By Shiri Kester
We are living in a historical and pivotal moment where uncertainty exists all around us. Covid-19 has revealed how much our society has taken for granted, while exposing serious flaws that need to be addressed. This pandemic has demonstrated the lack of equality in healthcare, employment, economic stability, and privilege that have existed long before the pandemic arrived. As the Black Lives Matter movement calls attention to many of these issues as well, the need for change is undeniable. Uncertainty, transition, and adaptability are not new concepts for Jews. Our teachings and history make us able to empathize and begin to understand some of the injustice that has occurred for centuries within this country.
I grew up hearing stories about the Jews’ resilience and ability to fight for change. Last summer, I had a very meaningful opportunity to visit the German city, Wiesbaden, where my grandfather grew up. At 93 years old, he flew from Los Angeles to go back there. During our trip, he spoke at several high schools about his experiences growing up, including the school he was forced to leave eighty years before, and then took me to places of significance to him. He pointed to a building and described how Hitler spoke right there on that balcony. He showed me where his parents’ store used to be, before it was destroyed on Kristallnacht. I touched the memorial wall of the old synagogue that was burned down right before my grandfather’s Bar Mitzvah. I visited the house he grew up in before it became mandatory for him to leave. I stood at the railroad siding where people, including my great-grandparents, boarded trains deporting them to concentration camps – a majority of them murdered. And I saw my relatives’ names carved into memorials that exist throughout the city, a place haunted by stories of the Holocaust, while trying to rectify the horrors ingrained within it.
It feels overwhelming to consider how many Jews have suffered throughout history. Even in Buffalo we are proud of the brave Holocaust survivors within our community, but antisemitism still exists. I imagine most Jews have at least one story of being stereotyped, hearing biased jokes, or experiencing direct hate – I know I do. But we keep going. We stay resilient and follow our beliefs and culture because it is who we are and it is part of our identity. Our Jewish community is such an essential part of our lives, but now we need to extend that feeling of community to others. Today is Juneteenth, a day commemorating the end of slavery in this country. During such commemorations we also need to recognize the injustice that still exists in our society. In his Nobel Prize speech, Elie Wiesel said, “We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented…whenever men and women are persecuted because of their race, religion, or political views, that place must – at that moment – become the center of the universe.” We are seeing this today. The world is watching and listening, and we cannot ignore it.
As Jews who have faced persecution throughout history, we need to be here for those experiencing hatred and torment now. We must empathize with people suffering and we have to support the Black Lives Matter movement. Just as the Holocaust was only a few generations ago, affecting my grandparents and millions more, slavery was also just a few generations ago, affecting so many others. With this perspective, the Civil Rights Movement was even more recent than the Holocaust. How these events are taught and explained to future generations is essential because the repercussions and effects of events within time periods such as the Holocaust or legal slavery affect people forever. We know this as we still acknowledge our freedom from slavery in Egypt every Passover.
With all of this in mind, I challenge everyone in our Jewish community to do better. We need to be more welcoming and encouraging of everyone. Now is the time to support and help those who need it because these injustices affect us all. By putting an end to hate, racism, and bigotry, we will contribute to making this a better and safer world. Elie Wiesel ended his speech by saying, “Our lives no longer belong to us alone; they belong to all those who need us desperately.” As Jews, we have a responsibility to be just and compassionate, which includes supporting others who face persecution.
Shiri Kester is Chair of Nickel City Jews and has worked with the youth program at Congregation Shir Shalom.