Making Meaning of the March

The “March” reminds us that the Jewish educational engagement of all Jews must remain an enduring goal.

by Dr. Gil Graff

For the third time over a period dating to 1996, I have joined thousands of Jews from dozens of nations around the globe in the experience of “March of the Living.” Initiated by Israeli Jews, a “Holocaust to Redemption” theme is palpable: 70 years ago, Jews were, fundamentally, powerless and millions perished; today, there is a powerful, sovereign State of Israel. This very theme is often – including in his Yom ha-Shoah message – invoked by Binyamin Netanyahu, with reference to the threat of Iranian nuclear capability: “Unlike our situation during the Holocaust, when we were like leaves on the wind, defenseless, now we have great power to defend ourselves….”

Juxtaposition of the Holocaust and a powerful, sovereign state, understandably resonates with most Israelis. Jewish sovereignty, after two millennia, is a remarkable phenomenon. For Israelis, sovereignty and the responsibility of power are realities that call for serious reflection. The experiences of “March of the Living” provide a springboard for such reflection.

Data released shortly before Israel’s Independence Day showed an Israeli Jewish population of 6.135 million, representing 75% of Israel’s 8.18 million residents. The opportunity of shaping a Jewish democratic state, drawing upon values rooted in Jewish teaching, extending to the public sphere in the 21st century, is a unique chapter in Jewish history. Though thousands of North American Jews have chosen to move to Israel, the overwhelming majority of American Jews – no less numerous than our Israeli counterparts – feels quite at home in the land of their birth and citizenship. America is not viewed as a nation in which anything akin to the events leading to the Holocaust – let alone anything resembling the Holocaust – might ever occur. While appreciating the significance of Israeli sovereignty through the lens of the “March,” what, for North American Jews – teens and adults – is the directly applicable take-away of March of the Living?

As there are “seventy faces to the Torah,” there are multiple approaches to making meaning of the “March.” The horrors of genocide and the imperative of responding to the sorts of rhetoric and action that can lead in that direction, are clear. In addition, I would suggest that a key message for North American Jewry is the enduring importance of Jewish learning.

Poland was, for hundreds of years, home to the most populous and, arguably, the most culturally rich Jewish community in the world. Apart from sites that one (hopefully) visits over the course of a “March”-associated week in Poland that reflect this past, a magnificent museum of the Jewish experience in Poland has recently opened, in Warsaw, devoted to sharing this legacy. The vitality of Jewish life was grounded in communities that valued and nurtured Jewish learning which, in turn, related to and influenced daily living. By the latter half of the nineteenth century, hasidim, mitnagdim, maskilim, hovevei zion, socialists, the musar movement and new yeshivot each drew in their own way from a shared heritage of learning. Despite ideological divides, most of these groups were sustained by the rich wellspring of Jewish learning, though – to be sure – differently filtered. “Marchers,” who proceed to Israel, recognize that there, too, elements of shared language undergird the ferment that is part of Israel’s vitality.

Jewish learning represents a shared language that connects Jews of those dozens of countries – including Israel – from which Jews “march.” Moreover, it enables bringing accumulated Jewish wisdom and experience to bear on issues of life and society in the communities of which Jews are a part, ennobling our lives in the process. In the absence of Jewish learning, the fabric of Jewish living – including the capacity to contribute the richness of our heritage to the body politic – will surely fray.

Near the close of this year’s March of the Living ceremony in Birkenau, a Torah scroll was publicly completed. Fittingly, Holocaust survivors shared in transmitting this torch of Jewish learning by filling in some of the last letters of the scroll. If we are to remain a people with a purpose, our actions must be grounded in Jewish learning. The closing words of the Torah are: “before the eyes of all Israel.” The “March” reminds us that the Jewish educational engagement of all Jews must remain an enduring goal.

Dr. Gil Graff is Executive Director of BJE: Builders of Jewish Education.