31 March 2011

An Optimistic, Intelligent, & Poetic Conversation: Elie Wiesel Speaks with OC Rabbis

Yesterday, I went to the Rodgers Center for Holocaust Education at Chapman University and joined along with another dozen rabbis in Orange County in an informal conversation with Nobel Peace Prize recipient Elie Wiesel. It was a special opportunity afforded us through Dr. Marilyn Harran, the director of the center.
For those who are unaware of the Rodgers Center, it's the best Holocaust center on any campus in Orange County (just as Chapman has the nicest Interfaith Center around) and perhaps generally in Orange County.
This was made possible in Elie Wiesel's third visit to Chapman (the first was several years ago on the 60th anniversary of his liberation, the second was last spring (which I attended)), as part of a week-long visit of his.
In the sit-down, Mr. Wiesel fielded questions and responded in a thoughtful, intelligent, and what I would describe as almost a poetic way.
Moreover, he was optimistic about Jewish life. One of the first questions he fielded regarded Jewish identity, to which he responded, Be who we are - seeing Jews who are authentically Jewish. That is, not saying what we want in order to be accepted, but who we are. Moreover, learning is a central and key component to Jewish identity. Instead of despairing over American Jewry these days and even more broadly, he said, "the passion for learning has never been so strong" numerically. Also, he said, "anti-semites have never shaped our identity." "Anti-semitism is not fashionable nowadays."
Another interesting piece was that of one rabbi who inquired about rising anti-Muslim sentiments, to which he said, "I'm against collective indictments." "If we say they're all bad, we lose before we start."
But the larger theme of his talk was really about the learning (maybe because he was in the company of rabbis...): "Whenever I have a problem, I go back to learning."
Also, even though he is in his eighties, he is still optimistic, as he said he is working on two books simultaneously: a book on the Baal HaTanya and a work on the Rebbe.
One interesting anecdote (amongst others) he shared with us was that he was slated to speak at the end of a meal at a UJC General Assembly in the 1970s (I don't remember specifically which year) and he heard the head of the organization yell that he would resign if something happened. Wiesel asked him what the matter was: he said some people wanted to do birkat hamazon (by the way, Wiesel noted that, out of the entire gathering - the biggest annual gathering of organized Jewish leadership in North America - there were only a couple kosher tables). To this, Wiesel said, it not only wasn't worth it to resign over something like that, but why was he upset? To this, the head replied that it wasn't on the schedule! So, the compromise was that, since Wiesel was up to speak, they announced that their speaker had requested to do it. Afterwards, Wiesel said, the head met with him in his hotel room and thanked him for that and asked what he could do - any requests. One of them, of course, was about more Jewish stuff (Wiesel noted also that there was no davening, etc. - it really wasn't much of a Jewish event(!), especially considering it was for the leadership of organized Jewish communities in North America; he said the following years (and years to come) the GA was actually Jewish(!)), but also making sure that Soviet Jewry became an issue. Sure enough, it became an issue that the UJC got behind.

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