There have been about 85 Morris Rubell Holocaust Remembrance Journeys to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington.
Begun in 1996, they have involved over 3,000 students and 300 teachers, mostly from public schools.
But, according to director Michael Rubell, one recent trip “was honestly one of the most amazing we’ve done.”
Last month, at their initiative, eight students from the confirmation class at Temple Beth Shalom in Livingston were joined on a Rubell journey by 21 peers from the Irvington High School Career Vision Ambassadors program, a student leadership program, and by residents of Covenant House in Newark, the state’s largest provider for at-risk and homeless people ages 18-21.
Black and white, Jewish and non-Jewish, the youngsters shared a bus ride to Washington and toured the museum together. In addition to learning together the lessons of the Shoa, the youngsters were able to meet people whose paths they otherwise never would have crossed.
On the bus, the students heard from Fred Heyman of Morristown, who has taken the journey many times before. Born in Berlin, Heyman survived the war by going into hiding. After telling his story, said Beth Shalom’s Rabbi Geoffrey Spector, “it was clear everyone was incredibly moved, and some Covenant House residents shared that they were all in some kind of crisis, often without a home.”
“Fred told them, ‘I so connect with you; we are all survivors.’ They asked him, ‘Did you ever lose hope? And he told them, ‘You are survivors, like I am, I made it through hell, and you can too. The human spirit, the will to live and survive is the strongest there is — never lose that hope.’”
The encounter with Heyman had another impact on the young people, said Spector. He said he heard some of them say, “No one can ever tell us that the Holocaust never really happened; we met Fred.”
One Beth Shalom student, Seth Goldberg, a 16-year-old sophomore at Livingston High School, told NJJN that he learned that despite the differences in the participants’ backgrounds, “you’re the same, not that different; you might have a better situation or a worse situation, but we are no different from one another.”
Taking that message to heart was the chaperone from Covenant House, Janette Scrozzo, its outreach and volunteer manager. Despite the somber theme, it was a “beautiful journey,” she said.
Scrozzo was especially moved by the “special moments” during their visit to the Lincoln Memorial after the museum tour.
“Rabbi Spector led the young people in prayers in Hebrew, and we were able to recite the names of concentration camps” during the chanting of the Kaddish. “He looked at everyone, a mosaic of different people,” said Scrozzo, “and talked about Martin Luther King’s ‘I Have a Dream’ speech. He made the kids understand the shared struggles of the Jewish people and the African-American community.”
Echoing her sentiments in a phone conversation with NJJN was Khalil Ware, 20, a Covenant House resident. He said that days after the museum visit, he couldn’t “get the images out of my head — the pictures of people in lines, marching to their death, naked women holding their children, who would die in the next second — it was all based on hate.”
He said of the opportunity to know the Jewish participants, “It is a necessity to have close relations with others — even if just for the day. At least that one day we could all sit together in understanding.”
Jamil Wilkins is a member of the alumni board of CVA. He and Shavane Thompson, board secretary, accompanied the 14 students chosen by CVA CEO and president Catherine V. Sauls to go on the trip.
The journey, he said, “was a mind-boggling, overwhelming, rewarding experience. My mission now is to broaden my knowledge and understanding.”
Spector said he believes all the participants were enriched by the experience intellectually, ethically, and spiritually.
“We accomplished a mission, fulfilled a mitzva,” he said. “Together, we took a huge step in establishing a broad ‘Coalition of Conscience’ that will help to ensure that demagogues and historical revisionists will never succeed in erasing the lessons of the Shoa from the collective memory of civilization.”
Rubell, a Morristown resident, started the program a year after the death of his father, Morris, a Holocaust survivor. The foundation receives assistance from the Holocaust Council of MetroWest.