Lessons on Jewish Identity from My Grandfather
Today, May 2, we mark Yom HaShoah.
It is a day set aside each year to remember a time in the lives of the Jewish people when it was not safe to be who you were; when a fundamental part of your identity put a target on your back.
As the grandson of a Holocaust survivor, this day holds significance for me on a very personal level. My grandfather, born in Poland, moved from camp to camp before being liberated. Having lost much of his family, he travelled to Israel to serve in what would later become the IDF. He fought in the Israeli War of Independence, protecting Israel’s right to exist and providing a safe space for the world’s Jewish people.
My grandfather’s story is special to me on so many levels. I am inspired to think about how someone who had lost so much was willing to give up even more to fight for his Jewish identity. His example also pushes me to continue my own mission to protect the identity of the Jewish people and to fight against apathy in the Toronto Jewish community.
Yom HaShoah is a regular reminder to me that the fight for the integration of our people into the wider society was once lost, and that we must continue to educate our youth about their own responsibilities in preserving our people’s identity and our place in the world.
At Bialik, we commemorate this date with a ceremony for many of our students and the broader Jewish community. The education continues when our Grade 7 and 8 students attend special presentations from Holocaust survivors and those closely connected to them.
The lessons our students learn are multifaceted. Certainly, the children learn what can happen when anti-Semitism goes unchecked and Jewish identity is outlawed. At the same time, remembering a time that was filled with hatred and cruelty emphasizes how important strong character values are in promoting the best side of humanity.
Discrimination is a learned habit. By teaching empathy, understanding and open-mindedness, I believe that we can educate ourselves out of a divisive future. Bialik’s character education program integrates the traits of social/self-awareness, grit and empathy with traditional Jewish values of Tikun Olam and Menschlechkeit. Our goal is to have our students graduate Bialik with these values ingrained in their identity.
If my grandfather were still with us today, I know that he would instil in me the responsibility to educate our youth to be kind, empathic and hold a strong belief in the importance of Jewish identity. In the coming weeks — as we remember the Holocaust before we celebrate the birth of Israel — the poetic nature of that progression is not lost on me. The goals of Jewish day schools everywhere is to continue taking this responsibility seriously so that our youth learn to take on this responsibility themselves. Education takes place l’dor vador, from generation to generation, and I am proud to be part of Bialik’s role in passing this torch.