(February 7, 2020 / JNS) The world just commemorated International Holocaust Remembrance Day, coinciding with the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the Nazi concentration camp Auschwitz. We all took this opportunity to reflect and remember the horrors of the Holocaust and to honor its victims—both those who died and those who survived. We all made a commitment that those murdered will never be forgotten, and that we will continue promoting Jewish learning in their memory.
While looking backward at our past is an important part of honoring our parents, grandparents and great-grandparents who endured the Holocaust, it is just as important for today’s Jewish community to look forward. The greatest revenge against Hitler and the Nazis is to live Jewish lives full of pride. One of Hitler’s first moves against the Jewish people was to burn our books, our Torah scrolls and our centers of learning. He understood that the best way to destroy a people is to destroy their knowledge and the traditions that connect them.
But we are still here. We are still learning. We continue to read from Torah scrolls and prayer books. We continue to study the teachings of God and the ancient rabbis. We study the teachings and lessons from our parents.
I am incredibly privileged to be doing my part in the resurgence of Jewish learning. Through the Dirshu Torah-study organization, thousands of Jewish men have reaffirmed their faith and formed a deeper relationship with God and the community. When I founded Dirshu, I wanted to create a system of study that would help return the Jewish community to its level of scholarship from before the war. Now, through structured study, regularly scheduled exams and even stipends, we are doing that.
I am awed and humbled to see how many people have joined me in my mission. In the past few months, Dirshu has more than 10 major events worldwide—celebrations of the completion of a seven-and-a-half-year cycle of Talmudic learning, which equals more than 5,400 pages of text studied—around the world. Tens of thousands of Jews have joined together to celebrate Jewish education and show pride in their faith and community.
This Sunday, Feb. 9, we will be holding a supersized siyum in Newark, N.J., at three concurrent venues. We are expecting nearly 25,000 people overall at Prudential Center, New Jersey Performing Arts Center and Newark Symphony Hall for an event of Torah, community and entertainment with a projected viewership online of more than 100,000. The entertainment aspect surprises some people, who do not expect us to have song and dance at these events; however, these siyums are about celebrating the joy of Judaism. While song and dance will not bring the same joy as studying Torah, it is still joy in our traditions, our fellowship and our commitment to God.
This joy is especially important now, when there is so much hate in our world. Around the globe, there has been a swell of anti-Semitic incidents—violent attacks, vandalism, hate speech. These acts of terrorism, like the Dec. 10 shooting at a kosher grocery store in Jersey City, are meant to cow the Jewish people, to make us afraid. Many of these attacks have been perpetrated against Chassidic Jews, who are easy to identify because of their dress.
We have been told that it would be safer not to wear our yarmulkes, not to look so Jewish. But to do so would be bowing to fear, to terrorism. We cannot and will not do that. Events like this Sunday’s are our response to these acts of terrorism. We will not be made afraid and, even if we are afraid, we will not betray our traditions and customs. We will continue to be proud of our Judaism.
After all, it was her unwavering faith in the face of intolerable hatred that saved my mother’s life during the Holocaust. Both of my parents are Holocaust survivors, originally from Hungary. After being sent to Auschwitz, my mother was sent to a forced labor camp in Allendorf. Each day there, she subsisted on bread and watery soup. Although she was starving and near death, when Passover came, my mother hid her bread, refusing to eat it, as it is forbidden by Jewish law to eat leaven on Passover. Shortly after, as the Allies grew closer, she and her fellow prisoners were force marched from Allendorf for several days. In that time, many of her fellow Jews collapsed from exhaustion and starvation; my mother nearly did herself. But she was saved by the bread she had kept during those eight days of Passover. She slowly ate from her stash of old bread during the march, keeping her alive long enough for the Allies to free her.
After surviving the war, my mother met my father in a Displaced Persons camp in Italy, where they started a family, ultimately moving to Toronto, Canada. If not for my mother’s perseverance and commitment to Judaism, she would have died.
I learned from my mother that, in the face of rampant anti-Semitism, one must remain devoted to Jewish life. I look forward to celebrating our faith and continued fight against hatred with the Jewish community in Newark this Sunday.
Rabbi Dovid Hofstedter is founder and leader of the Dirshu Torah-study and global-education organization.
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