Almost six months ago I left my position at a major private-sector firm to join the Simon Wiesenthal Center. Having previously spent over 15 years in government I believed that I had demonstrated a dedication for public service bestowed upon me largely through the legacy of my grandfather, who besides running a lighting business was best known for his presidency and commitment to Brooklyn’s Young Israel of Flatbush. As I reflect during this Passover season upon my shift back to professional involvement in Jewish communal life I realize that the institution of which I am now a part has taught me a great deal too. My colleague Mark Wietzman often speaks of how anti-Semitism is a growth industry, and I see how critical it is for our community to have institutions fighting such battles and pushing back on the bigots. After six months on the front lines, more than ever I see the clarity of our purpose and the necessity of our mission.
While my young children came home from school with the usual assortment of mock seder tales, I endeavored to provide them with what I now see as more demonstrative examples of the lessons of the holiday. On the Sunday morning prior to Passover my wife and I took them away from the obsessive world of Minecraft and brought them to a Tomchei Shabbos packing center. As expected, the experience prompted the questions about the day’s purpose, followed by parental explanations of the fortunate position that we find ourselves in being able to afford a pantry full of cavity-making snacks. We wanted our children to begin down the road of grasping the larger realities of many in our community and put a pin prick into the otherwise growing communal bubble that too often defines their limited experiences.
A few nights later, just before we were to rid ourselves of the last of our chometz, I filled their small tummies with a bribe of pizza and ice cream before taking them to pass by the home of my upbringing. After pointing out the windows to my childhood bedroom I began to tell them the story of my parents’ landlords in this two-family home on East 22nd Street who lived below me and were in my life practically until adulthood. While I have many memories of my parents having the usual tenant-based complaints of rent raises and hot boiler issues, I also vividly remember the old man and his wife, individuals who are now world renowned for their heroism to the Jewish people—I had the distinct privilege to live directly above Alexander Zeisal “Zus” and Sonia Bielski.
After the production of the feature film Defiance, many became better acquainted with the story of the heroic Bielski brothers: Zus and his brothers famously formed the largest Jewish Holocaust-era partisan group in the Polish forests. They saved a recorded 1,236 of our brethren, whose descendants currently number over 10,000, from certain death at the hands of the Nazis.
Zus, rightfully portrayed in the film by Liev Schreiber as the roughest of the brothers, surely cut an imposing figure to a child like me, more interested at the time in playing stoopball and seeing him interfere by smoking his cigars while sitting on a beach chair on the front porch. As I got older and paid closer attention to the nuances of such a man, even in his later years I saw the fire in his eyes and the passion in his blood, almost daring anti-Semites to act against the Jewish people in his presence.
While appropriately telling his story to my children, I believe I was more significantly rekindling my own sentiments against those who want to cause harm to my fellow Jews and those who want to use religion, race or creed to justify such activities against all who seek to live a peaceful and prosperous existence. I felt an intensity in that moment that reminded me why I joined the Simon Wiesenthal Center and why I brought my children to this place before Passover. I recognized that as we teach our children about our escape from slavery in Egypt, we must continue to demonstrate a similar level of intensity in fighting present-day attitudes that have not yet left this earth four millennium after the demise of the pharaohs.
The Simon Wiesenthal Center provides me, along with countless others, with a vehicle to partake in the fight for tolerance and the confrontation of historic insensible hatreds. Perhaps my children are too young to fully grasp such concepts but only upon an established foundation can we continue to build. We must ensure that such experiences are part of our next generation’s upbringing as much as they need to become more of our own psyche in this all-to-comfortable American society that we currently enjoy.
Almost six months in, I have a much broader understanding of the importance of the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s existence along with like-minded organizations and people. Upon opening our eyes to the world around us I find that it shouldn’t take very much to bring back the passion on such matters to our people, but we must work collectively to bring such attitudes to the next generation as well. I plan to repeat this Passover journey with my children in future years, and am proud to have joined the front lines with an institution that truly gets it. Let us all both learn and teach the passion of the Bielski brothers in the fight against anti-Semitism and discrimination.
By Michael Cohen
Michael Cohen is the director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s New York office and an Englewood councilman.