Judaism is a word rooted in its profound history, and kept alive by its thriving posterity. I didn’t fully understand this sentiment until last summer. On July 13, 2017, I ventured to the middle of nowhere Pennsylvania where it always rained, and where Wi-Fi was scarce. I attended a fully immersive Jewish program called Kallah through my youth group, BBYO-Wisconsin Region.
Neglecting to do any prior research, I had no preconceived expectations upon entering the program. I wanted a surprise and I received just that. I began the program feeling lost, confused and at a crossroads with my religion. I left the program feeling inspired, transformed and connected to Judaism.
I vividly remember the night in which I began to feel overcome by such emotions. I was sitting in a room with my six new best friends, surrounded by 250 other Jewish teens. As much as I love my friends, they were not what provoked these feelings. What, or rather who, triggered these emotions were the 14 Holocaust survivors who stood before me. As I was listening to their experiences, and witnessing them all journey back to that dark time in their lives, I had an epiphany. The atrocities those 14 individuals had to endure are unfathomable; however, it was this moment I realized that the survivors’ capacity to withstand such adversity was the bridge to our generation of prosperous and free Jewish individuals. Having attended Kallah, I now understand that these 14 survivors were the anchors who secured our religion. They are truly the roots.
While the scars of the past have guided our success today, I know that scars can only be covered, but never cured; they can be concealed, but never removed. Our generation still encounters anti-Semitism. I didn’t understand the extent of the ever-present anti-Semitism until the end of summer. I had heard talk about the rampant hatred in Charlottesville, but I wasn’t tuned into the news. One Thursday morning, four days after the violent protests, I was scrolling through my Facebook. I found a video that one of my best friends posted about the tragedies in Charlottesville in the hopes that she could help people gauge the reality of the situation. I wanted to understand what exactly was happening, so I clicked on the link and decided to watch the lengthy video. Twenty minutes later, I was sitting in a ball, my face burrowed in my knees, chills running down my spine, tears falling from my eyes. I was shaken up for the rest of the day. The malevolent chanting of “Jews will not replace us” was running through my head and haunting me. The neo-Nazi culture being promoted in that video kept me lying awake that night.
But then, I remembered the fourteen survivors. I remembered their resilience and ambition to preserve our religion for the next millennium. I remembered they are living proof of our ability to endure hatred, but not succumb to it. This toxic anti-Semitism helped me understand the important obligation that the Jewish youth must uphold. As Jewish teens, we must embrace our religion, we must combat anti-Semitism with all we have, we must carry our ancestors’ legacy of resilience that they left for us as they were liberated from concentration camps almost a century ago. Most significantly, we must strive to prevent our most unfortunate predicament: history becoming the future. My summer experience has deepened my connection with my religion by helping me reconcile the past with the present; helping me truly grasp how the Jewish youth – the future – is the driving force that will keep this incredible religion alive.
Mara Kleinerman is a student at Homestead High School. BBYO-Wisconsin Region is supported with funding from the Annual Campaign of Milwaukee Jewish Federation.