Nazi salute photo an opportunity to learn

In mid-November, a photo circulated showing a group of nearly 60 boys last spring at Baraboo High School giving what appeared to be a Nazi salute. It quickly drew national attention. I gave a talk at the school on Nov. 19. What follows is adapted from those remarks.

I’d like to share some thoughts about why this image is so disturbing. I have no wish to condemn or denounce the boys, and I assume many of them did not understand the meaning of the Nazi salute, nor did they intend to harm anyone.

First, let me say this issue is not just about Jews. It is about white supremacy, and it is a manifestation of growing anti-Semitism, racism, xenophobia and Islamophobia in this country.

Just a few weeks ago, 11 Jews were murdered in a synagogue in Pittsburgh. Three years ago, nine African-Americans were slain in a church in Charleston. Six years ago, six Sikh worshippers were shot to death in a temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin. Other targets of hate crimes have included immigrants, Muslims and transgender people. This should concern all of us.

The second thought I want to share is that Jews feel a particular sense of horror at seeing a Nazi salute. Our people were the primary targets of the Nazi genocide. The Nazis killed 6 million Jews, including 1.5 million Jewish children. Two-thirds of the 9 million Jews who had been living in Europe were dead by 1945.

Most Jews have stories about family they lost. I know that I lost several relatives. But because of the chaos and devastation, I never learned who they were or anything about the lives they led — my parents have left me with only blank spaces on a family tree.

With this history in mind, I’d like to offer a Jewish response for moving forward from here.

In Judaism, when one person causes hurt — even if it’s intentional — he or she is required to do what is called “teshuvah.” It is a process of reconciliation. This involves acknowledging what they have done, taking responsibility for one’s actions, apologizing and making amends and committing to not doing that action again.

This concept of teshuvah carries with it the recognition that we all make mistakes. We all do things we wish we hadn’t done.

We could just try to put this behind us without doing the hard work it would take to grow from the experience. But I believe that would be a mistake.

I want to speak to the young people here. You have your whole lives ahead of you. Wherever you found yourself in this incident — maybe you were in the photo with your arm up or your arm down, or you spoke out about the photo, or you remained quiet — you now have a choice.

You can decide to be involved in solving the problems of our world. You can decide to join with others and speak up when you see injustice. You can resist white supremacy.

This incident will not define you if you learn from it and move forward with a commitment to creating a community where all people are valued and respected.

My generation is handing you a broken world in need of much repair. For this, I am so sorry. But you have the power to create real social change. You can make this world more compassionate and more equitable.

May all of you be a model of honesty, courage and integrity for the rest of the nation.

—Laurie Zimmerman,

Rabbi of Congregation Shaarei Shamayim in Madison