An Evening at the SAFA Gala: An Evening of Empowerment and Hope
In a time when Nazis walk openly and proudly amongst us, run for Congress, and are subjects of various fluff pieces in some rather “prominent” newspapers, and in the days of undeniable division, dissension, and growing bigotry and hatred, I needed last night. When the president alienates our allies and fosters his relationships with ruthless war criminals and dictators, when he tirelessly attacks our press, our way of life, and our very basis of humanity and democracy, many of us needed last night. When Gilead feels possible, anti-immigrant sentiments and forced patriotism intensify daily, last night was necessary.
I applied for the Spirit of Anne Frank Educator Award presented by the Anne Frank Center for Mutual Respect with very little hope of winning. In my submission essay, I wrote about my grandmother, who was 9 years old when the Soviet Union declared victory over Nazi Germany, and who lost most of her family by the hands of Nazis and Ukrainian Nazi collaborators. I wrote that as an English teacher, my job is to effect change in the world by exposing my students to totalitarianism, propaganda, and war through Nineteen Eighty-Four, to the dangers of mass hysteria through The Crucible, and to racism, bigotry, discrimination, and dehumanization through Invisible Man. In my classroom, students learn to pay attention. They practice critically observing the world around them and catching the subtle cultural changes that can strip them of their rights, freedoms, and privileges. I know I care about the work that I do, but as many others know, teachers don’t typically get recognized.
Last night, I was privileged enough to attend the Spirit of Anne Frank awards gala as a recipient of the SAFA Certificate of Recognition for Educators. Despite suffering from imposter syndrome, this experience embedded itself into a crevice of my heart and will forever be engrained in my memory. I was humbled by the presence of outstanding educators who received awards for their leadership and vision. I was privy to speeches about friendship, survival, fierce determination, and empowerment.
I listened to a breathtaking rendition of the theme of Schindler’s List played on the violin by Mariela Shaker, a Syrian refugee who fled from Aleppo, a city torn apart by war. I deeply enjoyed Erin Gruwell’s retelling of the inception of the Freedom Writers. I was touched by the three brilliant and courageous students who won awards for their activism and humanitarian work. I was star-struck watching Alli Maloney, SmartGirls Staff, Amy Poehler, and Meredith Walker, three Rockstar women whom I admire. (Just so you know, I am not the person who follows celebrities, but I am a person who loves every single project Amy Poehler participates in. I may or may not use her commencement addresses when I teach rhetoric to my seniors.) I was speechless when observing the courageous students from Parkland, FL. When they walked in, the laws of gravity disappeared and the room and everything in it levitated. The power with which they move and speak radiates and paralyzes the air.
It was an evening of unity and wonder. With my mom by my side, I took it all in. I unplugged from the news of the day, the news that drags and drains every ounce of happiness from my being, and I inhaled the words of peace and love and hope. I concentrated only on the messaging of inspiration, I did not submit to the incessant voice of elevating panic. I left inspired and full of gratitude and tiramisu. It was an evening we all needed, nothing was more obvious.
I realize within a few days this joy and bliss will unobtrusively turn back into slight despair and the mild fear of the everyday and a very real fear for the future. I know once the adrenaline subdues, I will return to the mundane drudgery/intense repetition of the newscycle. But for now, I’m holding on to the hope, the hope many of us felt last night.
The Anne Frank Center for Mutual Respect does incredible and important work. It honors those who deserve it (I’m an imposter) and invites Holocaust survivors to this annual awards gala. The Center creates this mesmerizing evening because the people who run it believe their mission effects change and informs the dangerously uninformed, and I want to be a part of that mission.
My grandmother grew up surrounded by war and death and dictatorship. My parents fled from anti-Semitism. At 11 years old, I came to the United States as a Jewish refugee. I live my life every day trying to create a better world for my children and, as a teacher, for the children of others. In our world today, when basic human rights are once again threatened, I refuse to fall short of teaching the lessons I know my students must learn if they are to grow up in a world my grandmother could only dream of. In our world today, in a world that is eerily Orwellian, I know I must be a voice of progress, change, and protest.
I cannot help but agree with Anne Frank, “human greatness does not lie in wealth or power, but in character and goodness. People are just people, and all people have faults and shortcomings, but all of us are born with a basic goodness.” If we don’t believe in goodness and humanity, what is left?