by Rabbi Marla J. Feldman
Director, Women of Reform Judaism
By now everyone must know of the passing of Elie Wiesel and has likely read many of the moving tributes to the power of his words. Like so many others of my generation, reading ‘Night’ at a young age left an indelible impression, and has in many ways impacted my career. His message was not only about remembering the Holocaust, but more importantly about learning its lessons – and applying those lessons to issues of the day. That message haunts me every time I open a newspaper.
During my high school years in the 70’s, the Holocaust was just beginning to be a subject of learning in history classes, while in youth group it was a significant focus. During that time as well, the movement to free Soviet Jews was born, in large measure as a reaction against the perceived indifference of the prior generation. Elie Wiesel’s voice was deeply present in both efforts – remembering the past and taking responsibility for creating a different response to persecution in the present.
My youth group activism included advocacy on behalf of Syrian Jews, who were also facing severe persecution at the time. I wrote a letter to Wiesel, suggesting to him that his moral voice might make a difference in that struggle. He actually wrote a short, hand-written note back and assured me he would consider that. Ah, the audacity of youth!
Years later, as a college student and Jewish Studies major, I had the opportunity to hear him speak on my campus. He was soft-spoken, yet powerful, exuding a moral authority that I have never since witnessed. Recalling our prior correspondence, I again sent him a letter and asked if he had ever written about the plight of Syrian Jews. Again he wrote back, assuring me that he had both written and spoken on behalf of that at-risk community, though unfortunately those writings had not been translated into English.
Since Moses challenged Pharoah, no person has embraced the mandate to ‘speak truth to power’ more poignantly that Wiesel. Many of us remember his challenge to President Reagan in 1985; while receiving the Congressional Medal of Honor, Wiesel used the platform to urge the President not to visit the cemetery in Bitburg, Germany where many SS members were buried. Although he was not successful in that plea, his message resonated and the controversy sparked an important conversation in this country about the power of memory to heal or wound.
Years later I watched Wiesel’s speech at the opening of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, during which he looked up from the podium and addressed President Clinton directly, calling him out for failing to stop the genocide then taking place in Bosnia. Shortly thereafter I was the director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Delaware, through which I also directed the local Holocaust Memorial Center. One day I received an unusual call from a man with a thick foreign accent named ‘Tejcan’, an unassuming Turkish man who wanted to meet with me but could not discuss the reason over the phone. The first time we met he was a bit nervous, having never been to the Jewish Federation before and not knowing the reception he would receive. He began by saying that Turks and Jews have a common historical experience and that, as a result, we had work to do. Out of our meeting emerged the Delaware Coalition for Bosnia, one of many such efforts around the country that organized and advocated for a more assertive response to the horrors taking place in Bosnia. To my knowledge it was the first time members of the Muslim and Jewish communities worked collaboratively in Delaware and it led to other interfaith efforts. The Coalition’s efforts proved successful in stimulating a more robust U.S. engagement to end the crisis in Bosnia, yet I will never forget opening the newspaper one day to the headline about the massacre at Srebrenica; we had been too slow and too late for those victims, whose mass graves would not be found until years later. I just stared at that headline and thought of Elie Wiesel’s haunting, sad eyes.
Fast forward ten years… now serving as the Director of the Commission on Social Action of Reform Judaism, I was invited by Ruth Messinger of AJWS to a very small gathering of Jewish leaders to meet with Mr. Wiesel. There were about 20 of us sitting around a conference table, and in his quiet, yet commanding, voice he asked, ‘What are you going to do about Darfur?’ And then he became quiet and looked straight at us. After a moment of stunned silence, plans for the Save Darfur Coalition were underway and I was honored to serve on the founding board of that coalition for several years. Once again, we were too late for far too many victims, but at least we were not silent, and a new generation of activist Jews found their voice.
The last time I had the privilege to hear Elie Wiesel was during a private session of the UN Security Council featuring Wiesel and George Clooney speaking about Darfur. They urged the world leaders sitting around the table to take responsibility for creating a world that is no longer indifferent to genocide; they called upon them to step up and step in. George Clooney was the draw for most of the attendees, but for me it was an opportunity to hear once again that passionate, moral voice that had been with me since my youth.
Every day when I open up the newspaper, inevitably I am reminded that we do not yet live in the world Wiesel challenged us to create. Yet I also know that the lessons of the past can change the present, and can lead to a better future. Wiesel’s moral certitude and his quiet, commanding message continues to be the voice in my head.
Rest in peace, Elie Wiesel. Your memory is a blessing to us all.