I look out my window and I’m surprised to see blue skies. It’s been an unusually cold and gray winter—cold for Orange County, anyway—and spring has felt a long way off. That’s short-term memory at work; it’s been cold for so long that it seems like it will always be cold. But the start of spring is less than a week away. And so is the Jewish holiday of Purim.
I love Purim. In part, because it’s a holiday that’s fun for my kids—when they were younger they loved dressing up in costumes and making lots of noise with groggers during the reading of the Megillah (scroll containing the story of Purim). We especially enjoyed scouring the internet for out-of-the-box Purim videos and songs. What has remained consistent is their appetite for hamantaschen. They still like to eat only the filling. Go figure!
I also love Purim because the heroine is Queen Esther, a female character who realizes her potential to make a difference. When this Jewish queen learns that her husband, the Persian king, has signed a decree to allow the destruction of the Jewish people based on a request from his adviser, Haman, she speaks up. Her bravery saves her people.
This story has special significance for all of us at Jewish Federation & Family Services this weekend, as we will be celebrating Jewish women who stand up and make a difference in OUR community. This Sunday, JFFS will hold its Women’s VOICES event, a gathering of more than 700 Jewish women who, through their philanthropic support, help make possible the Jewish programming and social services JFFS offers throughout the year. These women speak up for what they believe in by giving of their time, treasure, and talent to make an impact on the Orange County Jewish community.
I think we know from recent events just how important it is to stand up for what you believe in—whether you’re a woman or a man, and whether you are called upon to support your community or to defend it. Like Queen Esther, we became painfully aware of the potential for anti-Semitism, bigotry, and hate in our own community two weeks ago when a photo of high school students giving a Nazi salute over cups shaped like a swastika circulated on social media. In this act, I also see short-term memory at work.
Memory of Nazi crimes is fading, especially among young people in the United States. According to a recent study conducted by the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, two-thirds of American millennials surveyed cannot identify what Auschwitz is, and 22 percent of millennials said they haven’t heard of the Holocaust or are not sure whether they’ve heard of it.
Of course, the recent OC incident was not an isolated one, and acts of bigotry and hate are not directed solely toward Jews. Our hearts go out to the families of those who were killed in last night's horrific New Zealand mosque attacks, as well as to those injured and to the Muslim community worldwide (please see our statement from earlier today about this).
I believe it was the shock of seeing what the high school students were doing and the rapid spread of the student photo across social media that created a collective outcry, and with it a chance for people, including high school students, to speak up about what is happening. It has led to numerous opportunities to engage in dialogue with both Jewish community leaders and the larger OC community—I've been involved in a Jewish community leader forum and two Newport-Mesa School District public forums since the incident. It is also the opportunity for education, especially of our young people, whose memories do not include the Holocaust.
As we enter Shabbat, we give ourselves permission to set aside the everyday things that keep our short-term memory busy and to focus on what really matters—including the Jewish community that surrounds us. And as Purim approaches, we also have a chance to think about the ways in which we support and defend what we care about, and how our actions impact future generations.