When many of us reach the age of 75, we don’t want a fuss made at birthdays. It may not yet be all Ovaltine and biscuits, but there’s more hunkering down than limbering up.nne Frank’s stepsistetr
Not so the Council of Christians and Jews (CCJ), which is celebrating having been an open tent for three quarters of a century.
Why no Ovaltine? Because it has a youngster keeping it up all night.
The youngster is the CCJ’s Yad Vashem Seminar for Church Leaders, run with the International School of Holocaust Studies. It has just turned 10. It sends 20 clergy members to Israel every year, and now has 200 alumni.
Participants learn about pre-war Jewish life, anti-Semitism and persecution of Jews, including Christian anti-Judaism, the destruction of European Jewry and religious responses to the Holocaust, such as how Jewish and Christian theology has been affected by the Shoah, and the change in Christian-Jewish relations.
They hear survivors and top speakers including Professor Yehuda Bauer, Rabbi David Rosen, Dr David Silberklang and Dr Rafi Vago, and then return to educate others. What has been the impact?
“To be there for 10 days, to have that immersion, it’s life-changing,” says Revd Colin Smith, superintendent minister of the Cambridge Methodist Circuit. He recently went to Yad Vashem with the CCJ having been 25 years earlier “when it was much smaller”.
Smith, who is well aware German Methodists were among Hitler’s most fervent supporters, says the experience stays. “The impact on you is so great. You learn about it in ways I’d never thought.”
How did it make him feel? “Angry. It made me want to do something. It challenged me about anti-Semitism in the world, and the way it keeps returning in different forms.”
Smith considers he had a good background in the Holocaust before he went (although he’d never met a survivor) and had already spent time with Jewish community members in north London. Is it the likes of Smith who should attend, or should the CCJ seek to get people like anti-Israel cleric Revd Stephen Sizer on the course?
Is the programme merely preaching to the converted? “I think with the Holocaust, we need to be constantly re-converted,” he says, “because we can begin to take it for granted. It’s such a huge and terrible event, teaching it can become just about numbers, just another story you’re taught in history.
But it can’t be that.” As an example of how the CCJ programme helped, he says: “It shows you the kind of countless [pre-war Jewish] communities lost. So you come at it re-charged. You’re made to really think about it again and respond accordingly.”
Another delegate impacted by the thought of communities lost is Canon
Lisa Battye, a Church of England priest in Manchester. “We looked at events in Warsaw,” she says. “There is an ordinary Warsaw street where we met people, got to know them, their names and situations, then we learnt about the Warsaw Ghetto, talked about what it was like being in Poland. It brought it home. It was very moving indeed.”
Aged 16, Battye saw a film called The Holocaust. “I cried all night… I couldn’t get it out of my mind.” Later, in 1979, she went to Jerusalem to volunteer in a care home for survivors. “Hearing about it from those I cared for was one thing,” she says. “Knowing the historical background that you learn from the CCJ trip is another.”
Battye, whose parish near Prestwich includes six shuls, says the trip prompted her to study the Church’s response to the Holocaust. It also prompted what is now a close friendship with CCJ Manchester co-chair David Arnold, who introduced her to the works of survivor Jules Isaac, who studied Christian scripture to try to understand the roots of Christian anti-Judaism.
CCJ delegates these days hear from United Reformed Church minister Revd Peter Chave, who explains why Christians should engage with the Holocaust, which he says was “perpetrated by people the majority of whom were baptised Christians”.
Rob Thompson, a CCJ organiser, thinks it is more important than ever that there are religious leaders leading on teaching about the Shoah.
“We aim to educate them and to equip them to return to their communities around the UK as advocates for Holocaust education and
Christian/Jewish relations,” he says.
“The times in which we live are increasingly challenging. It is imperative that faith leaders are at the forefront of efforts to heal division, restore community relations, and enable hope.
“Engaging with the Holocaust is vital in this task, both for the sake of memory itself, but also to ensure our communities learn from history and make the future the best that it can be.