Other visitors might have been surprised to see me, a Reform-turned-secular alumna of a pluralistic Jewish day school in Texas, showing up in Brooklyn—wearing a modest black shell top and ankle-length skirt, fresh out of the packaging—at a Holocaust museum created by Orthodox Jews in an Orthodox community. But I was the one who was surprised when I left the museum having found it more resonant for me than any number of other Holocaust museums I’d visited.
I was 11 years old when I began learning about the Holocaust in school. It seemed like we studied the Holocaust in a different class every year, approaching the terrifying events from a new angle each time.
Not only was the Holocaust a part of my intellectual life through school, it was a part of my ritual life through synagogue. In some Reform communities, there is an organization that pairs bar mitzvah boys and bat mitzvah girls with individual children who were killed during the Holocaust, to shine a light on the child’s memory by personalizing ritual objects or leaving a chair empty during the ceremony. I participated in this program because everyone in my synagogue participated. When I think back to my bat mitzvah, I still remember Fani Volf, a young girl from Berlin who was killed in Auschwitz when she was 12.
In a 2013 Pew Report, 73 percent of American Jews said that remembering the Holocaust is an essential part of being Jewish. But this notion of a sort of “Holocaust Judaism” leaves out an important group of Jews: ultra-Orthodox Jewish communities like the ones based in Brooklyn, for whom the Holocaust is but one part of a much larger history of persecution including the destruction of the temples in Jerusalem, the Spanish Inquisition, the Russian pogroms.
The Orthodox community of Borough Park, Brooklyn, is in the midst of establishing its own Holocaust museum, the Amud Aish Memorial Museum and Kleinman Holocaust Education Center, opening within the next year. Located in the heart of one of the largest Orthodox communities outside of Israel, this new museum will offer a different narrative from the standard ones put forth by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., in which the Holocaust is a unique and defining event of the 20th century.
When I came across an article about Jews who wouldn’t step foot in the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum—a place that had always seemed, in my mind, sacred to Jews in America—I had to know more. It’s not that these Orthodox Jews won’t go to the museum because they refuse to interact with members outside of their community. Instead, it has to do with the ways that the museum in D.C. is out of sync with their ideology and their interpretation of Jewish law. For them, in other words, the D.C. museum is not kosher, and therefore not an appropriate place for them to visit.
When I visited the Amud Aish Memorial Museum’s temporary space in Mill Basin, Brooklyn, earlier this year—the actual museum is set to open in the next year—I had the opportunity to shadow a school group. And from the very beginning of the tour, when Director of Education Julie Golding introduced the students to the exhibit, I was puzzled because it was the opposite of the Holocaust learning I had been so immersed in for many years. They’re not looking to scare or to disturb visitors, as Golding explained to me. She has been asked more than once, “When are we going to see the dead bodies?” She proudly answers that they won’t be seeing any of that there.
In her lighthearted introduction, which contained fleeting words in Yiddish, she explained to the students: “This is a museum about life.” In this moment, I realized that these Orthodox students had ahead of them an entirely different Holocaust education from the one I had received. How could teaching about the Holocaust—and, by extension for this Reform-educated writer, Judaism—revolve around anything other than death?
As the tour guide brought the students through the exhibit, we stopped along the way at ritual Jewish items like a challah cover. The woman who made it died in Bergen-Belsen but as our guide explained, “She could have used this fabric to make a blanket, but look—she made a challah cover and kept mitzvot.” Students were being asked to understand the Holocaust through sacrifices made and religious obligations kept.
The most popular artifact among the students and teachers on the tour was a Nazi receipt book that had been used as a lesson-plan book written entirely in Yiddish. The guide dwelled on this book as representative of Jewish religious resistance during the war. The Amud Aish museum focuses on religious and spiritual resistance, while the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum focuses on military resistance by Jews against Nazi soldiers. For instance, in the D.C. museum, there are multiple displays of guns used in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. But when a young boy asked Golding before his Amud Aish tour, “Will we see guns?” she replied, “No, you won’t see guns or anything scary because this is a museum about life, not death.” Amud Aish is a Jewish museum focused on the lives of Jews during the Holocaust—not the weapons used to kill them.
After the tour, I interviewed Miryam Gordon, the program coordinator for school visits. She told me that the tours are designed to emphasize resilience and religion. The Orthodox community’s kids grow up “just knowing” about the Holocaust, she explained, meaning that they grow up hearing stories of what happened from the elders in their community, many of whom are Holocaust survivors. As a result, the museum does not need or want to focus on Hitler and the perpetrators because the students already know about them. They don’t want to see a million pictures of murdered Jews—they want the stories of people who continued living in spite of this. Traditional Orthodox Jewish communities have a perspective on Jewish history outside of the mainstream secular Jewish world. As Rabbi Sholom Freidmann, the museum director, explained to me, “We’re not so concerned with what persecution occurred and what the perpetrators were doing as much as how was the Jewish community responding in that point in history.”
Formal Holocaust education is a relatively new phenomenon in Orthodox communities. After the war, according to Rabbi Sholom Friedmann, the museum’s director, the focus was on rebuilding, not rehashing the tragic history that had taken place. During our conversation, Freidmann stressed the fact that the Orthodox community did not need the Holocaust to identify as Jewish. “The Holocaust played a big role in nonaffiliated communities as far as their actually identifying as a community,” he said, “But the Orthodox community never needed that.”
The question that tour guides leave all their tour groups with is: “What are you going to do for klal yisrael—for the community, the people of Israel?” This is in direct contrast to the way the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum visit ends. The featured take-away slogans in D.C. are: “Think about what you saw,” or “What you do matters,” or “Never again.”
These museums aren’t just presenting different versions of the Holocaust or emphasizing different aspects of it. They are ultimately teaching different lessons. The dominant lesson of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum is fear. Fear that something like this will happen again. Fear for the security of ethnic and religious groups. A disturbing call to action. And the other lesson, at the Amud Aish Memorial Museum, is one of continuity and survival and religious rebirth.
To some, the Holocaust is the defining event of modern Jewish history; there are people like the Jewish-studies teacher at my former day school who said the purpose of taking students to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum is “Jewish identity-building.” But then there are people for whom the Holocaust is just one instance of persecution in a long history of similar events—like Gordon, program coordinator at Amud Aish, who said to me: “The Holocaust is not my Judaism.”
To me, the value in considering these questions and approaches and these museums is that we’re engaging with what I would argue is the defining Jewish issue of our time. The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum is the 11th-most-visited museum in the country, with over 41 million visitors—90 percent of whom are not Jewish—since it opened in 1993.
So many Americans are interacting with all things Jewish through the lens of the Holocaust. And so too are many American Jews interacting with all things Jewish through the lens of the Holocaust. By the time I got to college, I knew far more about the intricacies of the annihilation of European Jewry than I knew about the Tanakh. I could distinguish the Einsatzgruppen from the Gestapo, yet distinguishing Ruth from Naomi was beyond my scope.
For many years, I had been asked to align my Jewish identity with the death of other Jews. From remembering Fani Volf at my bat mitzvah, to school trips that revolved around visiting Holocaust museums and sites—from L.A. to D.C. to Poland—as opposed to thriving areas of Jewish life and culture. Amud Aish showed me how different an education can be—and it’s sticking with me.
Amud Aish will be the first Holocaust museum to open in Brooklyn, which is the area of the country with the highest concentration of Holocaust survivors. And maybe, just maybe, it’ll put a dent in the 73 percent of American Jews who say the Holocaust is the most essential part of being Jewish.
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Noa Gutow-Ellis is a student of history and religion at Colby College in Waterville, Maine.