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Swastikas in Aspen

Usually I plan sermons well in advance. But tonight I want to share with you an experience that unfolded this afternoon, which means it’s fresh in my mind. And I think it speaks to some of the current challenges we’re facing in our nation.

First, some background. Earlier this week, the assistant principal of the Aspen High School called me about an incident. A student was suspended for drawing a swastika on a classroom whiteboard. The administration was committed to making this not simply a punishment for the student, but also a learning opportunity. So they asked if I would be willing to meet with him, to impress upon him the gravity of the hate symbol he drew.

Of course I said I was happy to help. Then I ran to my rabbinic network to ask my colleagues what the heck I should say to this student. Many of them had a good, practical suggestion: bring a survivor with you. So I invited our member Tom Waldeck to join me and share his story with the student (I’ll share more about Tom later). Through that, I hoped, the student would understand the swastika in real, personal, relational terms, not just as an abstract symbol.

The meeting happened this afternoon, with me, Tom, the student, the student’s father, and the assistant principal.

The first question they asked me to address was, “What is Judaism?” So eight hours later… But seriously, I tried to muster up some semblance of an answer about how the Christian Bible contains the Jewish/Hebrew scriptures, and the connection to Abraham. I have a feeling it went over the student’s head, and this wasn’t why we’d gathered, anyway. So I turned it over to Tom.

Tom told his story. He was born in 1939 in Holland, at a time when people still thought Hitler would stay focused on eastward advancement and not invade Western Europe. As a baby, Tom fled with his mother and brother by boat to Portugal. His father stayed behind to tend to their business. By the time they realized he needed to get out, it was too late. The Nazis occupied Holland and deported Tom’s father to Auschwitz, where he was murdered.

As Tom was sharing his story, he paused to ask the student, a ninth-grader, if he knew what Auschwitz is. The student shook his head, “No.” If there was a single moment that represented the entire meeting, that was it for me. The student was receptive and respectful throughout, and it started to become clear that this was a case of ignorance.

The student’s father then opened up about his own guilt — “How could my kid do this?” — and accepting the punishment and his own responsibility for his son’s ignorance. Then he voiced a concern: In contrast to his childhood and schooling, when he learned all about the Holocaust and WWII, his son has had almost none of that. True, they’ll read Eli Wiesel’s Night in 11th grade. But shouldn't this history be taught before then?

Ignorance is not a crime, but we spoke about parental and public responsibility for education. This felt like a systemic failure — of institutions, of public schooling, of neighbors relating to neighbors. So we fail, and then we blame this kid for our shortcomings. This issue is heavy, but it’s not rocket science. It requires that we double-down on education and relationships.

That a kid in Aspen, CO can get to high school and barely know anything about Jews or Judaism or WWII or the Holocaust — I suppose it was a bit of a wake-up call for me.

But it’s not the kid’s fault.

I hesitated to share any of this, for fear of adding to the gossip mill or stigma that this kid might face at school. He struck me as a very sweet and kind soul who didn’t know the fullness of the symbol he was messing with. If you’re wondering how he knew the swastika, you don’t have to look very far on social media to see it, especially right now.

In my rabbinate over these past seven years, I have been committed to interfaith partnerships and public leadership — for the congregation to be a presence in the community that lives our values in public. And this is why. This incident of ignorance. This challenge and opportunity.

Our call is education and relationship. To teach and to connect. We can all do more. We must do more. Here in our valley or wherever you call home, volunteer, mentor, lead on issues you care about.

The kid I met with today might not have known better. But we should. No more excuses. Get involved. That, and no less, is how we renew our community and our country.

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