It all happened so quickly. Within a few months, hundreds of thousands of Hungarian Jews were rounded up and killed near the conclusion of WWII. By their own admission at the Budapest Holocaust Museum, this horrible action would not have been possible without the help and cooperation of many Hungarians. Having visited a number of Polish concentration camps over the years, it should not have been a surprise to me that people can do this to each other…and yet…once again it was a sobering reminder of the power that each of us has to make both a positive and a negative difference.
We just returned from visiting our daughter in Budapest and I had the opportunity to teach at one of three Jewish schools there. I taught approximately 40 ninth and tenth graders and we discussed the text from Rabbi Hillel where he says, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me; If I am only for myself, what am I? If not now, when?” We talked about how challenging issues often present us with dilemmas as to whether to look out for ourselves or others. I cannot tell you what I would have done if I were alive during the Nazi period, but I can tell you that each time I see how willing others were to help the Nazis kill the Jews, I am frightened.
Someone raised the question as to how one can help instill the type of values that would encourage us to want to help others, even at personal risk. I wish I knew the answer to that question….if any of you reading this, have any ideas, please write me at firstname.lastname@example.org and mark the subject, “Helping Others.”. Each time I visit Eastern Europe, I am haunted by the thought that I could have been a collaborator and I am ashamed by these thoughts. I hope I would have taken risks to save others, but…
We also had the opportunity to visit a number of synagogues, many of which stand empty today. It is so difficult to hear about Jewish life that “used to be…” When I was younger, my dad told me that the saddest words he ever heard from old baseball players who were trying to hang on, were, ” I used to be a good player…” Although apparently there are still 100,000 Jewish people in Hungary, most of whom live in Budapest, it is so sad to see just remnants of what used to be a vibrant Jewish life. There was a kosher shop, a couple of kosher restaurants, and a number of smaller synagogues, but Judaism is clearly not what it was….When one sees Judaism on exhibit in a museum, it tears me up and pushes me to be more passionate and about trying to make Judaism more meaningful for others.
Finally, what do I learn? I learn how important it is for us to treasure the opportunities we have to practice our faith in America today, I also am inspired to seek innovative and meaningful ways in which to express our Jewish identities in a world in which I believe that Judaism has much to offer that will help us create a value system that will help us make good choices when it comes to trying to save and enhance the lives of those who are at risk due to persecution, poverty, and other difficult conditions.
I look forward to continuing this discussion in a variety of settings. Please respond electronically of contact me by phone so we can help each other….
Moses Maimonides, a famous Medieval Jewish philosopher who is called Rambam wrote,
“The purpose of the laws of the Torah is…to promote compassion, loving-kindness, and peace in the world.”
As you read my initial recollections from our trip to Hungary, may we find meaning in Rambam’s message and find ways to be more compassionate, do deeds of lovingkindness, and promote peace in our world.
Rabbi Bruce Aft