70 years ago, six million of our people were murdered in the darkest period of our history. In the world, there is a time for everything under the sun: a time to be silent and a time to speak, a time to refrain and a time to learn, a time to remember and a time to forget. Now is the time to remember, to learn and to speak and to be involved for the sake of the past, the present and the future.
In 1985, a Rabbi Shapira of Kiryat Sanz in Netanya, Israel, attended the commemoration of Thereisenstadt concentration camp, forty years after its liberation. Two thoughts struck him, he later recounted. First, could anything positive be taken from such a tragedy? The second thought was more worrying. He, an orphan of the Holocaust, could personally remember the dark years of 1939–1945, but what about his children and their children? How would they remember? He returned to Israel and contacted Yad Vashem. They supplied the names of thirty children who died in the Holocaust. He gave these names to thirty children in his home city of Netanya and asked each of them to learn in memory of one Holocaust victim. It was this idea that inspired me to embark on the project “50 Days for 50 Years” when working for the Union of Jewish Students in 1995.
Five thousand Jewish students across the United Kingdom received the name of a Holocaust victim of roughly their age and were asked to learn in his or her memory for 50 days: a chance to remember the past to build the future. Along with the name, students also received a pocket-sized book containing fifty questions and ideas about various aspects of Judaism chosen by students from across the country. Scholars, rabbis, and professors from around the world provided the answers. Ten years on, in 2005, the “60 Days for 60 Years” project became an even greater success with over 100,000 participants worldwide, each receiving a book of essays and a memorial card to learn for one victim of the Shoah. Communities across the United Kingdom, South Africa, Australia, Canada, Israel, and the USA were engaged in a global project to remember the past to build the future.
Another ten years have now passed since that project. However, the idea remains as alive and relevant today as it was back in 1995.
Then we remembered five thousand; ten years on we remembered hundreds of thousands. Today we hope to remember millions. Today we hope to remember millions. There are several other differences from ten years ago. Firstly with the advent of social media, we will be providing abilities for global interaction through Twitter and Facebook. We hope to link people worldwide as we collectively learn and remember during the 70 days. With our interactive 70 Days website at the heart of the project, we believe it will enhance your connection to the concepts and ideas you are reading and discussing. It will also allow you to learn more about the person in whose memory you are learning. Secondly, and more importantly, the world is unfortunately different from ten years ago. With extremism rising across Europe and the Middle East and a return to the world’s oldest hatred, it is time to remind ourselves about the end result of fanatical anti-Semitism and to steel ourselves to be involved in combating the delegitimisation of our people and our land.
The message of the 70 Days project is the engagement with our heritage, to remind ourselves what being Jewish is all about and how what many have tried for millennia to destroy (including 70 years ago and today), we continue to build.
Our new book contains 70 thought-provoking questions, ideas, stories, and articles, which provide entry points to issues crucial to our religion and people. The articles reflect the authors’ own personal viewpoints. It is up to you the reader to take the study further, to find out what it means to be a Jew today, a journey which I hope this book will facilitate.
As you mark the 70 days of commemoration, please consider the following. There are Jews reading this who are teenagers, there are Jews reading this who are in their 70s and 80s. There are Jews reading this in America, there are Jews reading this in South Africa, and there are Jews reading this in Switzerland. There are Jews reading this in French, there are Jews reading this in English, and there are Jews reading this in Hebrew. This is truly a global project for a global people.
70 years ago, a nation rose up to gather us together to destroy us. 70 years on, we are gathering together to learn in memory of those who were murdered and to learn for our future. These 70 days should be used as a time of commemoration for the person in whose memory you are learning and for the town in which they lived: people who had similar dreams, hopes, aspirations, until their lives were tragically cut short. Let us reclaim their lives from the Holocaust; let us, as Rabbi Jonathan Sacks says, “give them a living memorial.”
For 70 days I urge you to get involved. Not just for a Jewish life that never had the chance, but also for us, Jews in 2014, who are the guardians of our 3,000-year-old heritage. Be a part of one of the most ambitious and inspiring concepts ever attempted in the Jewish world. We all have a chance in the next few months to remember a past that no longer is, and in those same weeks we have a chance to help build a future. The Jewish future. Our future.
Rabbi Andrew Shaw is Director of Living & Learning at the United Kingdom’s United Synagogue, Europe’s largest Orthodox umbrella organization. He also serves as Community Development Rabbi of Stanmore United Synagogue. Click here for more information about 70 Days for 70 Years. By signing up now you participate as an individual, or with your entire community, arrange to receive a copy of the book of essays at your home, and learn how to access a smartphone app with all the essays and other special content.