Moral Responsibility

Intolerance surrounds us. Mostly driven by extremists and fanatics, acts of violence — in varying degrees — erupt daily in the name of some sort of ill-conceived or ill-founded moral or religious superiority. Throughout history, anti-Semitic acts — ranging from swastikas painted on walls of buildings to suicide bombers blowing up busloads of innocents — have plagued the Jewish people. Unfortunately, there even are Jews who are extremists.Yesterday in Israel, for example, an ultra-Orthodox man stabbed and seriously injured six at Jerusalem’s Gay Pride Parade. As naive and immature as this may sound, I simply don’t understand why people can’t live and let live.

* * *

I was back in Minsk, Belarus with colleagues this week. It was my second trip in nine months. There to learn about its Jewish history and the current renewal of Jewish identity, we visited former shtetls, spoke with individual members of the community (across all age demographics), and participated in activities at thriving summer camps. Though perhaps not loved and embraced by all, the Jewish people of Belarus (about forty thousand in total) enjoy a life of relative safety and security; free of overt hatred and bigotry.

Although we met and talked to many people, one personal tale deeply affected me. Tamara is a smart, articulate, lovely woman of about sixty. In1989 she moved to Novogrudok, about two hours outside of Minsk, and immediately felt it was her place. She learned the history of the town and was compelled to create a Jewish museum to chronicle the events that took place there during World War II. In particular, she assembled facts surrounding the digging of a tunnel and subsequent escape of two thirds of the Jews in the ghetto there; most of whom successfully met up with the Bielski brothers and survived the war hiding out in a forest.

We came to learn that Tamara is not Jewish and asked her why this undertaking became such a personal mission. She shared with us that her grandfather had had a close Jewish friend. During the war, however, they escaped their town and found themselves at a fork in the road. Her grandfather suggested that they separate because it would not be safe for him to be caught with a Jew, so each man chose his own path. Both survived the war. Both ended up back in their hometown. Yet neither ever spoke with the other since that fateful day.

“Okay,” I asked Tamara, “I understand your story, but why did you feel you had to create this museum?” She looked me straight in the eye and without hesitation said, “Moral responsibility.”

Moral responsibility. So easy to say. So hard to accept. Virtually impossible to act upon; yet where there is the will there is a way.

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