As I lit Hanukkah candles last night, I thought back to the story of the mighty Maccabees. It’s a story of resilience and strength in adversity. Antiochus, ruler of the Kingdom of Syria, made it his mission to quash Judaism in the land of Israel and across his empire. Besieging Jerusalem, he vandalized the Holy Temple and declared Jewish practices illegal. But the young Maccabees did not accept their supposed fate, and used what little resources they had to fight against this cruel act of anti-Semitism. Outmatched, they still persevered. Upon recapturing the Temple, they lit a menorah, and a small amount of oil miraculously lasted far longer than it should have. Light shone down on the Jewish people.
It’s time for us to become modern day Maccabees. Across the world, anti-Semitism is on the rise. Earlier this month, just a few hours from my hometown of Boston, Jews in Jersey City were attacked and murdered for their faith. This was just the latest massacre of Jews in America. Young Jews have the responsibility to channel their inner Maccabee to fight anti-Semitism on campus and in their communities, alongside people of other backgrounds.
In Boston, we’ve assembled a group of Jewish and non-Jewish students who work together to combat anti-Semitism in a program called “Together, Restoring their Names.” This project, supported by Combined Jewish Philanthropies’ IACT Initiative, uses the intersectional lessons of the Holocaust to teach student fellows about how they can be beacons of light against anti-Semitism.
Over Thanksgiving, students traveled to Amsterdam and the Bergen-Belsen Concentration Camp on a trip called “Anne Frank in Reverse.” The trip, which followed the life of famous teen backwards from death to adolescence, focused on how Anne’s story teaches others about the responsibility that each individual has to make a better world. Among the group were Jews, Muslims, Christians, and Hindus who all learned in the spirit of one of Anne’s lesser known quotes. “I don’t believe that the big men, the politicians and the capitalists alone, are guilty of the war. Oh no, the little man is just as guilty, otherwise the people of the world would have risen in revolt long ago,” she wrote.
Channeling the power of the “little man,” our student fellows researched and educated each other about anti-Semitism. For example, speaking outside of Amsterdam’s Resistance Museum, Clark University student fellow Penelope Kogan narrated the inspiring story of Hans Calmeyer, who was appointed by the Nazis to identify Jews in the Netherlands. “Calmeyer realized his position afforded him a lot of authority,” Kogan explained. At great risk, he used his position to find loopholes to help Jews, to whom he was endeared after working with a Jewish woman in his first office. “His overall interventions were very successful. He saved 3000 Jewish lives and the majority of them were on the basis of false documentation,” Kogan said.
Consistent with the name “Together, Restoring their Names,” students focused on many personal and singular stories of the Holocaust. Throughout the trip, participants learned of more individuals who resisted the anti-Semitic status quo. At the Anne Frank House, the group examined the personal history of Miep Gies, a Dutch woman who hid Anne Frank and other Jews from the Nazis during the Holocaust. At Bergen-Belsen, they spoke of Michael Bentine, a British soldier turned famed comedian who assisted in the liberation of the camp. Speaking seriously and candidly, Bentine later explained how awful the anti-Semitism was. “To me Belsen was the ultimate blasphemy,” he said.
Everywhere they went, student fellows were struck by the power of one person and small groups who were able to execute positive resistance to the Nazis. As a result, the students vowed to bring what they had learned back to Boston, educating their peers about anti-Semitism. Plans are already in the works for educational events at multiple campuses, where our student fellows will be modern Maccabees, using limited resources to shine brightly across their communities.