As we mourn the passing of Elie Wiesel, we also worry for the future, how we will be able to remember the Holocaust without survivors and, in turn, how we can remind the world of this greatest of crimes and its consequences.
But Wiesel’s compassion and insight were not limited to the Holocaust, although that is a subject vast enough to command the attention of several lifetimes. Rather, he used his personal experience of loss, pain and rebirth as a lens through which he empathized with and fought for victims of injustice everywhere.
Among them were the third of world Jewry trapped in the Soviet Union. Denied access to their heritage and made convenient scapegoats in Cold War regional power plays, many Jews lost all connection to their identity save their surname and the discrimination that it attracted.
His 1966 book “The Jews of Silence” brought the plight of the refuseniks into popular consciousness with its thunderously gentle call to action: “What torments me most is not the Jews of silence I met in Russia, but the silence of the Jews I live among today.”
Twenty years after “The Jews of Silence” was published, 250,000 people rallied in Washington, D.C. in support of Soviet Jews, leading to mass emigration to Israel and beyond. Twenty years from now, there may be precious few left of the 1.7 million Jews who remain.
This is where ORT comes in.
Through its network of 16 pluralistic day schools, ORT has built a reputation for academic excellence which, together with its superb facilities and career-savvy focus on science, technology, engineering and math (STEM), attracts thousands of students from families that are not affiliated to the community. But there is more at play than the head start in life that an ORT education cam give ambitious Jewish boys and girls. The pull of peoplehood is powerful and finds celebratory expression in ORT schools’ Jewish Studies programs and activities including weekend and summer camps and trips to Israel.
ORT students come home at the end of the day not only enthused but also enriched with Hebrew and a love of Israel. And it is also not uncommon for students to reintroduce Jewish practice in their family homes, reversing what had seemed an inexorable slide into assimilation.
Such an impact is a tribute to the support ORT receives from Jewish Federations and friends, such as the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews. As president of World ORT, I am proud of what we do in the FSU — and in Israel and 35 other countries. And I thank every contributor who makes our work possible.
Conrad Giles is president of World ORT.