Rabbi David Segal
Aspen Jewish Congregation
July 3, 2015
The world lost a quiet hero this week. Sir Nicholas Winton, of England, was 106 years old when he died on Wednesday. Before WWII, Winton organized the escape of nearly 700 children, almost all of them Jewish, from Czechoslovakia.
His story is riveting, and it only came to light years later when his wife found old records in the attic. (I recommend reading more about him.)
In December 1938…, on an impulse, he canceled a Swiss skiing vacation and flew to Prague at the behest of a friend who was aiding refugees in the Sudetenland, the western region of Czechoslovakia that had just been annexed by Germany. “Don’t bother to bring your skis,” the friend…advised in a phone call.
England’s Kindertransport program was already underway. It rescued 10,000 German and Austrian children before the war, but there was no such plan for Czechoslovakia.
At great cost and risk to himself, Winton organized one. He bribed the Gestapo, hired trains and boats, did mountains of paperwork, and fundraised and recruited foster families in England to get 900 children registered and ready to get out. In the end, 669 children escaped because only 7 of 8 trains made it out. The eighth train was scheduled to depart on September 1, 1939, the day Germany invaded Poland. When the borders closed that train, with its precious cargo of 250 children, disappeared.
Winton was a hero because he risked his own life to save others. I was moved near to tears reading his story, as I remember feeling similarly moved in the Righteous Gentiles room at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem. His story, and others like his, move us because he stuck his neck out for Jews, for the marginalized Other. He could have sat comfortably behind his privilege, telling himself it wasn’t his problem, convincing himself it wasn’t his fight.
* * *
Our times are not as dark as Europe under Nazi occupation. But consider: seven churches in two weeks. Nine black Americans murdered at Bible study, and then seven black churches burned to the ground. The media seems hard pressed to find time in their 24-hr news cycle for this horrifying story. It’s nothing less than racial terrorism in our midst. This is not the first time black churches have burned in this country. During the Civil Rights Movement, infamously, a church bombing killed four young girls. When a place of sanctuary becomes a place of devastation, it’s an especially cruel kind of terror.
Try this thought experiment. Imagine a week in which seven synagogues were burned down, on the heels of the massacre of a minyan of Jews during Torah study. Imagine the outrage, the fear, the criticism of the media for not reporting on it enough, the calls for decent people of all faiths and races to stand in solidarity with us Jews and speak out against hate.
Now consider: if we want others to stand up for us in our moments of crisis, don’t we need to stand up for them? If we want to honor and emulate Sir Winton’s example, shouldn’t we reach beyond our own group to be in solidarity with the marginalized other, even at risk to ourselves? Or should we hide behind our privilege, easing our conscience with the tragic misconception that it isn’t our fight?
So then, why don’t we speak up? Are we afraid of ruffling feathers? Of making our friends feel awkward?
Why don’t I speak up? Am I afraid of job security? Am I too concerned with being liked to say anything provocative?
Maybe we’re confused or ashamed about white privilege. We Jews today comprise a strange duality of identities and histories. All of us have immigrant ancestors, most of whom fled some kind of persecution, some of whom even survived the Holocaust. So of course we feel like persecuted victims. At the same time, and without diminishing that narrative, we benefit from white privilege. We don’t face the barriers or stigma of so many other minority groups in America. But it can be difficult to confront these questions. As Talia Cooper writes, “Do I really want to dive deep into my family history and investigate that the fact that we have money comes from this weird stew of running from anti-Semitism and also gaining white privilege?”
The caveat here is that there are Jews who aren’t white — they are black, Arab, Asian, Hispanic — just to name a few. The sad irony is that our collective unwillingness to confront white privilege among Jews also blinds us to them, who are marginalized in multiple communities.
We’re not all going to be Sir Wintons, or Oskar Schindlers, or Raoul Wallenbergs. But let’s at least demand of ourselves and our leaders honesty about race relations and our role in improving them. Let’s not be afraid of the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter. Let’s not be so quick to call protesters thugs. Let’s not be defensive about naming and negotiating our own privilege. Let’s not be threatened by calls for solidarity with those seeking equality, justice, peace. And for God’s sake, let’s not be scared of empathy.
Liberation doesn’t come a la carte. It’s all of us, or none.
* * *
I’ll close with a story I heard from Ruth Messinger, director of American Jewish World Service (AJWS), which does anti-poverty work throughout the developing world. She often speaks about AJWS at synagogues. One such evening, during the Q&A, a man approached the mic and asked, “Why do you devote so many resources to helping non-Jews, when there are so many Jews in need? Why don’t you just focus on helping our own?” That kind of question being a common occurrence for her, Messinger had an answer ready — something along the lines of, “Fair enough, so what are you doing to help Jews in need?”
But that night, before she could answer, a diminutive older woman marched up the aisle to the questioner. She addressed him directly, shaking her fist in his face: “I survived the Holocaust. But my entire family was murdered because of people who only cared to look after their own kind, people who told themselves it wasn’t their fight — people like you.”
Get Involved - for Charleston
- Donate to the fund to help the victims' families and church of Mother Emanuel AME Church: click here
- Donate to efforts to rebuild the churches that have been burned down: click here, or send a check to Aspen Jewish Congregation (memo: "Rebuild the Churches"), 77 Meadowood Drive, Aspen, CO, 81611
Get Involved - Nationally
- Take a look at Showing Up for Racial Justice (SURJ)
Get Involved - in the Roaring Fork Valley