Adults Explore Faith in Holocaust Class

By Anthony Weiss

Published January 20, 2006, issue of January 20, 2006.
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In the face of injustice and suffering, can one believe in God? Why do bad things happen to good people? How can civilized people torture and murder? In 160 cities around the world, students recently explored these questions in “Beyond Never Again,” a new adult education course about the Holocaust. Chabad’s Jewish Learning Institute offers the course.

“‘Never again’ is the response everyone does have and should have [to the Holocaust], but for many people, it stops there,” explained Rabbi Aaron Herman, who created the course, which debuted last fall. “They haven’t plumbed the depths in terms of incorporating it into their own lives.”

He emphasized that “Beyond Never Again” is not a history course but an attempt to use the Holocaust as a lens to examine difficult questions of Judaism and faith.

The weekly course relies on source texts ranging from the Torah, the Talmud and other classical Jewish texts to accounts of survivors, scholarly works on the Holocaust and modern commentary. The goal is not to lead the students to conclusions, but to pose a variety of questions and offer possible responses. Student participation is encouraged, and the adult pupils chime in periodically about the material and about their own experiences. “I’m coming to Judaism later in life,” one woman offered in a session in Manhattan at the Chabad of the West Side. “I have a cousin who was baptized after the war because her parents thought it would be safer.”

Rabbi Yisroel Fried led her and 14 other men and women in a discussion of texts, using a laptop and projector as teaching tools and using an iPod to record the discussion. Fried paused over a text from the Mishnah: “One who destroys a single human being is considered by the Torah as if he had destroyed a whole world.” He explained: “The proof is, you have an entire planet of people, they all came from one person, being Adam.” He contrasted this with a quotation from Elie Wiesel: “To the Nazis, everyone was replaceable.”

“Beyond Never Again” was Fried’s first JLI course. As part of the preparation, he and the other JLI instructors attended a two-and-a-half-day training session in Newark, N.J., where they participated in lectures and seminars on the course materials. Because the Holocaust raises powerful emotions, the organizers scheduled a seminar with. David Pelcovitz, a professor of psychology at Yeshiva University, on how to deal with students who become distraught or agitated. For ongoing support, JLI has several online resources for teachers and students, including message boards where they can post questions and share ideas.

JLI has gone to great lengths to procure support for the course from a number of Jewish leaders outside Chabad. The textbook includes testimonials from late Nazi-hunter Simon Wiesenthal; Dan Michman, chief historian of Yad Vashem, and Paul Winkler, executive director of the State of New Jersey Commission on Holocaust Education.

The teachers are typically, but not exclusively, Chabad rabbis. Most of the classes are taught in Chabad houses, though some are offered in Jewish community buildings or even in secular locations, like the Luxe Summit Hotel Bel-Air in Los Angeles. The same 90-minute lesson is taught around the world each week, so a student on the road can visit the class in a different city and pick up where he left off. The courses cost about $100, varying from city to city. Rabbi Efraim Mintz, director of JLI, estimated that more than 10,000 students — 95% of whom were Jewish — completed the course in this first round, which concluded last month. “Beyond Never Again” will likely be repeated as part of JLI’s rotating curriculum.

One impetus for Herman to write the course came with the death of a friend who had survived the camps. Survivors have been a major priority for the organizers of the course, and a number of survivors have participated, often taking on the role of second teachers. For some, it has been a powerful experience: Mintz reported that a survivor in his class, Jacob Kolton, began to write poems about his experiences and then read them to the class. For others, the course is a way to pass on their legacy. Frank Rothman, a survivor living in Sacramento, Calif., said he participated in the course because “I want to be sure that we won’t forget, and the world won’t forget.”

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