To Bear Witness

“We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. Sometimes we must interfere. When human lives are endangered, when human dignity is in jeopardy, national borders and sensitivities become irrelevant. Wherever men or women are persecuted because of their race, religion, or political views, that place must, at that moment, become the center of the universe.”

Elie Wiesel, Nobel Peace Price Acceptance Speech, 1986

As educators, we must encourage our students to examine the stories of those who have been the subject of discrimination and hate. In doing so, they learn to recognize and respond to these acts. Our hope is that the work we do with our students will help empower them with the skills to be upstanders rather than bystanders. so human dignity is not put in jeopardy, and they graduate from high school with the skills to affect positive and ethical social change.  

This can be difficult at times as events fade into history and become less relevant to the lived experience of our students. In a 2020 Pew Study, results showed that nearly two-thirds of Americans are unaware that 6 million Jews were killed in the Holocaust and 23% of respondents 18-39 years old believe the Holocaust is a myth or exaggeration.   

Knowing this, how do educators combat misinformation, apathy, or mistrust of other humans? A foundational part of being an upstander is developing the skill of empathy. A recent study and article reviewed by Psychology Today in August 2021 show that teenagers are naturally developing deeper empathic skills from age 14-18. And, what accelerates this development? Relationships. Developing deep and meaningful relationships is key to developing empathy.

It is not just about developing relationships with people but about finding ways to build meaningful connections to past and current events. Our students have shared how difficult it can be to connect with notable events they were not alive to experience. An op-ed in The Gator this year displays the intellectual struggle some students have putting 9/11 into context. It is not that teenagers do not care; they struggle when they lack personal connection to what happened. 

We actively seek to bridge that gap by inviting guests and members of our community to share their personal stories. In reference to his own life story, Elie Wiesel, author of Night and Nobel Peace Prize Winner, once shared that “whoever listens to a witness, becomes a witness.” Recently, Steve Goldberg came to campus virtually to share the story of Holocaust survivor Abe Piasek with our students in Grades 7-12. Mr. Goldberg met Mr. Piasek while teaching history. After hearing Mr. Piasek speak to his students, they developed a close relationship. Mr. Goldberg was deeply moved by Mr. Piasek’s story and decided to record his presentations to keep his legacy alive, a decision that became increasingly important following Mr. Piasek’s death in 2020. In committing his time to retell Mr. Piasek’s story, Mr. Goldberg is helping to inform and create a new generation of witnesses. His time with our students deepened their connection to and understanding of the Holocaust by giving them a personal story to recount. By listening, they became witnesses who can now share Mr. Piasek’s life story with others. 

Summer Reading 2021

Like most, the past year plus has forced me to shift priorities and focus time and energy in different ways. While I carved out plenty of time to read some great books over the last twelve months, the hyper focused planning and iterating led to less overall reading during down time. So, this summer I have recommitted to reading, putting aside more time to read and escaping less to Netflix and Prime Video.

What’s on the list of for Summer 2021?

The Code Breaker by Walter Isaacson

The Yellow House by Sarah M. Broom

Difficult Conversations by Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton, and Sheila Heen

Thanks for the Feedback by Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen

Open Heart by Elie Wiesel

Our Team: The Epic story of Four Men and the World Series that Changed Baseball by Luke Epplin

What were some of my favorite reads since June 2020?

How to be an Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi

The culture shifting read of 2020 that forced the world to rethink just about everything about race.

Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson

An eye opening recount of the inequities in the American criminal justice system and the way racism has destroyed the lives of innocent people and their families.

We the Possibility: Harnessing Public Entrepreneurship to Solve our Most Urgent Problems by Mitchell Weiss

A wonderful read to remind leaders that innovation does not just happen and it is required for us to move forward.

Caste by Isabella Wilkerson

Drawing on the parallels of the Indian caste system, Nazi Germany, and American slavery and systematic racism, Wilkerson offers readers, what should have been obvious, a new way to think about inequities and how we need to respond.

Talking to GOATS by Jim Gray

The perfect escape during the pandemic for me. Craving live sports, Jim Gray takes you behind the scenes to conversations and interactions with many of the greatest athletes of all-time.

Stay tuned for updates on the summer reads!

Remembering Elie Wiesel

Recently, I have been reflecting on some of my encounters with Elie Wiesel. Though none of them were personal, they still left a lasting impact. It is hard to imagine that it has been a year since his passing last July. Over the past week, I could not help but think about his work and his commitment to speaking up for the voiceless- how he made it his mission to fight for equality.

As an undergraduate student at Boston University I was able to attend lectures given by Elie Wiesel. Each year Wiesel would offer a 3 part lecture and then would host a more private meeting. I had the opportunity to attend the private meetings all four years at Boston University. At the time I knew it was important to listen to his words and hear his perspective on the world, but the full depth of their meaning was not evident to my 18 year old self.

I remember rushing from the lecture to the more intimate setting to get a good seat before it filled up. The room would be abuzz with people discussing what they heard during the lecture and the question they hoped to ask him. During these meetings many people came angry over how different people in the world were mistreated. They were confused that he did not display bitterness or share their visible outrage. Instead, Wiesel would humbly respond to the questions with answers that were deeply layered. He challenged students to stand up for what they believed in and to not let any injustice go unchecked. He reminded us that we could not settle for simply feeling frustrated, but needed to allow those feelings to drive us to action, to stand up for those in need. This sentiment comes from one of Wiesel’s most well-known quotes from his 1986 Nobel Lecture, “There may be times when we are powerless to prevent injustice, but there must never be a time when we fail to protest.” 

There is something coincidental about the anniversary of Wiesel’s death falling two days before United States’ Independence Day, a day that symbolizes the result of protest and a country built on the precept of protecting the right to assemble peacefully (Bill of Rights, Amendment 1). What can we learn from Wiesel? How would Wiesel react to the divisiveness we have seen growing in our country over the past year? My guess is that he would urge us all to stand up for the voiceless and to embrace those that need help. Lastly, he would remind us to never forget. To never forget what happens when we stop seeing the humanity in each other. To never forget the Jews that were killed in the Holocaust. To never forget the genocides that occurred in Bosnia, Rwanda, Sudan, Armenia, and in every other country where these atrocities took place. While Elie Wiesel is no longer here to act as a conscience for the world, he has left us a legacy. He taught us how to use our own voices to stand up for those that have been silenced.

How do we approach this work as a school? How do help make sure our students stand up for the voiceless? It means building on our relationship with Facing History and Ourselves, continuing to empower students to speak out when they see inequality and supporting them to work towards solutions, and ensuring that we do not take our community and values for granted. And remember Wiesel’s words “The opposite of love is not hate, it is indifference.”