Reflections on a Pilgrimage to Whitwell – Parashat Shemini/Yom Ha-Shoah 2012

This past Sunday and Monday, I accompanied a group of our teens and parents to Whitwell, Tennessee.  It was a pilgrimage, of sorts, to visit the Whitwell Middle School Children’s Holocaust Memorial, the culmination of what has become known worldwide as the “Paperclip Project.”

Nearly 15 years ago, a group of eighth-graders in Whitwell – a poor, rural community with a population of about 2,000 – began learning about the Holocaust.  Whitwell’s population is about 98% White, and they thought that learning about the Holocaust would teach cultural diversity and the dangers of ignorance, intolerance, and bigotry.

The kids’ first encounter with the magnitude of the Holocaust’s horrors overwhelmed them.  How can anyone comprehend 6 million?

So the kids, along with their teacher, Sandy Roberts, decided to try and collect six million paperclips, to visualize the staggering cost, in human lives, of the Nazis’ inhumanity.

15 years later, their project is now 30 million paperclips strong.  Eleven million of those paperclips are now housed in a Nazi railcar that was once used to transport Jews by the hundreds to the slaughter.  Scattered among the piles of paperclips in the railcar are notes, prayers, and even a single, lonely mezuzah scroll.  Inside the railcar, I could not help feeling that I was standing at a new Wailing Wall.

The project has also yielded a library with more Holocaust reference books than many universities, and a museum filled with letters, photos and gifts from all over the globe.

“Paperclips” has transformed the students and their community.  It has enabled kids who had never encountered diversity to see new worlds.  It has opened an otherwise secluded community.  It has empowered kids to know that hard work and dedication can help them achieve that which is seemingly impossible.

Additionally, it has revitalized the school.  The project’s income partially funded a beautiful new school building.  And it has changed the school’s culture.  The lessons of acceptance and inclusion have transformed a once-insular community into, as one student put it, “one of the most loving communities I’ve ever been to.”

What’s more: At a school where few students used to go to college, 80% of the students who participate in the Holocaust studies program will.

But, perhaps most importantly, the project has given the students and graduates of Whitwell Middle School a sense of mission and purpose.

The kids of Whitwell have become the caretakers of millions of souls that might have otherwise been forgotten, faceless, and lost to history.  Each of those paperclips represents a real, living, breathing person who was senselessly killed for no reason other than that he or she was different.  Many of the victims of the Shoah have no burial plot; they have no headstone to mark their final resting place; no one to visit their graves. Ultimately, many have no one to remember them, to acknowledge that they were once alive, and now they are not.

Now, each of their souls is bound up in a paperclip.  They are buried in Whitwell, Tennessee.  They can be visited, they can be mourned, they can be remembered.  The students of Whitwell Middle School have engaged in the most profound of our tradition’s mitzvot, k’vurat ha-met, burying the dead.  We consider this hesed shel emet, an act of true kindness, since it can never be repaid.

I was deeply moved by, and thankful for, the fact that this most unlikely group of young people has taken this mantle.  There is no logical reason why a group of white, Protestant kids in rural Tennessee should be responsible for protecting and preserving the final resting place of our murdered brethren.  Yet, they sacrificed time and energy and endured doubters, naysayers, even hate mail, in order to bury our dead.

Think about this in contrast to the response of Christians and other non-Jews during the Holocaust.  To be sure, there were many righteous Gentiles who bravely sheltered and saved Jews, or who protested the Nazi atrocities.  But by and large, non-Jewish Europeans were silent, and many were actively complicit the Nazis’ crimes.  Where were the nations of the world during the Shoah? Where were the churches of the world? Where were the priests, pastors, bishops and the Pope?  Silent.  I remember, for example, standing in Auschwitz during my visit there in 2000.  Some of you may have had this same experience.  I was stunned by the fact that there were homes and apartments literally yards away from the camp’s walls.  In the words of Rabbi Irving Greenberg, for most non-Jews, the Holocaust belonged “to the history of another people and another faith.”  It’s the Jews’ problem, not our problem.  The Paperclips project can never fully atone for these sins, but I could not help but feel that it affected at least some kind of tikkun, some sort of cosmic repair.  The students of Whitwell have become what one teacher called “ambassadors for kindness.”  Their deeds teach that every life is precious and worth saving, that each of us has a responsibility to the other as part of a larger human family, and that evil only persists when good people do nothing to oppose it.

The Whitwell students, in this way, are living out some of our tradition’s most cherished values.  For instance, in our parashah this morning, Parashat Shemini, God kills Aaron’s two eldest sons, and Aaron responds to this tragedy, according to the text, with silence.  Vayidom Aharon, and Aaron was silent.  Perhaps Aaron was outraged.  Perhaps he was angry.  Perhaps he was sad.  We can never know what Aaron felt, because he did not speak out. Because of this, many of the great commentators, among them Rashbam and S’forno, understand Aaron’s silence as him agreeing with God’s actions.  That’s why the rabbis of the Talmud remind us: shtika k’hoda’a damya – Silence is tantamount to agreement (Bava Metzia 37b). Our tradition teaches that when we do not speak out against those things we detest, our silence speaks for us.

And the Whitwell students fulfill the dictum of “Lo ta’amod al dam re’ekha,” that one must not stand idly by while his or her fellow’s blood is shed.  They follow “v’ahavta l’re’ekha kamokha,” that one must love his fellow as himself, doing for others what we would want done for us.  And they live by Deuteronomy’s exhortation that one may not look away from a problem and pretend it doesn’t exist.  No, the Torah says: “Lo Tukhal L’hitalem / You must not remain indifferent.”  Finally, they heeded the Torah’s warning to be like God, and not like Pharaoh.  God heard the cries of the suffering Israelites and responds by redeeming them.  Pharaoh, on the other hand, heard our ancestors’ cries and remained indifferent.  Rabbi Aryeh Cohen argues that the Torah is ultimately about this simple choice.

These students could have, as many others do, learned about the Holocaust and simply moved on to the next lesson.  But once they became aware of it, they refused to give into that most human of temptations to look away, to avoid, and to ignore.

That, for me, is the beauty and the blessing of what the students of Whitwell have accomplished.  And it is impossible to understate how deeply I was moved by it.  I think we all were.

But, I must confess to you, that was not all I felt.  Perhaps I was the only one, but upon reflection, I could not help but feel a little embarrassed.

I was embarrassed because I wondered, if the scenarios were reversed; if, God forbid, there was a Holocaust that targeted and wiped out a third of the world’s population of rural southern white Protestants, would we in the Jewish community speak up?  Would we help memorialize and protect their dead, even if doing so came at great cost?

I fear I barely have to wonder about the answers to those questions.  After all, where is the Jewish community’s Paperclips project for the victims of American slavery and Jim Crow?  Where is our Paperclips project for the victims of the genocide in Rwanda?  Where is our Paperclips project for the victims of the genocide in Darfur?  Where is our Paperclips project for the victims of the massacre happening right now, as we speak, in Syria?

I felt like a fraud.  While I was reveling in being so loved, I knew, deep down, that I was hiding a secret shame: that, in reality, I loved no one as much as I loved myself.  I see innocent blood shed, and I stand idly by.  I see injustice take place, and I indifferently avert my gaze.  I see the blameless get slaughtered and do nothing, and then I, along with the rest of the world, forget them, enabling them to die a second time.

This past week, in observance of Yom Ha-Shoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day, many of us defiantly declared, “Never again!”  And I wondered, as a group of non-Jews guided us through a monument they built in testimony to this sentiment, whether we Jews utter this vow a little too selfishly.

Now, I say all of this with some hesitation, because when it comes to the Holocaust, some so-called selfishness is quite warranted.  No horror in human history has equaled the enormity of the unique evil of the Holocaust.  And even if that were not the case, we have a right to mourn for our own dead, to bewail our own tragedy.  We even have the right to do so on a level disproportionate to the level we cry out over tragedies that befall others.  We have a right and a responsibility to commemorate the Holocaust, to be vigilant of anti-Semitism, to defend ourselves against the malicious and persistent power of hatred.  And we have a right and a responsibility to remind ourselves and the non-Jewish world of the obligation to prevent another Jewish Holocaust.  When it comes to the Holocaust, we are justified in taking some privilege to think of ourselves.

But is that it?  Do we hope simply to protect Jews from another genocide?  Does our responsibility end there?

I am reminded of the Mishnah’s teaching, “Shelkha sheli v’sheli sheli, rasha / The one who says, ‘Yours is mine and mine is mine’ is a wicked person.”  Sometimes it feels that we in the Jewish community seem to have adopted this stance, saying through word and deed, “we Jews will take care only of our own, and also we demand that you take care of us as well.”  Have we no obligations to others?  Have we no responsibility to do for them as we expect them to do for us?  Are we not commanded, in the words of my teacher Rabbi Harold Schulweis, “to protect each other, to love and protect the stranger, the pariah, the weak, those of another color, those of another faith?”

Will our children and our grandchildren not ask of us, as we have asked similarly of the non-Jews who were silent during the Shoah, “Where was the Synagogue, where were the rabbis, and where you during Rwanda, when genocide took place in 1994? Or the slaughter of children in Darfur by the Janjaweed?”

And this Shabbat, I confess to you that I feel compelled to answer the man within that is embarrassed.  I feel compelled to answer my descendants who will one day ask why I heard cries but was silent.  Perhaps you do, too.

One way to start is by becoming informed.  Join an organization like Jewish World Watch, which strives to make the Jewish community aware of the atrocities happening in the world as we speak so that we may raise our voices to put an end to them.

But knowing is only half the battle.  Once we know, we must do.

“Morally speaking,” Heschel once wrote, “there is no limit to the concern one must feel for the suffering of human beings…some are guilty, while all are responsible.”  On Sunday evening, as we were leaving the school for the evening, a Whitwell middle schooler with plump, ruddy cheeks and a messy tuft of blonde hair, came up to me and shook my hand.  He looked me in the eye and said, in the most sincere of ways, “It is such a blessing to have y’all here.”  I thanked him, but in my head I thought, “No.  Not yet, anyway.  One day, I hope we will live up to your example; one day, we will live up to Rabbi Heschel’s challenge for us; one day, we will live up to God’s expectations of us.  And then, on that day, we will be a blessing.”

Shabbat Shalom.

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