A few weeks ago I met with rabbi Lee Bycel, an inspirational American Jewish leader and human rights activist. He made a trip to Germany and the Netherlands to see the impact of the refugee crisis with his own eyes and talk to those involved. I introduced him to Mohammed, a 22 year old young Syrian refugee, with Palestinian ancestors, who is a student and founded his own NGO. He builds bridges of understanding between the Dutch population and Syrian refugees while breaking the walls of intolerance and prejudice. The dynamics between them was heartwarming. Rabbi Bycel practices what he preaches. He has travelled to Darfur, South Sudan and many other places of conflict to not stand idly by and see how he could be of any help. Not because anyone asked, but because it is the right thing to do. His moral courage defines him. Not only does he serve humanity he also serves his own congregation day and night. Be it a sick person, or anyone in need of comfort or advice. Day and night, he is there. If only all our religious leaders would follow his example, peace would no longer be the exception, but the rule. I feel very grateful for having the merit to call him my friend.
Chantal Suissa, Editor- in-chief
Rabbi Lee Bycel, Professor and Humanitarian Activist:
“Early in life, I learned the unambiguous and powerful words: ‘Never Again.’ I actually thought that the expression would create a new human ethic that would never allow human beings to be systematically murdered for their religious, ethnic, national or racial identities again. I was wrong. I teach because of my commitment to delve into what it means to be human, to have a conscience, to stand up for what is right, to speak truth even when no one wants to hear it. I teach with the hope of raising awareness and empowering college students that, indeed, their acts do matter, each and every day.
I teach so that others can understand this nightmare of history, of humanity, through the stories of the incomprehensible acts that human beings are capable of: for example, the murder of six million Jews during the Holocaust, as well as five million other innocent people.
I was not alive during the Holocaust, but I learned that the United States was a bystander and chose not to intervene, not to attempt to save millions of lives during the Holocaust. On the other hand, I was an adult, with what I thought was a developed social awareness, during the nightmare of Rwanda. Yet, I did not do anything during Rwanda. I was a bystander. I have heard so many times since then that just a few phone calls might have made an impact on the White House or on Congress.
In 2003, I started to learn about the unfolding genocide in Darfur. I felt, as a human being and as a Jew, a deep responsibility to act in some way that might make a difference. I spent Yom Kippur of 2004 in Darfuri refugee camps in Eastern Chad. This was the first of several trips to that region, including trips to Darfur and South Sudan. Sitting in these refugee camps, I bore witness to the greatest of human suffering and to the incomprehensible brutality and human degradation that can be inflicted upon other human beings.
Why do I now teach Holocaust ant Genocide? I teach Holocaust and Genocide because of my meeting with Adam Mussa in the Kuonongo Refugee Camp. A native Darfuri, a teacher, a man who speaks English, he fled with his wife and the children from their home in a village that had been pillaged and burnt, and walked hundreds of miles to the isolated desert of Eastern Chad. I could see on Adam’s face his pain, and the horror that he and his family and friends had lived through. Yet, I heard in his words a person of hope, courage, and an extraordinary desire to still believe in the goodness of human beings. He later wrote to me: ‘I believe that the day will come when we will be home. Our gratitude to those who care about us.’ Adam still is not home. I teach so that my students can learn about Adam and be challenged by the question – in what way are we responsible to other human beings?
I teach Holocaust and Genocide because of A-7603, Dora Sorell. She is a Rumanian woman who in her late teens spent seven months in the abyss of human depravity, Auschwitz. At 93, she continues to speak throughout the Bay Area about her experiences. Dora is filled with life. As she explains, she survived because of luck, emotional and physical strength, and knowing when to take an exceptional act of courage that saved her life. Dora is one of the last remaining survivors of Auschwitz who was not a child. Her words bring the nightmare to life – and challenge us to ask piercing questions about our own resolve to integrate her story, and those of millions of others, into our lives. Stories that will motivate us to never stand idly by. As the last remaining survivors die off, we have an enormous challenge to teach the Holocaust.
I teach Holocaust and Genocide because of Wilita Sanguma and the horrors he lived through in the Congo. He speaks about Christmas day 1998 when his world changed forever when his Church was attacked. He became homeless and a wanderer with his family. Today, Wilita is in his mid-20’s and, yet, has already seen more brutality than is imaginable. He lives every day with the fact that six million human beings have died in the Congo and that the world barely cares. When I hear him describe the smell that is embedded in his memory of a village and human beings burning alive, my heart breaks and I ask myself – can this really still be happening? Wilita, now living in San Francisco, is still optimistic, focused on his career and committed to helping the people of his homeland. What his story brings home so clearly is something we already know so well – we certainly did not mean: Never Again. It is a vapid expression of human inadequacy.
I teach Holocaust and Genocide to bring to life the many people who have been Rescuers in the Holocaust and the genocides of the 20th and 21st century. I want people to know about Irena Sendler (and so many others) a Polish Catholic Social Worker who risked her life in saving 2500 Jews. She said about her efforts: ‘Every child saved with my help and the help of all the wonderful secret messengers, who today are no longer living, is the justification of my existence on this earth, and not a title to glory.’ In studying the profiles of many rescuers, what is common among them is that they are people who listen to their own conscience and not to what the world tells them is right. They care about others simply because they are human beings, and they do not see their acts as heroic, but rather they are acting in a way that human beings are supposed to act – actions that make us human.
Most of all, I teach Holocaust and Genocide because I will never give up the belief that our world can be different. Holocaust and Genocide are more than history lessons. They are a lens into the depravity and the goodness of human beings. I teach this painful subject because I feel it raises the questions of what it means to be human, to have a conscience, to get involved and not to stand idly by, as well as to help emphasize the importance of nurturing our empathy, our moral courage, and our humanity.
I hope that more of us will explore these fundamental questions of human identity and perhaps, in some way, accept the responsibility that we all need to be students and teachers of the Holocaust and Genocide, or else we run the risk of not only transgressing the call ‘Never Again’, but that also in some way we are complicit in ‘again and again allowing demonic human beings to treat the masses as beasts.’ We can do much better than that – we can become aware, we can become engaged, and we can act in ways that will make a difference.”
Rabbi Lee Bycel, Professor and Humanitarian Activist
Lee Bycel is the the rabbi of Congregation Beth Shalom in Napa. He is an Adjunct Professor at the University of San Francisco. In 2014, he was appointed by President Obama to the Board of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and serves on the Committee on Conscience. He has been involved in social justice and humanitarian issues for decades.