Many have been persecuted over the years and there have been other genocides, but there has never been one of the magnitude of the Holocaust. It might have been conceived and originally plotted by the Germans but other countries and ethnicities were willing accomplices.
Not only did the Nazis try to physically wipe out a people, but they burned Jews’ holy books, set their synagogues aflame and destroyed their schools. To the Nazis killing Jews wasn’t enough, they tried to erase traces of Jewish culture from their society. This weekend the Jewish holiday of Shavuot begins. It commemorates the Jews receiving the Torah/Ten Commandments at Mount Sinai.
What is often overlooked in discussion of the Holocaust, is that not only did the Nazis wipe out all the Jewish schools in the many countries that they conquered before the end of WWII; they also took great pleasure in murdering great Jewish scholars who taught God’s laws given in the Torah.
In Jewish tradition, students were not just taught to memorize biblical passages, but were taught ways of examining Torah text in a certain manner and those nuances were disseminated from one scholar to another. By the Nazis drastically reducing the number of Jewish scholars, it made it more difficult for Jewish students to learn in this manner.
Jewish institutions have been trying to fill that void of Jewish scholarship that was decimated by the Holocaust. Rabbi Dovid Hofstedter, the son of Holocaust survivors, is one of the rabbis that has been working diligently to bring back that high-level scholarship. He established a global educational initiative called Dirshu. Dirshu is unique because it doesn’t set up schools; rather it offers schools a set, rigorous curriculum.
Students who study with the Dirshu program aren’t mandated to take tests offered by the program, but those who do, are given an economic incentive. If they do well, they are given stipends and to those who might struggle financially, those stipends are of great help.
I was impressed when learning about this program because of its global in reach in spreading the study of Torah. It stretches from cities and towns in the United States to villages in Europe to remote places in the world such as Hong Kong. Students can learn at school, but adult students can also study with groups or with just a knowledgeable study partner. You can be 13 or 85 and study the same material and take the same tests.
One thing the Holocaust did succeed at was decimating the number of Jews there are in the world, but now one of the biggest threats to the Jewish community is assimilation. Aware of that, Rabbi Hofstedter’s Dirshu program is brought to a myriad of communities and boasts 40,000 participants each year. The Rabbi feels that teaching Jews about their sacred texts: Torah, Talmud and the teachings of the famed author and rabbi, The Chofetz Chaim, keeps Jews from assimilating. According to Rabbi Hofstedter, if Jews are knowledgeable about their religion, they are much less likely to leave it. In fact, he notices that the more they learn, the more observant they want to become.
As Jews world over celebrate Shavuot and the receiving of the Torah, it is nice to know that despite how Hitler tried to end Jewish education there are organizations like Dirshu who are making sure it continues.
Follow Jeremy on Twitter @frankeljeremy.