Meaningful opportunities to engage
The start of Term 2 is ordinarily an extremely busy time when we find ourselves moving from ceremony to ceremony to commemorate the yomim – Yom HaShoah, Anzac Day, Yom Hazikaron and then Yom Ha’atzmaut. While the circumstances are radically different, this year is no exception.
Providing meaningful opportunities to engage with these occasions has required creativity and flexibility on the part of our brilliant educators and I am proud to say that the team have put together moving and thoughtful ceremonies replete with stimulating educational experiences and content.
That said, this year is different. We are contemplating these momentous occasions at a time when our own lives have experienced great upheaval. You are probably familiar with the curse, “may you live in interesting times”. It is particularly resonant now. Over the past months we have seen emergency responses that we would have previously considered unimaginable. We are living a history that will be retold in the future.
I have read some commentators who have rightfully derided comparisons of our current experiences to a “war-setting”. Indeed, in a recent interview an 87-year-old Israeli Holocaust survivor, Naftali Pirset, explained that making comparisons to the Shoah were wrong. He said, “I’ll show you a photo from 1945 in Buchenwald, four days after liberation. I was in concentration camps for three years. To compare that miserable situation, with prisoners dying there, and the conditions of the day? You’re home? Do you have a blanket? Do you have anything to eat? Nobody is hitting you? Do you know that your daughter and grandchildren are healthy? So it’s not bad. Stop hating each other. Stop inciting each other, we are all in the same place and meanwhile we are not hungry, we are not cold and we are not facing extinction. So be optimistic and everything will work out.”
On the other hand, while making direct comparisons is unhelpful, our current circumstances can prime us to be more empathetic to the plight of our forebears. When for the first time in my life I have experienced restrictions on when I can leave the house, shortages of essentials and an inability to engage in-person with family and friends, I become far more attuned to the depths of suffering that my relatives have faced in previous generations. While I do this with the comfort of a full fridge and pantry and the modern miracle of video conferencing technology, I am still reminded of the fragility of life and our obligation to fight to preserve democracy and human rights.
In my office I keep a unique book which is a memorial for those lost in the Shoah. It contains the word “Jew” repeated six million times. Leafing through a page is an emotional experience as the gravity of what these abstract numbers mean seems to become clearer. Each one of these words represented a whole life with their own networks of friends, aspirations, quirks and complexities.
So this year when I participate in our virtual commemorations for the yomim, I feel more connected than ever before to those who suffered, to those who lost everything and to those who stood up against injustice.