With the passing of Elie Wiesel this week, I lost a dear teacher and mentor of over 30 years. I will always be his student.
From the first time I heard him speak when I was a teenager until our last meeting just two years ago, he asked me questions that I needed to ask myself, supervised my graduate theses, taught me how to teach and lived and sang and smiled so that I would understand what it means to be a Jew. Sifting through so many memories, I realized that elements of Wiesel’s life offer useful challenges to segments of our Wexner alumni communities.
When I would mention his name among Israelis, I would often hear some variation of the sentiment, “If he’s such a good Jew, why doesn’t he live in Israel?” I think Wiesel’s life offered a challenge to that pillar of Zionist thinking — shlilat hagalut, the negation of life in exile. In the early State and even into our times, some believe that only life in Israel is full and complete, in the Zionist and Jewish sense. Wiesel’s life questions this assumption. His Jewishness seemed his primary identity even more than which passport he carried. This leads me to ask: If Israelis have made Judaism secondary to Israeli-ness, and if American Jews have for the most part made Judaism secondary to our membership in American polity and society, is there something both cultures can learn from Wiesel’s Jewish citizenship of the world?
Wiesel’s message in speech and deed was that the more profoundly Jewish we are, the more human and thus the more universal we are. Wiesel’s shining example subverted the dominant paradigm that Jewishness and universalism were polar opposites; the best way we can be human, he taught by example, is to be profoundly Jewish. One way he exemplified that was by lifelong study and learning. He studied Talmud every day, and many of our courses in “Literature and Memory” at Boston University were fueled by his desire to read and teach new books and new fields of human experience in literature. We are the people of the book, and I think I’m not revealing any great secrets to say that we do not always live up to our calling. All of us Wexner Alumni could be doing more to promote and broaden Jewish literacy — first within ourselves and our families, as well as in our communities.
We Wexners lead synagogues, JCC’s, schools, Federations and independent organizations. Especially, alumni of the Graduate Fellowship carry the name of “The Jewish Community” on our business cards. Are we living up to that calling? Elie Wiesel felt that solutions for the problems of the next century could and should come from the Jewish people. The challenge to us professional leaders is: are our organizations as transformative as they could be? Or are we sufficiently invested in the status quo that we fear to take risks, to exercise moral leadership, to chart a new path, to ask big questions, to speak truth to power?
The truths we are called upon day to day to articulate are less ground-shaking than Elie Wiesel’s telling the President of the United States that his place is not visiting SS graves in Germany. Yet our daily obligation is to lift up the Jewish people, one Jew at a time; to be the beacons of light that, as a nation, constitute a light unto all the nations. It’s a lot to ask. But if not us, then who? If not now, when?
My own experience of learning from Elie Wiesel was of seeing a transformational teacher at work. He loved teaching and he taught me that the more you teach, the more you learn. I saw that he loved questions from his students. He loved meeting them and hearing where they came from and where they were hoping to go in life. He loved hearing their reactions to literature, seeing the world through their eyes. I also saw that he extended himself to the utmost to help his students further their studies and find satisfying work. If we only lived up to his outstanding example of extending ourselves to help one another in whatever it is that each of us needs, we could say dayeinu.
May Elie Wiesel’s memory continue to inspire us and motivate us for generations to come.
And may the soul of Eliezer ben Shlomo Halevi veSarah be bound up in the bond of eternal life.
Joe Kanofsky, WGF Alum (Class 11) served as an Andrew W. Mellon Teaching Fellow for Professor Elie Wiesel at Boston University. His Master’s degree on Heschel and his PhD in Comparative Literature (on Kafka and Rebbe Nachman) were both supervised by Wiesel. After earning his rabbinic ordination, Joe assumed the post of Poland Director for the Ronald S. Lauder Foundation. Living in Warsaw, he and his wife Sharona taught and traveled to Jewish communities all around Poland and organized formal and informal educational programs. In 2004, he and his family moved to Toronto, where they currently reside. Joe is the rabbi of Kehillat Shaarei Torah in Toronto and can be reached at email@example.com.