In a recent interview, I spoke with acclaimed writer, educator, rabbi, and scholar Ariel Burger about the task of the educator on Yom HaShoah—Holocaust Remembrance Day—and every day. A devoted protégé and friend of Elie Wiesel, Burger is the author of Witness: Lessons from Elie Wiesel’s Classroom.
KS: In your bio, you note that a major personal transformation that you underwent in your young adulthood has had a defining impact on your work and that this moment was meeting Professor Elie Wiesel. What did that meeting and relationship teach you?
AB: I think there are things we all go through at certain ages and for many of us, during our teenage years, we start asking very important and fundamental questions about who we are, what’s our role in the world, how can we make a difference, and also why does the world not make any sense, morally, ethically. Our deepest intuitions about the world don’t match up with the reality of how people treat one another.
And so my experience was suffering through those tensions and feeling a lot of discomfort—profound, internal discomfort with the world and myself around those questions. When I started to get to know Professor Wiesel, I brought him all these questions. And I noticed that he didn’t really answer my questions—he responded with other questions. But he did so in a way that was very peaceful and reassuring, and so I started to discover that these questions themselves can be a source of blessing...and that I can connect with other people around the questions without having to resolve them.
KS: Wow, that’s such a powerful statement. I think that's an exciting message to share with our audience given the complexity of our world today and the kinds of questions that teachers receive from their students. It’s powerful to consider that it’s okay to not have answers all of the time.
AB: Yes, I think one of the important roles that teachers can play today is to create spaces in which questioning, inquiry can happen...we can create or design spaces for that kind of inquiry with diversity, without any sacred cows, without any assumptions that are set in stone, but with a tremendous openness and sense of generosity and curiosity—and forgiveness if someone says the wrong thing. That kind of space is really, I think, one of the ways that we can save our society, our civilization, and we’re missing that right now. And I think teachers have a—if not the—primary role to play in creating such spaces. I think teachers can save our society.
KS: On that note, you speak to Elie Wiesel’s thinking around the role of the humanities in making the world a more compassionate place in your book, Witness. Can you say more about that?
AB: One of the challenges that we have to think about is that many of the architects of the Final Solution were very well educated people...that did not inoculate people against evil, and so one of the questions I had for a long time that I discussed with Professor Wiesel was—what is the secret ingredient that can allow education to set us on a different course? Because it’s clearly not enough to have exposure to great philosophers or cultural geniuses. And the answer to that question became the source for my book, really. The whole book is about those ingredients.
The first one that Professor Wiesel always talked about was Memory. What is Memory? It’s an empathic encounter with other people’s stories, where you allow their stories to inhabit you in such a way that you’re changed—your mind, your heart, your nervous system, your body are changed—and you can no longer ignore other people’s suffering. And that’s an important part of what humanities education can be—isn’t always—but can be. And another element is the celebration of questions, and being willing to surface and reveal questions without having the answers... If I put my questions, the edge of my knowing, together with the edge of your knowing, then we encounter one another in a way of friendship and the search for truth, and we’re all on a journey together... I think the celebration of questions and the openness to other people’s stories can really make the difference. So the question for teachers and educators is how to design for that.
KS: I wonder if you might briefly speak to any pointers you would offer to educators who want to design for the kinds of learning outcomes you were just talking about.
AB: If the goal is to support morally activated students who will be able to analyze and assess contemporary questions, who will have the courage to stand up and say things that are unpopular, who will be able to create relationships across aisles of dissent, here are some of the elements that I would recommend:
- Be explicit with students about the power of their voices. Convey in words, and beyond words, that their voices matter. That this isn’t just about the transmission of information from the top down. This is about dialogue between teacher and student, between students themselves, and, very importantly, between students and the texts that we’re studying.
- Be comfortable with silence. When you’re asking a lot of questions, there’s going to be a lot of silence when people are thinking…avoid the temptation of jumping in and resolving the silence. Because that can short-circuit a process of real contemplation and thoughtfulness.
- Test your ideas in actual application…[activate] your students’ sense of empowerment and feeling that “I can do something about this”... If we see bullying and we haven’t prepared for it, it’s very easy to remain silent. But if we’ve visualized these moments and spent time in the lab of the classroom exploring what it means to stand up, and we explored those who stood up in moments of historical darkness...we’ll be more likely to do something. The classroom is a great place because it’s safe to encounter those questions, to practice, and to build our muscles, so that when our students are tested in the real world, they’re ready.
KS: I’m curious about any particular pointers you would offer to educators who would like to observe Yom HaShoah in their classrooms.
AB: ...I don’t take for granted that students feel the importance of Holocaust education… What’s important to [students] is their lives here and now. And that’s right and legitimate… The other side of the paradox is we live better and will make better decisions the more in touch we are with the lessons of the past… And so, I really feel that the memory of the Holocaust is a sacred memory and it’s important in its own right, but I don’t take for granted that young people believe that. What I think they do generally believe is that they want the world to be good now... And so if we’re not drawing on the lessons of the past, there’s a much higher likelihood that we’re going to repeat a lot of mistakes. And in fact, a lot of the questions that we’re facing now are questions that were faced already and were explored or examined in the 20th century. And a lot of the questions we’re facing we thought were resolved.
We didn’t expect to see a rise in antisemitism like this again, with graffiti, and toppled gravestones, and physical attacks. An effigy of an ultra-orthodox Jew beaten up in a town in Poland last week…A shooting in San Diego... There are a lot of patterns that are echoes of things we saw in the 20th century. If we want to learn how to respond to these things, we have to look to the past—and especially to the history of the Holocaust, which is the story of an entire cultured society’s descent into madness—to help us understand how to stop it from happening ever again to anyone. So that’s how I think about Yom HaShoah, and from an educational standpoint: how do you find a hook for students to find relevance in it, to be motivated? And then how do you encounter the story in a way that doesn’t destroy their hope?
KS: Is there anything else that you would like to share with our audience as we observe Yom HaShoah?
AB: One of the things that Professor Wiesel said often is, “One life is worth more than all that has been written about life.” He also said “When you’re fighting hatred, don’t let yourself be defined by hatred. We’re not defined by tragedy, we’re defined by our response to tragedy.” So those are quotes I would keep in mind for teachers on Yom HaShoah—that we want our students to be focused on application and the reality of our lives...to know that they have power, that they can make a difference… We continue to see young people stand up and say things that adults often won’t say. And it’s important for them to know that their choices really matter and make a difference. It’s important to know that, ultimately, we’re about celebrating life.
In my Jewish tradition, mourning death really takes place in the service of choosing and celebrating life. So there’s a place for mourning and grief, and there’s a place for encountering dark places in our history, but it always has to return to life, to what are we doing to celebrate life and to make life better for ourselves and others. Because if not, it’s just an exercise in despair, and that’s not what Yom HaShoah is for. It’s to really galvanize us and motivate us and help us clarify how we can make the world better today. Life is made of moments and the choices that we face in our small beautiful spheres of family, and friends, and community, and the larger sphere of the world. This is something that Professor Wiesel really gave us: a way to encounter the darkness and keep going, to draw out a sense of hope and motivation to do more to help someone who needs our help.
I also want to convey my gratitude to teachers, to all the teachers for doing what they do, because I believe [that teaching] is the most sacred, important profession, especially in times like these. So I really want to raise them up and express tremendous awe and gratitude for all these teachers doing amazing work.