Beyond the horror

Bnei Brak center teaches Holocaust emphasizing religious Jews' experiences.

David Skulsky, a Ger Hassid from Bnei Brak, near Tel Aviv, may not observe Holocaust Remembrance Day, but he has devoted his life to teaching about the Shoah.

He heads one of Israeli's only ultra-Orthodox centers for Holocaust education - the Kiddush Hashem Archives. Located on Meltzer Street in downtown Bnei Brak, it is part of a large educational complex that belongs to the Ger Hassidim. Skulsky has plans for something much bigger.

"We are talking about a $5 million project at least," he said. "But we [would] know what to do with $18m."

Skulsky, who is still looking for funding to build his dream, has been making plans for close to five years. The museum is to be called the Prager Center in memory of the late Moshe Prager, a Ger Hassid who lost his family in the Holocaust and founded Kiddush Hashem in 1963.

Ester Farberstein, who heads the Center for the Teaching of the Shoah at the College for Girls in Jerusalem's Bayit Vagan neighborhood and trains teachers in the ultra-Orthodox Beit Ya'acov school system for girls, said there was a real need for a museum that told the story of the Holocaust from the point of view of the religious Jew. Haredi boys do not study the Holocaust (or any other secular subject) at high-school age. Farberstein said there was a dimension to the religious Jew's Holocaust experience that was not always given expression in secular circles.

"The Holocaust is shared by every Jew," she said. "It is one of the few things that still connects every Jew, both secular and religious. But there are a few points particular to a religious Jew's experience."

Some examples she gave were the timing of Nazi attacks to coincide with religious holidays, the brutal shaving of religious men's beards and side locks, and the burning of religious books.

Religious Jews see the Holocaust as a war by the Nazis against Judaism, by the forces of evil against good, said Farberstein, who has written a book on religious leadership, Jewish law and Jewish thought during and after the Holocaust called Hidden in Thunder, which will soon be translated to English.

"It was not just an attempt to destroy their bodies, they wanted to also destroy Jewish religion and tradition," she said.

Farberstein also heads a committee that represents ultra-Orthodox educators at Yad Vashem.

"We have amicable relations with Yad Vashem," said Farberstein. "Our girls take part in educational programs there. But sometimes we have our differences."

She cited an instance of tension between religious leaders and Yad Vashem's management during the writing of a textbook to be used in Beit Ya'acov schools.

"We wanted to put in more Jewish content, such as examples of halachic questions and answers. We also wanted the textbook written in a language that was more familiar to our students. For instance, using the term 'ritual' to describe prayer sounds awkward," she said.

Farberstein said religious educators also asked that certain changes be made in Yad Vashem's new wing.

"We felt some of the exhibitions, especially [that on] the Warsaw Ghetto, did not give enough representation to religious Jews. Yad Vashem's management graciously acquiesced to our requests," she said.

Skulsky said that a religious approach to the Holocaust tries to emphasize "the spiritual bravery of the pious Jew."

"I do not deny the incredible bravery of spirit shown by Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto uprising," said Skulsky. "But there were also thousands of religious Jews who showed bravery by risking their lives to pray or celebrate the holidays."

Skulsky said an ultra-Orthodox narrative of the Holocaust did not enter into issues of faith. "We do not question whether God exists or not, God forbid. We have faith that there is a reason for the Holocaust, even if we cannot understand what it is."

He said Kiddush Hashem Archives did not go into details of the atrocities in its educational programs. "We think it is not right and even counterproductive to describe all the horrors. We focus on educational messages," he said. (From the May 2006 edition)