J.B. Sacks – Jewish Studies

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Today’s teaching could not have been better. The students were engaged and eager to explore identity, their own and their Jewish identity.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

I woke up at 1:30 a.m. in the morning, after only several hours sleep. After trying to go back to sleep, I called home. My life partner Steven listened to me struggle with how to proceed. He reminded me of both my thinking about this over several months before coming, and he reminded me of how often I had been part of conversations with youth (and others) about identity and Jewish religious culture. These conversations had taken place in both formal and informal settings. He told me to draw upon the wisdom I had collected, and the many experiences I had had with identity–and having to sometimes regroup. He challenged me to start envisioning what might take place in the classroom–and what it might take to effectuate that vision.

This conversation was a lightning rod for me. Now after 2:00 a.m., I immediately began my preparations. First, something Alan (from SOS International) told me in my conversation yesterday hit home: I asked student’s names but obviously could not recall them quickly. Something obvious: I needed to have them make name plates. However, I decided I would make a game of it. I would have them each give themselves a nickname–and I would give myself one, too, as my second understanding was that if I was going to have them take a journey, I needed to take it with them.

In my lesson, as it was formulating, I decided:

  1. We would write down five words to describe ourselves. This alone gets us thinking about what is core to each person’s identity and what is not.
  2. I would then have them work with friends in small groups to make a Venn diagram of their lists. In this way, they could see how they are both similar and different from others.
  3. I wanted to incorporate, somehow, an understanding how identity (and presentation of identity) shift not only over time but, potentially, with each setting, with each change of venue, clothing, et al.
  4. I found a photo of someone named Jacob, who an unusual story as a biracial Jewish teenager. I would should the photo, examine our assumptions, and then read a brief excerpt of Jacob telling his own story, so that we could discuss the disconnect between our assumptions about people’s identity and their reality.
  5. We would do either a “spectrum” or a “four corners” activity that could incorporate some opportunity for them to see where they are with Jewish culture and identity, and so they could see where others situate themselves. This, too, could lead to ripe discussion.
  6. Since I would only have at most two 45-minute sessions with any one group, I would then do a conclusion to our journey together.

It turned out to be very successful. I tweaked it as I went based upon how and where discussions went, as each group forms its own community. The reaction of students to what I was doing was so encouraging and the quality and depth of discussion was amazing. Students thanked me either right after or in the hallway. I left the school thankful for trusting my instincts, and grateful that I was able to have this “kodesh (holy)” time with these teens.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017–Fighting Off My Attempts to Fight Off My Instincts

My teaching went fine, as it was, but I apprehensions that I had from the first time I started preparing resurfaced. Why is it that I am here? How do I serve the Lauder Javne Iskola and, especially, its students? What can I do in a short time that might make an impact?

In my preparation I was first asked to lecture on American Jewish History. After I raised questions about this (I am not trained as an historian, and a dTHS colleague from the History Department is part of the team from our school), I was asked to teach about American Jewish Life. This seemed to be relevant. After all, perhaps if these Hungarian Jewish teens knew of the many varieties of Jewish experience available to American Jews, they might realize that they can shape the Hungarian Jewish landscape themselves.

As I was teaching, however, it seemed that they were approaching this as learning about another culture, not an avenue for exploration of their own. The realization hit me that what they needed was to explore their Jewish identity and not the ways that American Jews identify. However, I knew that I could not just walk in and expect them to want to discuss something that they could barely put a finger on but which might run deep, with someone they did not really know. I needed to start with getting them to explore how they have their own complex, ever-shifting identity as a Hungarian teenager in order for them to want to explore how Jewish identity might fit in with that. I spoke with Alan, one of warm, insightful, supportive SOS International team. I was at first hesitant, not sure how he might react to my sudden realization that I needed to shift gears suddenly and throw aside months of planning. He could not have been more understanding and helpful.

At dinner, my colleagues and I had our first review. I explained my misgivings, how I felt I was being asked to lecture about American Jewish topics, but that my heart was telling me to refocus on trying to get Hungarian Jewish teens to consider how Jewish culture might be something they might joyfully and intentionally cultivate and incorporate into their own identity, in ways that helped shape them and elevate them. My colleagues and the SOS International team (Alan and Glynis) were unanimously supportive of my trusting my pedagogical gut. Indeed, the SOS International team thought that my thinking was exactly in line with the mission and vision of this endeavor.

This was tremendously heartening. One problem: I now had the support for my vision of what I wanted to happen, but I did not have a lesson plan. How was I going to proceed? We returned from that review session after dinner to the hotel where I promptly realized if I was going to be effective, the first order of business was to get a good night’s sleep. I would just have to have faith in the universe, in G!d, and in myself that I could somehow pull this off.

Monday, March 19, 2017–My First Day at the Lauder Javne Iskola

We arrived at the Lauder Javne Iskola, and we were greeted warmly. The night before we met our school counterparts over dinner. Today they welcomed us onto their home campus. My counterpart is Andras Zima, an ethnographer and cultural anthropologist trained at the Jewish Theological Seminary/University of Jewish Studies, the counterpart to the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York City, where I was ordained as rabbi. Andras’ interest is Central European Jewry, particularly Hungarian Jewry, in the twentieth century, doing media discourse analysis and an examination of Zionist strategies up until WWII. He is currently focusing on the post-WWII period in his research. In any event, he gave us a brilliant overview of the entire scope of Hungarian Jewish history, demography, and culture within the broader contours of Europe. Many of us were intrigued by his sense that WWI changed everything for Europe, shifting identity from language-based to territory-based. As new countries were created in the wake of WWI, many started to see themselves as citizens of those new countries. But where did this leave a Jewish Europe that did not have a country. This itself may well have shifted the debate within Judaism from creating a national territory within Europe to looking for one elsewhere. Zionism suddenly became much more of a practicable option.

Andras clarified my teaching schedule for me. This was most welcome–as the schedule posted was one I had not seen before. My previous understanding was that I would be teaching a number of classes once. But now it was clear that I would have some groups for the entire week (3-4 sessions), others I would teach twice, and some I would see only once. This of course lit a light bulb to rethink my options to maximalize my effectiveness with the students.

Two delightful students, Adam and Hannah, led my colleague Diane Feldman (a Theater Education master teacher) and myself throughout the school and into the playground (where we had a chance to play for a few minutes in the first great weather we had!). Adam is actually from Vancouver (his mother is from Budapest), and he goes home in the summer to visit. I am impressed with his family’s commitment to his attendance at this school. Both Adam and Hannah are in the middle school and speak fluent English. They are delightful young people with terrific humor and open hearts. We are uplifted.

I taught my first two classes later in the morning to ninth graders. I am presenting the varieties of approaches to Judaism and Jewish life in the United States. My goal, however, is not merely to shed light on the differences and similarities among the various movements–ultra-Orthodox, centrist Orthodox, Conservative, Reconstructionist, Reform, Renewal, and Humanistic Judaisms. Rather, I am hoping that these students will see that they can control their own Jewish destiny, that they will take charge of the refashioning of Hungarian Jewish life, without any preconceived notion of what that means or looks like.

Both of my classes were ninth grade classes. My plan in the first place is to try to learn something about these teenagers: who are they? I ask them to introduce themselves by using the letters LJI (the acronym for Lauder Javne Iskola) as the first letters of words that describe themselves. Some tell me that they are “lazy” or “love sports” or “tell jokes” or are “interested in art”.

I then proceeded to ask about hiking–and what does hiking mean? How do we prepare for hiking? Where do we hike–the mountains, a forest, the beach? Do we take always go to the same spot? Do we hike for exercise, to chat with friends or to clear our heads or some other reason? Do we hike alone, in small groups of two or three–or do we have a hiking group of 10 or more? Do we stay on the trail or get off of it to explore? Do we stop and lie down by a lake or in some place to read (or eat)–or not? What do we wear to hike–informal jeans and T-shirt or something that more represents the art or sport of hiking? What kind of equipment to we use–hiking poles or a stick; camelbak or bottled water; etc.? Do we bring food or drink–or get it on the way? Is a hike thirty minutes long or an hour–or longer? Do we tend to hike the same way pretty much each time–or do we try to mix it up (using all the variables hinted at above) a lot?

The prism of thinking about all the variables and possibilities of hiking is also a prism through which students can think about Judaism and Jewish life. I want these students to realize that the possibilities are manifold–and the joy of hiking Jewishly is in their hands to make it the experience they want or need. They just need to see a value in hiking–and then of course to take a hike!

My first group of students asked me many questions–they were very talkative. They actually seemed quite attentive. It was fantastic. The second group of students asked me fewer  questions and seemed less attentive. My counterpart Andras told me afterward that he felt the same thing, but attributed it to this latter group’s being less confident with their English. Perhaps.

But I do notice that in that class what started as interactive ending up becoming my talking a lot–not lecturing, but talking. I was glad that I kept it informal, but I hope that I can find a way to get them to open up more the next, so that they can get more out of our time together.

Sunday, March 19, 2017–Arrival in Budapest and Discovery of My Mission

I arrived in Budapest with four outstanding educators who are my colleagues at de Toledo High School in West Hills, California, before Shabbat which gave us time to get somewhat acclimated to Budapest. Budapest is a beautiful city with friendly people, beautiful buildings, an open tolerant culture in many ways, and a complicated history. I was here once before some 30 years ago, when Budapest (and Hungary) were under Communist control. Then the atmosphere did not feel friendly, and people did not generally smile. No one looked at another in the eye. This was very different. Everyone now smiled and seemed to enjoy the newer freedoms of the past several decades.

We have come as a delegation to learn about Hungarian Jewry and to spend time at a community Jewish school, the Lauder Javne Iskola. It is a K-12 school. We will visit tomorrow, but today we started our journey.

Our guide, Agi, is extreme warm, affable, funny–and very knowledgeable. Both her parents survived the Shoah [Holocaust] in moving ways, and her life is now dedicated to Jewish culture, advocating for the civic welfare and well-being of our people, and standing up for human rights. She is both an inspiration and a role model.

I will give some highlights of our very packed day, not in chronological order, but perhaps in more thematic order.

We visited the Dohany Street synagogue, also known as the Great Synagogue of Budapest. Built between 1854-1859, it is the second largest in the world (after Temple Emanuel in New York City), but many might agree that this is the most magnificent. It is a conglomeration of many influences, including Moorish, Byzantine, Romantic, and Gothic. On the wall outside the biblical verse is cited which quotes G!d as stating, “Build for Me a house, and I shall dwell in it.” (Exodus 25:8) Seeing this Synagogue, we might feel the Divine Presence. Franz Liszt was the first to play the organ at the synagogue’s dedication in 1859. The edifice is a glorious reminder of the once proud Jewish community here, a time when Jews constituted over 30% of the city’s population. Now, however, the Synagogue does not rarely get filled for services. Indeed, more non-Jewish tourists come here than do Jewish worshipers.

The synagogue is part of a phenomenon called Neolog Judaism, what seems to be a modification of Orthodox Judaism, modified to allow the use of the organ on Friday nights and an all-male choir. These elements were the hallmarks of the changes made by the Reform Movement in the 19th century, and Hungary was one area where Reform Judaism proudly points to important beginnings (along with Germany). The service is otherwise traditional, with a separate seating maintained for men and women. Nonetheless, the majority of those who belong to this synagogue do not usually participate in synagogue life or in Jewish communal life. This is a challenge to which American Jews can surely relate.

Part of today’s Synagogue complex but situated in what was originally an independent building, is the Jewish Museum, built in 1930. It was built, however, on the site of the two-story Classicist home where Theodor Herzl, the father of modern Zionism, was born and raised. Many know Herzl’s career as a reporter for a Viennese newspaper, especially his coverage of the trial of Captain Alfred Dreyfuss in Paris on behalf of the Neue Freie Presse, which changed his approach to “the Jewish question” from assimilation towards territorial nationalism, and then on to Zionism. Many forget that his roots are here. In the Museum is a letter written by Herzl explaining why his dream of a Jewish state is not utopian, but both practical and necessary.

Other highlights of the collection include

  • an amazing piece of micrography where the words of the Torah are spelled out in small letters to form a picture of Emperor Franz Josef (1830-1916) of the Hapsburg Empire, whose was beloved by Jews
  • a poster for a 1913 film on life in Palestine seems to tell of hope and potential for life there
  • An amazing Chanukiah, candle holder for the winter Chanukah holiday, that rotates so that each of its eight sides is used to honor each specific day of the holiday,
  • A 1711 map of the Israelites’ 40 years of wandering in the desert, as the cartographer understood the data from the biblical text
  • A beautiful, detailed papercut shivitti, a meditational hanging

These and other treasures were spared destruction by the Nazis only because they were hidden in the basement of the National Gallery.

This fact leads me to reflect on what we learned and heard of the Shoah in Hungary.

  • A project in Budapest is placing plaques in front of every home from which Jews were grabbed and taken. It is quite moving to see the commitment to memory, and I am startled to notice these. Someone, once, lived here, worked here, loved here. Let us not forget!
  • In the Museum is a letter by a desperate man to his wife, thrown out from a train car just before it shut, a train that would travel to Auschwitz. The letter miraculously reached the writer’s wife. It became an important piece of evidence at the trial of Adolf Eichmann, one of the major organizers of the Holocaust (trial April, 1961-June, 1962).
  • In the Raoul Wallenberg Garden is a memorial to those Righteous Gentiles who, at great sacrifice to themselves and their families, rescued Jews during the Holocaust. Raoul Wallenberg himself famously used his status as a Swedish diplomat to rescue, directly and indirectly, some 100,000 Jews. He was captured by the Russians, who may have found out that he was working, in part, for the United States. He was sent to a Russian prison and never heard from again. The Russians claimed to have executed him in July, 1947, but many eyewitness reports claim to have seen him at many junctures over the following decades.
  • Since he was born into a wealthy Gentile family in a country that was neutral, we might well wonder: Why would he risk everything to save a people who were not his? He probably did not know any very well, and he knew nothing of Jewish culture. Clearly, his sense of virtue and justice compelled him against the generally European cultural climate which either sympathized with the Nazi cause or did not care about Jews. However, my own research has uncovered the presumption that most hold today that Wallenberg was gay. A previous generation may not have wanted to report this, but he certainly was known to have had gay friends and companions, and he accompanied them to gay establishments. It may well be that being part of a persecuted minority, a minority that was persecuted for no good or sane reason, helped him to see clearly that Jews were being persecuted for no good or sane reason. Indeed, anyone who was different was seen as threatening to the Nazi regime. And today we know that any intolerance can grow into a senseless–and ceaseless–hatred, and that prejudice against one group is often accompanied by hatred toward another. Do we, in our own time, have the Wallenbergian courage to stand up for our principle of tzedek, tzedek tirdof (Deuteronomy 16:20)? Would we “pursue, pursue justice”–for all?
  • We learned of the Rudolf Kastner case. Kastner was a Jewish Hungarian lawyer who negotiated with the Nazis that spared Jews from the gas chambers, perhaps over 15,000, including some 1,684 on the famous Kastner train that rescued Jews in exchange for gold, diamonds and cash. He moved to Israel after the war and served in the government. However, he was arrested in 1953 for collaborating with the Nazis and placed on trial. He was murdered for his collaboration in 1957; some nine months later Israel’s Supreme Court cleared him. Whatever the merits of the case, we are left we a complicated scenario: When can we talk to or even negotiate with evil in order to save human life? Is this permissible? Is Jewish survival at all costs a good? Or is “selling one’s soul to the devil” (stated by an Israeli lower court judge) forever taint the lives saved? And in saving those lives, is it fair to choose some over others? Isn’t that playing G!d? On the other hand, if no one makes these choices, don’t we doom the innocent to further torment and death? The issues of the actions of some Jews in those difficult times are something that we, from a distance, might well refrain from judging. But such thorny issues will resonate whenever we ourselves go through or reflect on horrific times.
  • Deportations of Hungarian Jews began late in the war, in the beginning of May, 1944. By July 7 of that year–only months later–some 437,402 Jews had been deported. By the end of the war over 600,000 Jews were killed. This represents one out of every ten Jews the Nazi regime killed, with help from local populations everywhere, including the Arrow Cross in Hungary. These statistics are approximations–one scholar suggests a pre-war Hungarian population of 800,000 Jews, with only 80,000 surviving.

Yes, we later in the day took in some beautiful views of Budapest and the Danube River. We learned of some of the heroes of Hungary (at the Heroes’ Monument), and saw other sites. But I am left pondering so much of what happened to Hungarian Jewry, what might have been, how we honor the dead, support the living.

Outside the Jewish Museum is a weeping willow memorial. Its leaves represent those taken and murdered in the Holocaust. A tree, of metal, this weeping willow will forever weep. Yet if we could turn it upside down, it seems that this weeping willow will become a chanukiah, the candleholder used during the festive holiday of Chanukah. Those lights require someone to light the shamash, the helper candle, that can help light the wicks of the actual Chanukah lights.

And I am left to consider as I look at this weeping willow: Who will overturn the world’s hatred so that we can also overturn the weeping it causes, and so set the chanukiah–and our lost moral compass–upright, so that we can ignite the hearts of all with love? I am here to commit myself to relighting the spark of Jewish life in Central Europe, particularly Hungary and particularly among the teenagers at the Lauder Javne Iskola so that they, with their pintele yid–their Jewish spark–rekindled, they can begin to refashion Jewish life and Hungarian life. Tomorrow I will go to the Lauder Javne Iskola for the first time so that I can start to live up to my commitment. And I invite you to find ways to join me, in the holy task of rekindling the lights of justice, hope, and peace

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