A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to attend the Lithuanian Jewish Symposium at the American Jewish Museum in Philadelphia. I’m always interested in visiting other museums, and this turned out to be a beautiful new building with four floors dedicated to the remarkable achievements and growth of American Jewry. I was especially impressed with the juxtaposition of cutting-edge technology with antiques and artifacts, such as an original letter from George Washington to the Hebrew Congregation in Newport, Rhode Island.
After walking around a bit longer, I made my way to the main hall, where the event was about to begin. A refreshment table was set up in the corner, with a nice arrangement of ethnic foods. How wonderful, I thought. Just imagine what they’ll do at the Hungarian symposium!
Looking around, I saw a room full of American and European scholars and a few foreign dignitaries. Although I have spent time overseas, I decided I belonged in the former category, and made myself comfortable next to a Lithuanian professor. I’m sitting next to a real Litvak, I thought wryly.
The first speaker was Lithuanian Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs Nerijus Germanas. Mr. Germanas, who looks every bit the well-heeled world traveler, began describing the long history of Jews in Lithuania. In his remarks, he lamented that there was little left to commemorate such a rich heritage that once graced his country. Gone were the culture, the songs, the ways of the people in the wake of the Holocaust. The small shtetlach are no more, their way of life a thing of the past. His country was struggling for an appropriate memorial to these vanished people. Evidently, he didn’t have too many ideas, and the speech was over shortly.
Wait a second, I thought to myself. Did he just say how sad it was that Jewry was gone from Lithuania? But who were the perpetrators?! To this day, the Lithuanians do not admit their role in the Holocaust. The Nazis, ym”s, did not need to encourage the local goyim to carry out the slaughter of innocent Jews; they were all too willing. While it’s encouraging that the government is reaching out to the Jews today, it would be much more appropriate for them to be up front with the story of their country’s complicity.
I sat there for a moment longer, and thought of how we, frum Yidden, live in what seems to be an alternate universe. After the war, yeshivos emerged in America and Eretz Yisrael, and many of them were founded on the same principles of Lithuanian yeshivos. Their names bear this message—Kaminetz, Slabodka, Ponevez, the list goes on. Even newer American yeshivos are shaped by the learning and customs of “Lita.” It was chilling to hear how the German objective of consigning Torah Jewry to an ancient relic was the reality for Mr. Germanas and his people.
As I exited the museum, passing photos of Sandy Koufax and Steven Spielberg, I felt a new sense of inspiration. It is certainly a challenge to keep the public interested in baseball greats and old films when tweets and six- second videos are continuously reshaping pop culture. If that’s what American Jewry is all about, it can certainly use a monument, or even a tombstone. But when the goal is to strengthen our future by building on the past, even the relentless winds of time can’t erode our foundation. Instead of struggling to fuel the flame of American Jewry, we must simply hold the blazing torch of Torah aloft for all to see.
But really, I thought, from the perspective of one who is oblivious to the world of Torah, religious Jewry is truly a thing of the past. In a flash of clarity, I suddenly saw the magnitude of my role as director of the Kleinman Family Holocaust Education Center. For the first time, an institution is dedicated to illustrate not just how observant Jewry survived the Holocaust, but how the Torah kept Jewry alive and continues to flourish to this day.