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Reflecting on Yom HaShoah

By: Jessica Lipinski

Like many Jewish children, including those who attend our own YEC, I attended a supplemental Jewish school growing-up. It was this Jewish education paired with the values and traditions that my parents instilled at home that gave me the foundation for the Jewish identity and pride that I have today.

I can remember the first time that I became aware of this pride in my Jewish background…

When I was b’nai mitzvah in grade seven, my teacher posed a question to the class: “what is a hero?” This sparked great debate amongst a group of wide eyed and sheltered 12 year olds whose concept of heroism was based on sports stars and cartoon caped crusaders. With our teacher’s guidance, we came to the conclusion that a hero is a person who overcomes a great obstacle. After reaching this consensus, we were presented with our b’nai mitzvah project for the year: we would each select a Jewish hero and engage in an independent study project researching this person, and then make a presentation on the “big day.”

With my parents, Lydia and Len Beitelman at my B’nai Mitzvah

Tasked with what seemed to me a tremendous responsibility, I thought long and hard about my choice. On the one hand, I had to choose a person interesting enough to sustain the interest of a 12 year old for an entire school year. On the other hand, I felt that I would surely be judged for my choice by my teacher and peers, as well as by the collective friends and families who would make-up the several hundred people in attendance the day of our b’nai mitzvah.

The following Sunday my teacher went around the classroom calling on each student to announce their hero selection. The nervous energy was palpable as we listened to each selection hoping that our hero wouldn’t be chosen by another (it was first-come-first-serve on heroes that day and no repeats. I mean, can you imagine the outrage if two children were interested in Mel Brooks or Sandy Koufax?!). Golda Meir, David Ben Gurion, Hannah Szenes and finally it was my turn: Raoul Wallenberg. My teacher stopped dead in her tracks.

“Raoul Wallenberg was not a Jew.”

“Right.”

“I told you to select a Jewish hero.”

“I did.”

You see, to me this was just a matter of semantics, or interpretation. Was a Jewish hero a person who exhibits heroic actions who happens to be Jewish or is a Jewish hero any person who exhibits heroic actions that happen to benefit Jewish people? My argument supported the latter. Having been born with what my mother refers to as an “overwhelming sense of justice,” (particularly as it relates to me) I stood-up to assert myself. I argued my case and pointed out that had it not been for Mr. Wallenberg saving 100,000 Hungarian Jews from certain death, including my mother’s family, she wouldn’t be having this argument with anyone at all. Point made. I am still so proud of that 12 year old girl who had the courage of her convictions. The delight of my success was quickly tempered when a boy in my class whose family was also saved by Wallenberg chose him for his project and was allowed to proceed. I lost the next argument about the “no repeat” rule. I put my frustrations aside and poured myself in to learning everything I could about the Swedish diplomat turned Holocaust hero. I was motivated by the knowledge that my work would be compared against that of the other Wallenberg study, and so mine had to be the best.

My visual presentation included pictures of Raoul Wallenberg throughout his life, maps, diagrams, statistics, photos of my grandmother and great-grandparents, and the safe house where they lived during the war and where my mother was born years later. My written project was detailed and informative. I nailed it!

All of our work was compiled together and written in to a script that we practiced tirelessly. We sang Zog Nit Keynoml and BaShana HaBa’ah until our throats were hoarse. We knew every prayer, song and phrase better than the backs of our own hands! And then the “big day.” Several hundred of our friends and families gathered together at the Leah Posluns Theatre eagerly waiting to see what the culmination of seven plus years of supplemental Jewish education would look like. We were 13 by that point, at the end of our grade seven school year. We stood tall and proud in brand new suits and dresses and there wasn’t a mama or a bubbie with a dry eye in the house. We nailed it!

The really big moment came when we each made an individual speech. We each reflected on questions and themes that had been central to our education over the last seven years. What did it all mean? What did it mean to be Jewish? And how did our hero reflect our own sentiments? It was my turn. I stepped forward and the spotlight hit me. When I reached my conclusion, I shared what I had learned in those seven years: what did it mean to be Jewish? Being Jewish is being proud of the stubbornness of Judaism which has refused to die in the face of over 5000 years of adversity. You could hear a pin drop. I nailed it. This statement, made by a 13 year old, was what I truly believed in my heart, and still do today.

Being Jewish is being proud of the stubbornness of Judaism. Had the Jews not been tenacious in their determination for freedom, for right to life, for equality, where would they be? Certainly not the thriving and successful global population that exists today.

And all these years later (though I’ll never admit how many), I still stand by the conviction of a 12 year old girl that Raoul Wallenberg is a Jewish hero. He exhibited the same persistence and resolve to beat the odds and save 100,000 Jewish souls as the Jews have been exhibiting for thousands of years.

I often think about him and the hero’s parade that he deserved, rather than the horrible end that he met. Raoul Wallenberg didn’t deserve to die painfully and anonymously in a Russian gulag. He deserved to live a full and beautiful life. But that is his legacy and of all those who perished in the Holocaust: that today there is a thriving Jewish population worldwide. That today, we, as Jews, stay as steadfast and stubborn and hold true to our convictions as we have for over 5000 years. That is the tribute that we pay and owe.

The sign in the side of the building where my grandmother lived with her parents during the war reads, Raoul Wallenberg street. My mom lived there with her parents after the war until they fled during the uprising in 1956. My grandmother Klara Falush, her parents Riza and Julius Fekete were saved from deportation and ultimately survived the war thanks to Raoul Wallenberg.

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