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“Never Forget” – Holocaust Remembrance Speech at John Carroll University

The following is the speech I delivered at John Carroll University’s first public Holocaust Remembrance Day event:

Relevant media:

Cleveland Jewish News, “John Carroll honors Holocaust survivors, victims” – http://www.clevelandjewishnews.com/news/local/article_0b16fcdc-a21f-11e2-8cb4-0019bb2963f4.html

Fox 8 News coverage – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yvsyU8aHl8Y

Never again. For many Holocaust survivors around the world, these two words evoke more pain and heartbreak than most experience over the course of a lifetime. But these words have also become a steely resolve and a symbol of hope.

In 1933, Adolph Hitler came to power in Germany. Shortly thereafter, German Jews and other minorities began to experience state-sanctioned discrimination, persecution, loss of property, and nation-wide blame for all of Germany’s economic woes. By September of 1939, on the eve of World War II, minorities living in Nazi controlled areas found themselves being imprisoned, starved, forced to perform hard labor, and murdered by the dozens, or even hundreds at a time. By January of 1942, Hitler’s infamous final solution to the Jewish problem was implemented, which led to the outright massacre of two-thirds of Europe’s Jewish population. By the war’s end, over six million Jews, as well as five million other minorities, were brutally and senselessly annihilated. Mothers and fathers were taken from their children. Brothers and sisters were forced to say goodbye far too soon. It was one of the darkest times in human history.

Around the time Hitler came to power, a man by the name of Isaac Mordechai was 22 years old, working on a family farm in Ukraine, and living a normal life. Then all of that suddenly and dramatically changed. His entire family, including his parents and six brothers were forcibly placed in a Jewish ghetto by the Nazi government. Conditions there were brutal. No member of the ghetto was ever allowed to leave. Eventually, Jews from the ghettos were shipped to concentration camps, and Isaac Mordechai was sent to the Mauthausen-Gusen concentration camp in Austria. Isaac Mordechai was forced, like his fellow inmates, to perform hours of backbreaking labor each day while being forced to endure malnutrition, overcrowding, and constant physical, mental, and emotional abuse from Nazi guards. Between 1940 and 1942, an average inmate of the camp weighed roughly 88 pounds. Prisoners were forced to carry blocks of stone weighing as much as 110 pounds up a large staircase, one stone after another. This led to injury and mortality rates so high that the area of the camp gained the nickname, “Stairs of Death.” Those who survived this brutal ordeal would often be placed in a line at the edge of a cliff at gunpoint, and each would be given the option of being shot, or pushing the prisoner in front of them off of the cliff to their death. Other methods of extermination included ice-cold showers which led to hypothermia, mass shootings, horrifying medical experiments, starvation, electrocution, drowning, and hanging. By the time the camp was liberated by American soldiers on May 5th, 1945, approximately 200,000 inmates had lost their lives, with some estimates ranging as high as 320,000. Out of Isaac Mordechai’s six brothers, only two survived.

After being liberated, Isaac Mordechai went back to living in Ukraine until 1979, when he immigrated to the United States. When he arrived, his family members who came with him began joyfully embracing his other family members who had come to America years earlier. Isaac Mordechai, however, chose to embrace the doorman of the facility he had just arrived in. When his family members asked him why he was hugging this stranger, Isaac Mordechai told them that while he may not have been the man’s blood relative, as far as he was concerned, all Americans were his family members now because of the gratitude he still harbored towards the country who liberated him and his surviving family members from the horrors of the Holocaust. Today, I am proud to call Isaac Mordechai, of blessed memory, my grandfather.

While the horrors of the Holocaust cannot and should not ever be forgotten, so too must we not dwell too much on the past. Years later, as Isaac Mordechai’s proud grandson, I have been given the honor and privilege of starting a chapter of Cleveland Hillel, here at John Carroll University. The staff, both at the Cleveland Hillel Foundation and the university, have been nothing but supportive and enthusiastic of bringing the organization to campus. Today, we are all here to remember and honor the countless innocent lives lost to a brutal regime, but we also are here to celebrate the eventual triumph of good over evil. In Hebrew, there is a common phrase shared by Jews all around the world: “Am Yisrael Chai.” In English, it means “The nation of Israel still lives And now I am extremely grateful to say that this is true at John Carroll University. My experiences here with Jewish and non-Jewish students alike have certainly helped to enrich my college experience, and it is my sincere hope that the presence of Hillel at this welcoming university will help to enrich the cultural, religious, and educational experiences of all other students as well. From heartbreak to healing. From despair to prosperity. From unbearable pain to unwavering hope. From a world brought to its knees through global war to a worldwide dream of mutual tolerance, understanding, and peace. This is the lesson of the Holocaust, and it is one that we must never forget.

(I kindly ask that you please do not publish/use any of my speech without my consent)

Accidental Matzo Ball Soup

As I was preparing for my Hanukkah event on campus last winter, I discovered the key to a delicious better-than-your-bubbe’s matzo ball soup. The secret ingredient, you ask?

One heaping cup of “OY VEY!”

My event, which I titled Dreidel Wars and Matzo Balls, was centered around serving up steamy bowls of matzo ball soup to students during finals week. After all, is there anything more comforting than a hot bowl of soup (and especially in a time of such high stress)?

In order for me to obtain a mass quantity of matzo ball soup, however, I would have to either pay a considerable amount of money to a local caterer (although the school was funding this event, I was given only a limited amount of money to work with) or…

I could always make it myself.

Now, there was one significant road-bump in this plan: I can’t cook. In my mind, there was no way I could cook tasty matzo ball soup without messing up somewhere down the line.

BINGO! Fortunately, a fellow peer of mine had graduated from an intensive cooking program in high school, so I pleaded for her help.

I was set.

The day of the event, I had gathered all of the ingredients needed to make matzo ball soup and we met in a seemingly abandoned dormitory kitchen.

We filled up a gigantic pot (which my mother had lent me) with water, placed it on the stove, and started forming matzo balls with our hands. After dropping at least fifty matzo balls in the now boiling hot water, I was unexpectedly hit with some horrible news:

“I have to run to a meeting,” she said.

At this point, the soup was already on the stove and smelled wonderful. I dropped another twenty or so matzo balls from our already made mixture into the soup.

Despite now being alone, I was feeling confident and excited for my event… until I decided to give the matzo balls a taste.

They were hard as rock. Actually, I wouldn’t be surprised if these matzo balls were harder than some types of rocks. Great.

My event was surely ruined. Matzo ball soup was supposed to be the main attraction. Now what?

I decided to scoop all of the rock-hard matzo balls out of the water and toss them in the garbage. I then added half a carton of consomme, four bags of egg noodles, and a whole lot of baby talk to my soup, praying that it would at least be edible.

I carried the pot over to my event, and made sure students knew that they were not obligated to try the soup by any means.

The end result of my event: a completely empty pot and endless appreciation.

Students came back for seconds.

I have absolutely no idea how or why my soup turned out to be such an incredible hit with students, but I can say that God was with me that day in helping to bring a taste of Judaism to my school…

even if my matzo ball soup didn’t have any matzo balls.

Organization Categorization: Cultural or Spiritual?

Unfortunately, many students seem to have a misconstrued representation of my organization as one which is deeply rooted in religion. Therefore, one of my most important tasks on campus lies in actively marketing my organization as one which is predominately cultural, and not spiritual. Many students notice that my organization is affiliated with a certain religious group (Judaism), and thus feel internally hesitant. This feeling, in my mind, is rooted the fact that most religiously devoted students stand up on their hind legs when presented with an opportunity to “engage” in a religion which different from theirs. When I set up a table on campus with information about my organization, a plethora of students always approach me intrigued, but as soon as they hear or see the word “Jewish,” they leave seemingly uninterested. Students develop the misguided belief that either they have to be Jewish to partake in my events or that I am attempting to convert them.

Religion is inevitably a touchy subject and scares people away. This is why I strive to make it known that my organization offers the opportunity to be well-rounded culturally through:

1. Advertisements which imply my organization will provide unprecedented and valuable cultural knowledge.

2. Events which utilize the more cultural aspects of Judaism, while avoiding those which could be considered directly religious.

Following these guidelines has made my organization significantly more enticing, although occasionally I still have to chase students yelling, “You don’t have to be Jewish!”

Choosing a Proper Event Title

I named my first Hillel event on campus Schmooze with the Jewz – clever, right? I was hoping to attract many students with something that sounded rhythmic and hip, but unfortunately my “brilliant” title didn’t get quite the attention I thought it deserved. Through personal trial and error, I have learned the following in regards to what exactly makes a befitting and attractive event title:

1. Spend a Considerable Amount of Time Thinking of a Title

An event title is important and should embody qualities of catchiness and appeal – brainstorming is absolutely necessary! For instance, which event would you rather attend? An event titled The Culture of Rosh HaShanah (I have seen plenty of events with generic titles like this around campus) or Rockin’ the Jew Year? Take some time to create a fun-sounding and memorable event title, and don’t force a title if it doesn’t sound quite right.

2. Use Terms the General Public Will Understand

Using the word “schmooze” in my title was a regrettable faux pas on my part, especially at a Catholic University. Granted, I am sure that many verbose students were aware that “schmooze” means to cozily chat, but a large amount of students were left confused. I would recommend staying away from words that the general public may not fully understand.

3. Include Food

Including food in an event title may sound humdrum, but it’s proven to be effective. The fact is that college students are more likely to come to an event if there is food. Advertising food through an event title is a direct way of reaching students without them having to investigate an event further. A few wonderful examples:

  • Fruit B’Shevat! (my personal event – play off of the holiday of Tu B’Shevat)
  • Sushi in the Sukkah! (used by various Jewish organizations, including mine, and it works!)
  • Latkepalooza! (used by various Jewish organizations, and it works!)
  • Matzo Ball Madness! (used by various Jewish organizations, and it works!)

    My title made it clear that food was being offered!

Five Tips to Attract Students to Your Event

1. Free Food Sets the Mood

Many college students are often on the prowl for ways of obtaining tasty food without having to forfeit meal swipes. Although dishing out a scrumptious cultural food like falafel may seem like an excellent idea at first, I would suggest offering more conventional foods (i.e. pizza) and then slowly introducing cultural favorites. Open up a gateway for a variety of students to attend your event by playing it safe at first.

2. Scheduling Far in Advance will Unlock Greater Advertising Potential

Schedule events at least one month or more in advance to allow flexibility in choosing a prime date and facility for an event. Additionally, bonus opportunities will arise given the lack of immediateness. For instance, booking my Rosh Hashanah event this year two months in advance gave ITS personnel adequate time to design an eye-catching advertisement which was then placed on school televisions. Constantly looking ahead will allow for more time to experiment and use different advertising techniques.

ITS personnel made me this nifty TV graphic!

3. Optimal Timing is a Must

  • Take measures in finding out when other student organizations meet to avoid any scheduling conflicts and overlapping commitments from students.
  • Schedule events in the evenings to ensure most students will be available and not in class.
  • Avoid “party days” to attract an ample number of students. Initially, stay away from Friday and Saturday nights as they are not ideal for students — many would rather party than participate in dreidel wars.

4. Make it Easy for Students to Find You

Directions tend to make things complicated. Pick a well-known area in school with plenty of student traffic. Not only will this make an event enormously easier to locate, but most students casually walking by will stop if there is free food. My very first Hillel event took place in a campus conference room and attracted considerably less students than all of my following events in the Student Center Atrium.

5. Network with as Many Departments on Campus as Possible

Many schools will often have different departments promoting similar principles – don’t be afraid to establish a connection with all of these departments.  I work directly with The Center for Student Diversity and Inclusion, Campus Ministry, and Student Union to make sure the word gets around about all of my events. Consequently, my advertisements are featured on multiple fronts and I have more than one school department to fall back on should I have a funding request. Additionally, I am able to pinpoint Jewish students that already have connections with certain departments and obtain their contact information.