in our lives, we will brandish this flame as a light against the oppressive darkness of intolerance.