As a twelve-year attendee of Jewish day schools, you might say that I am somewhat of a self-proclaimed expert in Holocaust Memorial Assemblies.
The texts and the soundtracks of these gatherings are fairly standard, even if they are not always in the same order. Holocaust assemblies tend to feature speeches reflecting on remembrance, alongside a survivor’s testimony. Classic poems like Zelda’s Every Person Has a Name add a sense of solemnity to the occasion. The singing of HaTikvah (usually at the end) creates a sense of hope after destruction. In recent years, in Georgia in particular, there has also been a beautiful movement to plant daffodil gardens (as we have done in our own synagogue) to memorialize the 1.5 million children who were killed during the Shoah.
But for one notable, powerful exception, the Holocaust assembly that I attended on Wednesday would have followed this standard schematic. Instead, however, what left me deeply touched was that it was organized by high school students at the Devereux Center for Advanced Behavioral Health.
Devereux, according to its literature, is a facility “committed to positively impacting the lives of children, adolescents, and young adults who are experiencing emotional or behavioral challenges.” Its students, who come from all over the country, typically have undergone a traumatic experience in their lives or a kind of failure to thrive “in the system.” The Devereux assembly had all the standard elements. But what I had not anticipated was that Hatikvah would be sung by a non-Jewish music teacher trained to use music as therapy. I never imagined that our classic Zelda poem and other parts of Jewish liturgy could be recited and resonate by non-Jewish students who know deeply what it means to experience hard times. The “survivor testimony” was provided by our local consul general to Israel, but nearly all of otherwise standard rituals of the day were executed by non-Jews. All of this, as you may imagine, made this ceremony far from “standard.”
As Jews, there can be an understandable tendency to claim “exclusive ownership” over the Shoah experience. Yet having witnessed a non-Jewish community connect so deeply to the Shoah, I must confess how deeply moved I was by the way that the lessons of the Shoah resonated with this broader audience. I can’t help but believe that for the students at Devereux, lessons like exclusion, and Hatikvah, hope that follows suffering, must have struck a chord.
After the assembly, I walked through the gate in the twenty-foot high fence and joined another colleague and several students who planted their own Daffodil garden. We concluded with the Shehechiyanu: not only for them, but for me, as I was privileged to witness this sacred moment in the lives of these ever-blooming, growing, young souls.