Rabbi Efraim Mintz divides the decades following the Holocaust into different stages based on Jewish reaction to its horrors: the shock and silence of the first two decades after World War II, followed by years marked by the urgency to tell, document and, most importantly, never forget.
The most recent period, said the director of the Rohr Jewish Learning Institute, is now coming to an end, with Holocaust memorials in nearly every major city, millions of dollars being poured into Holocaust museums worldwide, and several documentation projects under way.
With that in mind, Mintz and his organization sought a way to begin a new era of Holocaust memorialization, an era of deriving moral lessons for the current generation from the tragedies that befell millions – finding underlying messages in the face of extreme terror.
The Brooklyn, N.Y.-based institute, the adult-education segment of Chabad Lubavitch, put together "Beyond Never Again: Holocaust – A View from the Soul," a six-part course now being taught internationally and at numerous local venues. It was timed to the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, and designed to help analyze and explore the ethical lessons that can be extrapolated from this tragic experience.
The course, open to everyone, regardless of affiliation, takes a new approach to Holocaust study, according to Mintz, and helps students understand what those "who perished would want younger generations to be inspired by."
Around the World
For seven years now, the Rohr Jewish Learning Institute – just this week renamed in recognition of New York philanthropist George Rohr – has offered adult-education classes three times a year on topics that range from exploring the Kabbalah and its importance to each gender; understanding the messianic idea in Judaism; and studying Jewish life-cycle events. The institute develops the classes and provides the textbooks, lesson plans and multimedia materials to its affiliates around the world.
Taught in 160 cities, including Sydney, Australia, and Cape Town, South Africa, the courses are synchronized so that people can take a class in any city, if they miss one in their hometown. Instructors, mostly Chabad Lubavitch rabbis, attend a mandatory 21?2-day training program over the summer, and participate in additional seminars and online courses throughout the year.
Mintz said that he and his staff of 28 people, including researchers and teachers, spent two years developing and analyzing the material for "Beyond Never Again" in order to create more than just another Holocaust history course.
Due to the sensitive nature of the subject matter, this is the first course offered by JLI that its staff felt needed to be preceded by a pilot course to work out any kinks that might arise before classes began.
Taught once a week over a six-week period, course topics this fall have included a historical look at martyrdom and how these Jewish ideals affect the modern world; an examination of halachic advice sought during the Holocaust and what the responses teach about Jewish values; what can be expected of humanity after such destruction; and how to retain faith in the future of the universe.
The program is endorsed and co-sponsored by more than 100 Holocaust centers, including state commissions; the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.; and Yad Vashem in Jerusalem. It's dedicated to the memory of Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal, who, noted Mintz, wrote a warm endorsement of the project prior to his death in September.
According to Mintz, the Holocaust course has also elicited the highest response in comparison to previously offered courses, with 10,000 students enrolled worldwide. In Greater Philadelphia, a total of 100 men and women are taught by Chabad rabbis in five different locations – namely, synagogues and community centers.
"It's very inspirational," said Linda Balin, a student of Rabbi Yochonon Goldman at Congregation B'nai Abraham in Center City. "I find it very moving, and it made me personally get in tune with my soul. It put a new perspective on a lot of things."
Goldman affirmed that people are looking for meaning: "We've all experienced one form of pain or suffering. We take the individual stories and relate them to our own lives."
Rabbi Shraga Sherman, leader of the course given at the Lubavitch of the Main Line in Bala Cynwyd, expounded upon that idea.
"The goal is to extract an individual perspective on Judaism that informs us and adds a dimension to every detail of life – from the most mundane to the most profound," he explained. "The class is an analysis of not only those victims who had faith, but those that didn't have faith and how they dealt."
Sherman said the composition of his 40-person class – considered the largest in the Greater Philadelphia area – is a microcosm of the larger Jewish community, with Jews of all ages, including one Holocaust survivor, and from all levels of observance filling up the seats.
"The reason," he surmised, "is that the course touches upon that which unifies us. It takes us beyond the history and gives us a soul perspective."
Balin acknowledged that she has learned that there truly are some positive messages to be found from the deaths of six million human beings.
"The last three classes have made me realize how strong Jewish people really are," she said. "The things we overcome only strengthen us and make us more committed to our beliefs."