What an incredible time to be in Memphis, Tennessee celebrating and educating during Black History Month. One of the largest cradles for the civil rights movement. A place where I am blessed to have grown up and call home until I was eighteen years old. I’d like to thank Midwest and Memphis NCSY/ JSU and their Director Jamie Gibber for partnering and sponsoring five events. Thank you so much to the Jewish Federation of Memphis for your support. I was involved with NCSY as a teen, and as an adult, it feels full circle for the opportunity to inspire their members and classmates through Jewish Student Union clubs and other community events. NCSY connects with Jewish teens through innovative, cutting-edge social and recreational programs to develop a positive Jewish identity.
Our first event was at Germantown High School. I couldn’t think of a better way to kick off the speaking tour. We discussed the relationship between the Jewish and Black communities. Most of the students had no idea that Dr. Martin Luther King and Rabbi Heschel organized for our communities to march together in advancement for African Americans to have civil rights. One of the first steps in the Holocaust was labeling and singling out Jews. Where they lived and where they worked. It should be no surprise how personal this issue became to the Jewish community. After all, what is the difference between placing a Yellow Star or a colored sign on a bathroom or a water fountain? The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 were drafted in the Religious Action Center, a political arm of the Reform Judaism movement. Jewish people were instrumental in developing the NCAAP and through the work of Jewish philanthropist Julius Rosenwald many primary education schools and colleges including Howard were created for African Americans.
Memphis NCSY has a unique Israel education program where public and private school students meet once a week for nine weeks to learn all about Israel. It was an honor to share my experiences with anti-Semitism in college and to empower the youth to recognize their role when it comes to leadership and advocacy. I never experienced racism growing up, and was shocked to experience anti-Semitic attacks in Boca Raton—a town where there are more Jews than the entire state of Tennessee.
I presented “Don’t Dimmer Your Shimmer” a program to educate on the United States Israel relationship, Israel’s relationship with other nations, and the importance of collaboration through humanitarian aid and business efforts. One of the participants reported, “Hearing and learning from someone so active in the Jewish community was very interesting. I am very interested in this sort of advocacy because I’ve never had a class or resources where I could truly learn about Israel, but now I do. Hearing Ms. Rayna’s story truly resonates with me.” Later that evening, I got to meet with Memphis NCSY’s “Latte & Learning” to share my story and the importance of honoring your parents while using your talents to make the world a better place.
Next, I got to speak at my alma matter White Station High School with a one-hundred-year-old Holocaust Survivor named Sam Weinreich. We spoke to an auditorium filled with hundreds of students. The audience laughed as I shared the last time I was on the stage, I actually lost freshmen class president.
My late father Allen Exelbierd, a dear friend of Sam’s, was also a White Station graduate. We created the event to inspire the students, but also to honor the memory of my father. That same week we unveiled my father’s headstone. In Judaism, we wait at least a year before seeing the stone. My father’s parents were Holocaust Survivors. The majority of his family was murdered. We will never know where they were “buried”. My father’s older brother Felix was the last Exelbierd born in Europe, and my Daddyo was the first Exelbierd born in America. My grandparents were hardworking immigrants and were able to provide my father with a much better life than my Uncle. At the unveiling, my Uncle mentioned how lucky we are to live in a time where Jews can gather to mourn loved ones, and that we get to know where they are buried. I empowered the students to learn their own family history and to appreciate the relationships they have with their families. After I spoke Sam shared his story. Sam managed to survive Auschwitz and Dachau. You can read more of his incredible tale of survival here. Some of the teachers reported the ninth grade students had just finished reading Ellie Wiesel’s book Night and our event was perfect timing. Sam had a profound impact. Here is what some of the teens had to say!
“I just thought it was really sad what Adolph Hitler had done to them and I just wish it was better for them and I am glad he survived.”- Connor
“Wow-honestly, I loved the stories he had to tell. I think storytelling is a really big part of learning and coping with histories so that we can talk about these issues. Talk about things that make us feel uncomfortable so that we can after we have discussions- act so that we can protect stories so that we can motivate and encourage other people and especially the youth to be involved and stay involved. I loved it and it was awesome.”- Talissa
“I liked hearing the personal view from somebody because you can look it up on youtube and the gist of what happened, but getting a personal view is just some of the best information you could get about the Holocaust.” – Julian
Some of the students had never met a Survivor before. Even though Sam’s speech finished with the bell ringing to mark the end of the school day, he was so happy and surprised by how many students voluntarily stayed for more questions and to take pictures. Finally, my tour ended at Christian Brother’s High School. I am so proud to share a student who was empowered by the other teens to bring a Survivor to his school later this year. We talked about leadership and how to maintain values despite challenges that may appear in college. Unfortunately, I am not so sure if the event will happen anymore.
As I write this piece, Survivors around the country have been asked to avoid speaking to students due to the Coronavirus. The Survivors are getting older and it is increasingly hard for them to speak. One of my Survivor friends as of lately can’t speak anymore due to his dementia. All of the memories from Auschwitz are coming back, and he thinks everyone is trying to kill him. It is up to us to continue their legacy and most importantly inspire the younger generation to learn how hateful comments can turn into genocide. It is imperative that while the Survivors are alive they see the next generation getting involved with education.
As the granddaughter of Holocaust Survivors, in their memory and my father’s memory, I promise to never forget and to forever preserve their legacy. I do this through my speaking engagements and my podcast with Holocaust Survivors entitled Continuum. My goal is to continue educating on the topic in a way that has never been done before. Thus, when I interview the Survivors it is not just about their Holocaust experiences, but also life after the war. Survivors are not victims. They came out of the ashes, got jobs, raised children, created businesses, and dealt with current events. They survived an entire life of loss, joy, and love. There is so much we can learn from them.