Today is my 13th anniversary at the Museum of Jewish Heritage –A Living Memorial to the Holocaust. I arrived a tad late this morning to greetings of “Mazel Tov” and a spontaneous Bat Mitzvah-inspired Shirley Temple reception, as well as an early-morning e-mail from the founding director of the museum.
Having grown up in a small town, one of two Jewish girls in the high school, I did not have much of a Jewish identity in my early years. But since arriving at the Museum 13 years ago I have learned to appreciate the joys and sorrows of the Jewish people, from Biblical times to the present day. I love learning about laws of Kashrut, and asking my colleagues for alternative interpretations of Midrash.
When I went to the Auschwitz Jewish Center in Oświęcim, Poland during Hanukkah 2007, I lit the gorgeous 19th century menorah and said the blessings before a concert. Saying the prayers in that special place, the synagogue that had been a munitions depot and a carpet warehouse and was now a reborn synagogue, commemorating the Maccabees' victory over their enemies and rededicating their temple gave me pause. Completely overwhelmed, I stepped outside after the candle lighting. Flashing before my eyes were images of Hanukkahs past: affixing candles to a plate when, as a child, we couldn’t afford a menorah; eating gelt too quickly and accidentally ingesting foil and chocolate; singing Hanukkah O Hanukkah over the phone with my old roommate as she celebrated with her children. All the years of feeling disconnected evaporated. I was sharing in the spirit and the joy of a holiday that has for years represented the unrelenting strength of the Jewish people, in a place that had been sacrificed and desecrated. On this last day of Hanukkah, I felt I was rededicating this temple and bearing witness for all the Jews of Oświęcim who had lit the candles decades prior to that moment.
That afternoon symbolizes what the Museum has instilled in me – a love of Jewish culture, history, and the people, especially the people I have gotten to know working here. Whether it is the particularly wise and charming survivors who have befriended me, or the life-long friendships I have developed with colleagues no longer here, but who stay in touch with Skype; or the gang downstairs who constantly teaches me new ways of thinking; or the folks down the hall who make it a joy to come to work each morning; or the gals with whom I share a commute to Brooklyn, or the new cast of characters I admire. It is an honor to work in a place that is so meaningful, emotional, and full of life.