As a twelve-year attendee of Jewish day schools, you might say that I am somewhat of a self-proclaimed expert in Holocaust Memorial Assemblies. The themes and the soundtracks of these gatherings are fairly standard, even if they are not always in the same order. Holocaust assemblies usually feature speeches reflecting on remembrance, alongside a survivor’s testimony. Classic poems like Zelda’s Every Person Has a Name add a sense of solemnity to the occasion. The singing of HaTikvah (usually at the end) creates a sense of hope after the destruction. In recent years, in Georgia in particular, there has also been a beautiful movement to plant daffodil gardens (as we have done in our own synagogue) to memorialize the 1.5 million children who were killed during the Shoah.
But for one notable, powerful, exception, the Holocaust assembly that I attended on Wednesday would have followed this standard schematic. Instead, however, what touched me touched was that it was organized by high school students at the Devereux Center for Advanced Behavioral Health. Devereux, according to its literature, is a facility “committed to positively impacting the lives of children, adolescents, and young adults who are experiencing emotional or behavioral challenges.” Its students, who come from all over the country, typically undergo traumatic experiences in their lives or a kind of failure to thrive “in the system.” And so as I expected, while the assembly had all the elements, what I had not perhaps anticipated was that Hatikvah would be sung by a non-Jewish music teacher from Devereux trained to use music as therapy. The classic Zelda poem and other Jewish songs were recited by non-Jewish students. The story of the Shoah was told by Richard Harker, the Director of Outreach at Kennesaw State University’s Holocaust Museum. “Survivor testimony” was provided by our local consul general to Israel, but the Daffodil Garden, and nearly all of elements of the day were executed by non-Jews.
As Jews, there can be an understandable tendency to claim “exclusive ownership” over the Shoah experience. Yet having witnessed a non-Jewish community connect so deeply to the Shoah, I must confess how deeply touched I was in the way that the lessons of the Shoah clearly carried a universal meaning. In particular, I can’t help but believe that for the students at Devereux, lessons like exclusion, and hope after suffering, must have carried significant weight.
After the assembly, we made our way past the twenty-foot high fence to the garden. Alongside another colleague and many of the students who planted the garden, we dedicated the garden itself. I was honored to conclude with the recitation of the Shehechiyanu, grateful to have been enlivened and sustained to see this sacred moment in the lives of these growing, developing, young souls.