My Perspective on Elisha Wiesel’s Speech at the Holocaust & Human Rights Education Center Annual Benefit and a Community-wide Interfaith Candelight Vigil at Temple Beth El
On Thursday evening October 25th, Elisha Wiesel, the only child of the deceased Nobel Prize winning author, humanitarian and Holocaust educator Elie Wiesel was the keynote speaker at the Holocaust & Human Rights Education Center’s (HHREC’s) annual benefit. It was a packed house of more than 250 attendees including 16 Holocaust survivors and one liberator. Honorees for the evening included Joseph E. Nyre, Ph.D., the President of Iona College and Mitchell Wm. Ostrove, the CEO of The Ostrove Group, a comprehensive planning organization for businesses, families and high net worth individuals. Additionally Valerie O’Keeffe received a special award recognizing her years of volunteer work as a former chairperson at the HHREC.
Elisha Wiesel currently serves as the Chief Information Officer at Goldman Sachs and occasionally speaks about human rights issues and his upbringing. Wiesel described his father as a “relentless optimist” despite all he experienced as a Holocaust survivor. He questioned the audience and asked what his father would think of this country today and lamented the state of extremism on both the left and alt-right and how these perspectives contribute to anti-Semitism.
Less than 48 hours later on Saturday morning October 27th, 11 Jews at the Tree of Life Congregation in Pittsburgh, PA, were murdered by an anti-Semitic gunman and several others were injured including first responders during the massacre. It was one of the deadliest attacks on American Jewry in recent decades. To think that this event took place during services when joyous life cycle events such as Bar Mitzvahs and baby namings were taking place in the synagogue should make everyone of us shudder, no matter what faith one practices.
When this magazine’s publisher Grace Bennett asked if I would cover the HHREC event this year, I unequivocally said yes. Bennett is deeply involved with the organization. As many of our readers know, her father is a Holocaust survivor and she is passionate about Holocaust education.
I have been fortunate enough to cover the HHREC and attend their Human Rights Institute event in which local high students are encouraged to become “upstanders” when they see hate or bigotry. From time to time, Grace and I have discussed whether or not our magazine is too saturated with Holocaust news. As a third-generation survivor of the Holocaust (my maternal grandparents were survivors), I am admittedly biased when it comes to Holocaust news as well. I always believe we should cover topics about the Holocaust so that future generations can learn the lessons that history has taught us.
Little did I know when I covered October’s HHREC event that the tragedy in Pittsburgh would unfold in less than two days. I know that anti-Semitism is on the rise (the Anti-Defamation League reported the largest single-year increase–a 57 percent increase) in anti-Semitic incidents last year) and that xenophobia is plaguing this nation but I didn’t realize that these feelings of hate could actually propel someone to commit such a heinous crime on American soil in the year 2018.
Perhaps I was in denial. One of the organizations that the murderer vilified in his hateful rhetoric on www.gab.com was the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS), an organization that assists refugees of all faiths and backgrounds. My grandparents and mother came to America in 1950 with the help of HIAS who was resettling Holocaust survivors from the deportation (DP) camps in Germany. To be honest, I had never really given much thought about how crucial this organization was and still is for so many refugees seeking a new life in America.
Wiesel also participated in a Q&A session following his speech at the HHREC event and one audience member asked him what he thought his father would say if he had the opportunity to meet the President today. Wiesel first asked “Do you think my father could have gotten a word in?” resulting in several laughs from the audience. He then continued to tell a story about his father who was hit by a taxi in New York City during the 1950s while on a journalist visa and was forced to wear a full body cast for several months. When he nervously went to the Customs Office to renew his expired visa, the officer said to him “You know you can become a citizen.” Wiesel paused and asked the audience, “Imagine that.” Growing up he said his father would always get misty eyed whenever they landed at JFK and were welcomed by US Customs.
Wiesel described his father as “patriotic and someone who loved this country deeply.” When Elisha was a liberal arts student in college he recalls there was a large debate underway about burning the American flag. His father told him, “If you knew what the flag meant to me when we saw it when we were liberated by the US army, you would never burn it.” Wiesel said he believes that his father would want to talk to President Trump about “how we treat people coming to our shores because it is something he felt so personally as a beneficiary. My father could never forgive FDR for closing the doors to Jews in the 1930s and he would very much take up this issue with our President if he met him today.”
Within five days of hearing Wiesel speak, I found myself in the crowded pews at Temple Beth El in Chappaqua with my ten-year-old son for an interfaith candlelight vigil for the victims of the Tree of Life shooting. In attendance were: Reverend Martha Jacobs, First Congregational Church of Chappaqua; Reverend Tenku Ruff, Soto Zen Buddhist Association; Friar Hugh Burns, Holy Innocents Catholic Church; Reverend Merle McJunkin, Antioch Baptist Church; Reverend Alan Dennis, Saint Mary the Virgin Episcopal Church; Kristina Szibinga, Chappaqua Friends Society; Dilkash Ashraf, Upper Westchester Muslim Society; and Robert Greenstein, Town Supervisor of New Castle. The service led by Temple Beth El’s Rabbi Jonathan Jaffe included communal singing led by Cantor Elizabeth Sternlieb and a speech from Rabbi Maura Linzer, who has strong ties to the Squirrel Hill tightknit Jewish community having grown up in Pittsburgh not that far from a Tree of Life synagogue.
Admittedly I was a bit wary of attending the service with my ten-year-old son but I am not one to shy away from tough topics with my kids especially as they relate to anti-Semitism and/or the Holocaust. My five-year old daughter knows who Hitler is and that he hated Jews. I don’t go into vivid details yet but I use it as a discussion point with my kids to talk about bigotry. I see the world through a Jewish lens as a third-generation survivor so I see it as my obligation to start telling my children about their family’s legacy in basic terms they can understand.
Wiesel concluded his HHREC speech with a question he posed to the audience. “My father lived with despair and managed to see the light. What of us who live in the light like few generations ever have in this country in this time of plenty? Can we squint in the light and can we see the darkness among us? Can we see the saddest among us and once we see that darkness, can we look past it and see the good in everyone’s soul to champion them in their time of need?”
I’d like to say that we are living in the light, as Wiesel suggests. My grandmother’s favorite saying was “this too shall pass” whenever I encountered a difficult circumstance. Now I’m not so sure.