By Alisa Roberts
You’re a longtime Jewish and Human Rights activist, most recently as associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center. What brought you into this line of work?
Well, I’ve been with the Simon Wiesenthal Center since before we opened. I came to LA with Rabbi Hier to start the place.
How did I come to do the kind of work that I do? I was a native New Yorker. I had a very strong Jewish upbringing. Israel was always a centerpiece, but also, from a young age, I was involved in (what was at the time) the fledgling Soviet Jewry movement. I grew up in the generation of Martin Luther King Jr., Bobby Kennedy, and social change. We lost six million during World War II, and now there was a possibility of another three million disappearing through cultural genocide. That was just something that many young Jews found to be unacceptable. I wasn’t a leader at that time, but I was deeply influenced and went to demonstrations. Then eventually, just after finishing my BA at Yeshiva University in 1972, I spent four weeks in the Soviet Union. And that really changed my whole perspective. Because there I met, for the first time, Jews – many of whom didn’t know an alef from a bet – who were prepared to sacrifice whatever future they had in Russia, with no guarantee that they would ever get out, no guarantee that they wouldn’t be thrown in jail. People who just said, “I’m proud to be a Jew, and you can’t take that away from me. And I want to go to Israel.” Through the course of the month, in six cities, I met all sorts of courageous Jews. Some of them were everyday laborers, some of them were highly educated. That was a source of tremendous inspiration for me, and it really guided my personal growth, my development, and my priorities.
My older brother is a wonderful and deeply respected pediatric cardiologist in New York. I was supposed to be the lawyer. I got into law school. My father-in-law was a respected lawyer in Chicago and my father was in chinuch, so I had great role models, and I had to decide what to do. And I decided not to go to law school. But I remember having met Rabbi Hier in my college days when he was the rabbi in Vancouver. I remember thinking, ‘If I ever go into Jewish community work, I’d want to be around a guy like him because he has a great sense of humor.’ So we went to Vancouver for two years and it was a great experience. When Rabbi Hier came up with the idea of Yeshiva University for Los Angeles and the Simon Wiesenthal Center, he invited me to come along and help start those two wonderful institutions. So how I got involved in this work is, I helped start the place.
Is there a reason the Center is located in Los Angeles?
I’m originally from Flatbush. Rabbi Hier is from the Lower East Side. But he was the senior rabbi of the Jewish community of Vancouver, Canada for 15 years, so he’s very familiar with the West Coast. Part of the reason that we started the yeshiva in 1977 was that there weren’t too many options for post-high school on the West Coast. There were growing Jewish populations on the West Coast, but they were not always matched, at that time, by the growth of Torah institutions. So that was Rabbi Hier’s goal in selecting LA for these projects. I learned how to swim in the Atlantic Ocean. I had visited here once after an NCSY seminar; I never thought I’d live here. But his idea was that there were plenty of institutions in New York, and there was a growing population here that needed to be serviced
What can you tell us about working with Simon Wiesenthal?
When Rabbi Hier went to Vienna in the summer of 1977 to see Mr. Wiesenthal, he said to him, “Shlomo HaMelech says a name is more precious than riches. I’m here to take your good name.” And Mr. Wiesenthal asked him, “Well, what do you want my name for? If you’re going to build a place where people come to say kaddish twice a year for victims of the Shoah, that’s a beautiful thing – I’ll give you a letter. But if you want my name, I’m an activist. I’m not only concerned with yesterday’s Nazis or yesterday’s anti-Semites. I’m very concerned about what’s going to happen tomorrow. If you’re ready to be activists, I’m ready to give you my name.” For someone like me, who basically grew up as a New York Jewish activist, that was really music to my ears. I had the opportunity to know and work with Mr. Wiesenthal for nearly 30 years. It was an incredible experience.
Can you tell us a little about the work you do?
It’s not only a matter of knowing when to raise the alarm – and we’re pretty good at raising the alarm when we have to – but also to be available to work with people of all backgrounds in trying to promote derech eretz and tolerance. When we began, there was no business model for something like the Simon Wiesenthal Center. But we came to understand very quickly that Mr. Wiesenthal was a great hero to the grassroots of the Jewish people, and also highly, highly respected by important non-Jewish leaders, including presidents. We had our first campaign against the statute of limitations on Nazi war crimes in Germany back in 1979, and that launched the direction of our institution. We’re a teaching institution. The original idea for the Simon Wiesenthal Center was a modest-sized museum. When it opened in 1979, it was the largest Holocaust museum in the English-speaking world outside of Yad Vashem. It wasn’t very large, but this was before the whole explosion of memorials. I guess we were inspirational. Our museums also have traveling exhibits. The film division of the Center too – Rabbi Hier has two Academy Awards in his office. Not one. The Museum of Tolerance, opened over 20 years ago, has had around six million visitors come through its doors.
We also have a project called Digital Terrorism and Hate, which I started about 15 years ago. We’re acknowledged leaders in the field, as we were in it early. I want to make it clear that I don’t know anything about technology; but I know a lot about hatred and bad guys and how they leverage social networking and other available technologies to find recruits, to raise money, to promote terrorism. I’ve been involved with North Korean human rights issues. We’re the only International Jewish Group that is headquartered in the Asian Pacific Rim. I go to Asia very often; I’ve been to Japan over 30 times. We’re going to be opening our Holocaust exhibit in Manila on November 12, and we just opened in Mumbai and in Bangkok, Thailand. We do work in China. It’s a very important part of the world with no history of anti-Semitism, and we’d like to build closer relationships between these countries and societies and the Jewish people.
So my job is very diverse, and I consider it to be a great honor to have this kind of opportunity, and, of course, to be around a visionary mentor and friend like Rabbi Hier. He is someone who, apart from being a great leader, also trusts the people around him, entrusts and empowers them. I’ve been with him 38 years, 36 of them at the Simon Wiesenthal Center. Most of the people who are here are here for decades, not only because the work is so important and so satisfying, but also because we realize that this is a unique kind of environment in which to grow professionally and personally. And I think we’ve also earned the trust of many people. We have about 400,000 members. Most doors are open to us. We’re an independent entity. Our job is to be independent; to be an independent voice, but also to always be an informed voice. We try to do our share for the Jewish people, and to promote derech eretz for all humanity, not just the Jews.
You’ve met with presidents and world leaders around the globe. Do you have a moment you think of as your most influential?
I think of most things as part of my continuing learning experience. Having been around some really great people, I think it’s very important to keep a sense of proportion and not get carried away with one’s perception of one’s alleged importance. On my first trip overseas, I read part of the Megillah at the Jewish memorial in Dachau on Purim Day in the presence of Simon Wiesenthal. That was an influential moment. The Jews of the Soviet Union, who I thought I was going to help, but who actually helped me better understand my responsibilities as a Jew – that was a transformative moment. One of my most memorable moments was the flight I took on El Al in the early nineties in which I left Moscow and was at the Kotel at 8:00 AM. Back in 1972, if someone had told me that someday I would be able to fly from Moscow and get off the plane and go daven at the Kotel, I would have told them to seek psychiatric help. So there have been many special moments
What are the global issues Jews are facing today?
I’m in a growth industry; I deal with anti-Semitism. It is always morphing. The way in which people are being reached today is changing. The Internet is a very powerful multi-edged sword.
We also live in a country today and where if you want to exit from the community and from your Jewishness there is absolutely nothing stopping you. We see this in the devastating levels of intermarriage and the disconnect from Israel. This is a time in history when people need a positive reason to continue to nurture their Jewish identity. It’s not like it was with Soviet Jewry, where people felt trapped and we’re ready to pay the ultimate price. The United States is a wonderful place, where you can choose your identity or lack thereof. It’s a different kind of challenge.
And I see now in the battle against anti-Semitism a convergence from our enemies. The struggle that’s now underway is not about where Israel’s border should be; it’s about the battle against the very idea of Israel. They’re out to delegitimize Israel, to demonize Israel. You go on campuses and you have professors who say, ‘Oh, Israel? That was a colonial mistake.’ You go to trade unions and you hear that Israel is an apartheid state. We must understand for ourselves, and teach our own children, the centrality of Israel in Jewish Life. That doesn’t mean you have to agree on, or even be involved in, political issues. It’s really about understanding and embracing the special gift that Medinat Yisrael represents. Obviously for the generation that went to through the Shoah, having a State of Israel coming into being three years after Auschwitz – they got it. They understood it. But now we are a new generation and the narrative of the Jewish people is not dictated any longer by the collective memory of the Shoah.
How should we be involved?
We’re blessed to have access to the State of Israel, while also living in the freest of all nations. It’s a tremendously unique opportunity to have that kind of freedom to impact the marketplace of ideas. The Internet, and the instantaneous transmission of information globally, represents also great opportunities to be heard.
But we have to find new ways to give the younger generation, people now in their twenties and even thirties, reasons to connect to their Jewishness. There’s a wonderful custom that some Jews still follow, of pouring honey on the letters of the Alef-bet when a toddler is first ready to learn. This guides the child so that their first experience with Jewish learning is sweet. We need to figure out a way to connect Jews who never had such an experience, who have no profound connection, to introduce them to the honey of Jewish experience and not just the bitterness of the Shoah. I think our collective job is to give positive reasons for Jews to connect themselves to their traditions, to identify Jewishly. And a lot of young Jews who are disconnecting are asking ‘Why is Israel relevant?’ They have social consciousness. They’re concerned about people who just experienced a tsunami or an earthquake, or about the problem of disappearing elephants in Africa. Israelis are deeply involved in all of these issues. The State of Israel is involved. So there are many different ways, potentially, for people to connect to their Jewishness.
Having now just gotten off the plane from Israel, you just can feel the place flowering in so many ways. At midnight the night before Yom Kippur, there were half a million young people at the Western Wall. Most of them were not religious. 90% of Israelis fasted. Of course you want to make sure you take care of the home front, the people who live in Diaspora, but you really have to be deaf, dumb, blind, or the spokesman for the Palestinian Authority to not support Israel. So much of what the Neviim spoke about is there.
There’s also, as I see it, one other aspect that’s very important in the work we do at the Wiesenthal Center. Understandably, when you get two Jews in a room, you’re going to have three opinions. The Jewish people are a family. Of course, we’re a dysfunctional family, like all good families. I think the most important thing is that we need to show more respect for each other. We need to show more love for each other. We need to be a little bit less politicized. Showing a little bit more, you’ll excuse the term, tolerance for those who don’t necessarily live up to the same standards in their practices is probably one of the most important challenges ahead of us. Because the only thing that remains constant is that anti-Semites really don’t care what your level of Jewishness is. They hate us anyway. We should not allow the anti-Semites dictate our narrative. Our identity should not be dictated by people who want to do away with us. We need to understand those threats and stand up to them, but we should never let them dictate the narrative. The Internet creates a big void. If you don’t tell people what your values are, Al-Qaida will, Hamas will. We have to stand up for our rights and not just assume that someone else is going to do it. And I’ll go a step further: I think it’s also reached a point in history where to be the most effective defender of the Jewish people, you have to be a knowledgeable Jew. We must be capable of explaining to our neighbors why we keep Shabbat and what it is about the Jews in Israel. To explain that today you have to have basic knowledge, and to have basic knowledge you have good education and a commitment. We know that there are places in Europe now where core Judaic practices such as brit milah and shechita are criminalized. And my feeling is that the idea that a democracy votes to criminalize or outlaw shechita is something that cannot stand. It’s something that delegitimizes every Jew, whether they keep kosher or not is irrelevant. So whether you want to talk about that or the State of Israel, even if you’ve never lived there, all of that is predicated on having some knowledge. I was lucky that when I was a teenager we had a unifying call of Am Yisrael Chai, of never again, of Soviet Jewry. Jews of every imaginable political orientation, and many wonderful non-Jews, stepped forward to work in solidarity to free Soviet Jewry. With an incredibly miraculous end which none of us could have predicted. This generation does not have yet this kind of unifying theme. That is something that I think is important for us to collectively seek out. In order to defend the rights of Jews, in order to ensure that we don’t allow others to demonize us or deny our history as the Palestinians are trying to do, you can only do that if you have some knowledge. On the other hand, I think once you do have the knowledge… Tikun Olam. It’s a core Jewish value people don’t realize. It’s not UNESCO that created it. It goes back to our sources. Actually see that is a wonderful potential opportunity to help bring Jews together without asking them to a show their own identities but to coalesce around some core Jewish values. And that’s what’s going to be this generation’s opportunity and responsibility to pursue. Because I know one thing: if the next generation can find its unifying principle, then the sky’s the limit in terms of the growth and future of our people.