Monday, March 27, 2023

Have you seen the pink billboards and trucks on the streets? They’ve been multiplying along highways and city streets throughout the United States. These brilliant ads are reminders that antisemitism is the tip of an iceberg of hate that can destroy the world, just as an iceberg destroyed the Titanic.

International Holocaust Remembrance Day is upon us. Jews who are commanded to “Remember, Do Not Forget” founded Yom HaShoah in the wake of what they called the “Churban,” the destruction of two thirds of European Jewry. In 1951, there was a resolution by the nascent State of Israel to have a day of commemoration, apart from Tisha B’Av. Some argued against the necessity of another day of mourning. Others demanded one because, unlike the fast day in the month of Av which commemorates the destruction of both the first and second Temples, a new day of commemoration was needed because the Shoah was sui generis.

Manically driven by antisemitism, the Nazis planned and carried it out, aiming not to convert Jews, nor to enslave and claim their land, but to eliminate and eradicate them. Had they succeeded, no Jew on earth would be alive. Therefore, it was vital to dedicate a solemn day of remembrance of the Holocaust and the heroism of those civilians who fought valiantly against one of the fiercest, most powerful military machines ever known. The day was to be named Yom HaShoah v’ HaGevurah (Holocaust and Heroism).

In 1959, the Knesset passed a law, marking an official day on the Jewish calendar, the 27th of Nissan, as a day of commemoration. The time beginning with Passover and ending on Yom Ha’Atzmaut is considered a period of both divine as well as human intervention for liberation and the rebirth of Israel. On that day, Jews remember and honor Jews who fell at the hands of the Nazis, those who fought in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, with the partisans, and in the 1948 War of Independence.

January 27 is the day the United Nations chose as an international day of Holocaust Remembrance, using the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, the largest one in a network of approximately 42,500 ghettos, concentration camps and death camps. Hardly any nation was left unscathed during WWII. The total number of casualties worldwide is estimated at 70-85 million people. Add the wounded, debilitated and the millions of displaced peoples and the numbers are staggering. As Elie Wiesel said, “What begins with the Jews, never ends with the Jews.”

The billboards are the brainchild of Archie Gottesman, who created JewBelong. The not-for-profit organization is dedicated to bringing Jews back into the fold by sharing what she and most other Jews who celebrate both their religious and secular identities know: Judaism is more about the joys than the “oys” of being Jewish. If it were otherwise, Jews would have disappeared thousands of years ago, just as other larger and more powerful civilizations did.

What JewBelong does is a variation of what Chabad does. Where it differs is that its outreach is not only to unaffiliated Jews, but also to Jews and their families who are not halachically Jewish, including those in interfaith marriages. Gottesman’s approach is to help them learn about Judaism at whatever level feels comfortable. The expectation is that they will fully embrace, rather than simply dismiss Judaism as too demanding. If that goal weren’t challenging enough, she’s now become an activist against antisemitism.

And here’s where the Holocaust comes in. When Archie and Gary Gottesman’s youngest daughter Ella was preparing to become a bat mitzvah, she chose as her mitzvah project one that her two sisters had done: the Holocaust Council’s “Twin With a Survivor” program. Of the many programs I created during my tenure at the Council, “twinning” was my favorite because it was always an all-around win, with ripple effects. At its best it created lasting friendships, even surrogate families who continue to enhance the lives of the participants and educate countless others.

When Archie called me about a twin for Ella, I introduced her to Nessa, a survivor and rescuer, who was then a spry and inspiring 88-year-old. Although she graduated from university in 2021, Ella still visits Nessa, sometimes with her mom, sometimes on her own. Archie visits Nessa regularly. On one visit, Nessa told Archie that the antisemitism she was now witnessing was an alarming reminder of what she had lived through in prewar Poland. She then told her to do something about it.

Archie was flummoxed. What could she, a suburbanite with a nonprofit do? Prior to JewBelong, she created ads for the family-owned storage company. You may have seen them on billboards in New York. Clever, catchy and effective, they proved the power of advertising, which is commercial propaganda.

The Nazis knew the power of political propaganda and used it brilliantly. Much of the antisemitism that’s coming out of the Muslim world was born in Berlin, in an office Hitler gave Haj Amin al Husseini to broadcast his messages of hate to millions throughout the world. These included the Muslim Brotherhood. Now posters of terrorists, so-called “martyrs,” are plastered to walls in their cities to encourage and recruit others to participate in “pay to slay” programs.

Could billboards fight antisemitism? Muslims use billboards to publicize Ramadan. Evangelical Christians have been using them for years to gain followers. Archie decided to use what she had—advertising expertise. Her hot pink “silent soldiers” are now fighting antisemitism throughout the United States. Their distress signals and warnings are being seen, read and heard by the news media. More of these soldiers are needed to win this war, and everyone can and must help put them on the road. If not us, who? If not now, when?

By Barbara Wind

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