Lessons from Charlottesville

Screen capture CNN video

By Daniel R. Weiss

Over the past week, I have been shaken to my core. I have remained silent. I can do so no longer. The events in Charlottesville cannot be ignored. This is hatred, pure and simple.

The images have been etched into my soul. They have confused me. I don’t know what to say to my children, to our students, to our staff, to anyone. Every image is a vivid reminder of over seventy years ago in Europe during the Shoah, and to fifty years ago in the US during the civil right era. Images of Nazis with torches screaming obscenities at Jews is nothing new. Images of white supremacists, KKK members threatening every minority is like a page out of history. Seeing it in OUR country in this day and age, however, is terrifying. It is simply not ok and we must condemn it in the strongest of terms. These are not fine people. These are perpetrators of hate.

In 2006 and 2008, I accompanied teens from Miami, Florida on the March of the Living. Together with Holocaust survivors, we toured places such as Auschwitz-Birkenau, Majdanek, Treblinka, Lublin, Krackow and Warsaw. This week was the birthday of one such survivor with whom I had the privilege of traveling, Martin Baranek. Martin celebrates two birthdays. The day he was born. And the day he was liberated. This week marked the day that he was born, but his is a story of survival that I thought of throughout this week. Early in his life, he was confronted with Nazism and had to fight for his survival, which is nothing short of a miracle.

This summer, I spent a week in Boston taking a class at Northeastern University. Together with a few hundred other students, we attended classes and workshops on research, research theory and (in my case) a course on written, explicit, implicit, null and hidden curriculum. While the classes were informative, it was the connection that I made with my book group (totaling five of us) that has left a lasting impact. I spent many hours learning from my group, each member coming from a different part of the country and with a different background (immigrant, white upper-class, army spouse, high school drop-out who earned her GED, Master’s degree and is working on her doctorate). We spoke about religion and culture. We spoke about struggles that we have had, or have not had. The conversations were eye opening. Our differences were real, but our connection was lasting.

On Wednesday, I received a text from one of the group members. Here is what he said “I’m just checking in, Dan. I’m appalled with what happened in Charlottesville and am thinking of you and your family. How are you?

How am I? I was not in Charlottesville. How am I? I did not have a mob march through my campus, through my town? How am I? I did not have to sneak out the back door of my synagogue on Friday night because three neo-Nazis stood outside the front door with shotguns? How am I? I was not plowed down by a car as I stood up for what I believed in? How am I?

I replied:

It’s been a pretty emotional few days. Watching the videos and seeing the pictures reminds me so much of the stories that I hear from Holocaust survivors. My kids and I have been the victims of terrible comments and intimidation walking home from synagogue, but the images from Charlottesville haunt me. I don’t know how to talk about it with them. Part of me wants to avoid it. Another part of me wants to get passports ready to escape what can possibly happen. It’s not possible. It has happened. It can happen again. And that is what scares me the most.”

How am I? I am terrified. I am scared for our future. For the future of this country.

It was his response that truly touched me.

I can only imagine what this feels like for you and yours. This is a shameful moment for our country. I’m with you in whatever way that I can. I realize that is difficult … but know that if there is anything that I am able to do even if it’s just to talk, please don’t hesitate to reach out.”

We are not in this alone. There are those who are speaking up. There are those condemning these atrocities. WE have been brought together as a result of these instances.

My response to my classmate “Thanks my friend. Teach your students love and not hate. Teach them that differences make us stronger together and should not tear us apart.”

And that is what WE must do. It is what we do as a school. It is why we teach our kids the value of character, that character has value and what it means to stand up against hatred by spreading love.

On my two trips to Poland, I had the opportunity to learn and be inspired by Rabbi Eliot Pearlson of Temple Menorah in Miami Beach. Rabbi Pearlson’s Facebook post this week was a stark reminder of what silence can bring. We must not remain silent.

In May 1985 President Ronald Reagan announced a visit to the German military cemetery in Bitburg where scores of Hitler’s SS Stormtroopers were buried with state honors.

Elie Wiesel, the Rebbe of The Shoah, confronted Pres. Reagan with these words: ‘That place, Mr. President, is not your place. Your place is with the victims of the SS.

Unless one denounces evil and stands with its victims you discount the pain of the suffering and honoring the heinous acts of the perpetrators.

Elie Wiesel:

We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.’”

I am reminded of a quote that I used to teach my students, from Pastor Martin Niemoller.

First they came for the Socialists and I did not speak out – Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out – Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out – Because I was not a Jews.
Then they came for me – and there was no one left to speak for me

It is time for us to speak and to let our voices be heard.

Finally, as a parent and as an educator a part of my role is to provide resource to my staff, to parents in our school and to our community. The following article published on August 14, in Education Week provides some useful resources on how to speak to children and how to come to terms ourselves with recent events and combating hatred. Please click here to find these resources.

Daniel R. Weiss is Head of School of Solomon Schechter Day School of Las Vegas.