Rabbi Conover Reflects on her trip to Poland

Our town is burning, brother, burning,
Our poor little town is burning,
Angry winds are fanning higher
The leaping tongues of flame and fire,
The evil winds are roaring!
Our whole town burns!
And you stand looking on with folded arms,
And shake your heads.
You stand looking on with folded arms,
While the fire spreads!

–from “Our Town is Burning” by Mordecai Gebirtig, 1938

I read these words last week, standing in a small alcove of a shtetl synagogue that once bustled with Jewish life… and now is a lonely museum. I stood there with 30 Christian leaders—heads of seminaries and senior pastors of prominent churches as well as a handful of treasured colleagues from Chicago’s Federation. We gathered in Poland at the invitation of Rabbi Yehiel Poupko, JUF’s Rabbinic Scholar and the Very Reverend Dominic Barrington, Dean of St. James Cathedral. These Christian leaders came in friendship and commemoration. We traveled to some of the darkest places of human history: Treblinka, Majdanek, Auschwitz, and Birkenau. Together we cried, prayed, and processed.

This defiant song written by Mordecai Gebirtig in Krakow before the war, became the Jewish youth’s battle song against the Nazis. Yet, on our trip, we felt Gebirtig’s words judging us: “You stand looking on with folded arms, while the fire spreads.” The fires of injustice, of hate, of war and bloodshed spread the world over. Are we doing more than folding our arms and shaking our heads? The concluding verse of the song pleads:

All depends on you.
Our only help is what you do…
Don’t look on with folded arms
While the fire spreads!

In this time of uncertainty, we must open our eyes and open our arms, becoming the upstanders whom our world desperately needs. On this Shabbat, we will welcome the Jewish month of Elul. This month invites us to deep contemplation and thoughtful action in preparation for the High Holy Days ahead. May we take time on this Shabbat to examine the ways we can act to contain the flames of the burning issues in our city and in our nation. May we find other upstanders in our midst with whom to work. And may our actions inspire others to open their arms in righteous action and peace.

Shabbat shalom,

Rabbi Shoshanah Conover