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The Hope

April 9, 2016

(This was a speech delivered at the Holocaust Memorial Resource & Education Center Dinner of Tribute on April 7, 2016)

 

Just a few minutes ago, Dana Kaplan sang a beautiful rendition of the song HaTikvah, the national anthem of Israel. Hatikvah, as many of you know, is the Hebrew word for “The Hope,” and the words to this song come from a poem written by the Jewish-Ukranian poet, Naftali Herz Imber,

And you should know that this song, Ha TikVah, The Hope – long before it became the Israeli National anthem, before Israel became the Jewish state – this very song was sung by Czech Jews in 1944 as they were being marched into the Auschwitz-Birkenau gas chamber. And while singing this song, HaTikvah, they were beaten by SS guards.

Think about that for a moment. HaTikvah. The Hope.

I bring this up because I want to talk briefly about the future, not just the future of the Holocaust Center, but the future of our community, and if I may be so bold, the future of our world.

And it is impossible, for me anyway, to talk about the future that I envision, without having the word “hope” planted firmly in our minds.

When I talk about the future, I can’t help but think about my kids – Jacob and Sophie and Joseph – who are right at that point in their lives where they are about to step out into the world, and Steph and I are going to find out whether the things we have been teaching them, the things they have learned from their grandparents and teachers and rabbi, whether what we’ve instilled in them is enough to prepare them to be successful, and safe, and secure out there in the world.

And this is a valid concern because, while I think we’ve done a pretty good job, the world, our world, is not always a kind place. And so we worry. What are they going to find out there? Is it going to be a world of hope? Is it going to be a world of love and respect? A world that accepts them fully for who they are, reinforces their values, and supports the idea that everyone, every single person, deserves to be treated fairly and with respect regardless of whether they look and think and believe exactly the way someone says they should?

Are they stepping out into a world where they not only feel comfortable being exactly who they are but also feel comfortable standing up for others, recognizing when people are being wronged, and confident enough to speak out when they know power is being misused and people are being mistreated?

But I do feel hopeful. I have hope because I see the sense of goodness and righteousness that my children and their friends have not only in their hearts, but also in their actions.

But I worry, too.

I worry that my children, and yours, are the exception and not the norm. Because I am not so naive to be blind to the hate and the fear and the cowardice that are also so prevalent in our world today.

One of the reasons I am hopeful is because of the impact that the Holocaust Center has every day – this 30-year old institution that was started by Tess Wise to use the lessons of the Holocaust to end the world of anti-Semitism, of prejudice, of bigotry, of hate.

That’s the third time tonight that I have referenced Tess’ mission for the Holocaust Center, and I have done so purposely, because I believe this is something people perhaps misunderstand about us.

While we are an organization rooted in the historic and horrific events of more than 70 years ago, our focus is not on the past. Yes, we are committed to remembering and honoring the lives of the victims, survivors and heroes of the Holocaust, but our focus is squarely on today. And tomorrow.

You know, I wish you all could come to our board meetings and take part in the conversations we have there. Of course, in our current building,

we couldn’t quite hold all of you. But if we could, if you could be there, what you would hear are some of our community’s most insightful, thoughtful, passionate and compassionate leaders asking one another, “What have we learned?” “How have we changed?”

And most importantly, “What can we do?”

What can we do to improve our community and our world?

Or perhaps more urgently, what must we do?

What must we do to make sure that the hate, the prejudice, the bigotry and the fear that was allowed to fester during the 1930s and 1940s is not allowed to happen again. Not today. Not ever.

What must we do to ensure that our children and our children’s children live in a different world? A safer and more accepting world. A world where we don’t have to hide who we are, where we feel safe in our skin and feel completely, completely safe sitting in an outdoor cafe or attending a concert in Prague or Paris or Brussels or Poland. Or right here in Orlando.

What must we do?

This is not a rhetorical question. This is not a passive question. I am asking you today, as I ask myself every day, seeking an answer.

What must we do?

Well, let me tell you what I’ve come up with. We must start talking with one another at not at one another. We must focus more on the big things we share, like our love for our children, rather than the  superficial things that make us different.

We must stop making excuses, making allowances, or offering hollow explanations for the rhetoric that spews from our politicians’ mouths as they encourage us to be afraid of each other, or convince us that some of us are better than others, or imply that some of us deserve less than others. Or say that some are welcome. And others are not.

We must speak out and speak up. We must not tell our children, “Just ignore it, no one will listen to him.”

We must not say, “That’s just the way the world is.”

We must not say it is okay on any level or at any time or for any reason. Fear and hate, prejudice and bigotry are not okay,

Marginalizing and belittling human beings for where they come from, what they look like, who they pray to, or who they love is never okay.

What must we do?

At the Holocaust Center, we face this same question as an organization. We have done so much good. We have had such a huge impact. For 30 years, we have worked to fulfill Tess’ remarkable vision and mission.

We have taught and educated and honored and remembered and reflected. And I know that our community is so much better because of the work that we have done.

30 years, hundreds of teachers who have a deep understanding of the Holocaust because they have heard Helen Greenspun tell her heart-wrenching story of being carted off to five different camps – and at each one believing that it was the end.

Tens of thousands of visitors who know the story of Kristallnacht, the night of broken glass, when every Jewish business was destroyed, and every Jewish dream was crushed – in one single night.

30 years and an infinite number of programs and partnerships and people changed – and It could be enough. Perhaps you think it is enough. But I don’t. I don’t because I can’t. I don’t have that luxury as long as I am concerned about the kind of world Steph and I are sending our kids out into.

I cannot live my life thinking that the status quo is okay, or we’re too small, or that we’ve done enough and why try, why take the chance. Why risk what we already have.

And so, when you hear us talk about our vision to build a new Holocaust Center in the heart of downtown Orlando, this is why. Because even though we’ve achieved so incredibly much, we cannot in good conscience rest on our laurels.

When we talk about building an architecturally significant building in a place that is visible and accessible to infinitely more people, this is why. Because even though we now educate 20,000 students a year, we cannot be content.

And when we talk about building a Center that makes a bold and powerful statement about Orlando being a community of respect and acceptance, this is why. Because we cannot say the world is what it is and why waste our time trying to change it.

The community needs us to do what we’re doing, and in fact, needs us to do more.

The community needs us to build a Center that allows us to expand our programming, to share our story and our values with more students, more tourists and more local residents, to expand our reach and our impact and fulfill our potential –  all the while staying committed 100% to the mission that our visionary founder, Tess Wise, articulated so clearly more than three decades ago.

It is up to us to ensure that the world my children, Jacob and Sophie and Joseph, and your children and grandchildren encounter, is one that we can all be proud of. Because that is The Hope.

HaTikvah.

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