Game or Genocide?

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by: Joie LaRiviere

Forgiveness is a mitzvah, forgiveness is a mitzvah, forgiveness is a mitzvah.

The last few weeks have been hectic. Admissions decisions are coming out, and everyone seems nervous about everything. There’s a project due in this class, and a big exam in another. AP classes are starting to hold sessions to practice for the AP exams, which are approaching faster than we think. It’s a crazy time for us all. But for me, it’s what’s outside of school that’s made me damn near lose my mind.

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There was a controversy earlier in march over a game of high school beer pong. The screenshot was shared over Instagram, a picture of a group of young students standing over red solo cups placed in the shape of a swastika, smiling and saluting Hitler. I saw it many times, on the Instagram stories of my Jewish friends. I didn’t share it myself, didn’t expect it to become such a widely-shared story. But now, it’s been all over the news. I hardly knew what to think about it when I first saw it, and I hardly know what to think now, since it really directly affects me now. I thought it would be quickly forgotten. But now, I can’t get it off my mind.

My synagogue is a reform one. We’re accepting, forgiving, and very progressive. My rabbi is expressive and leads our synagogue well in progressing with modern views. He’s a good man. I’ve known him my whole life, it seems. But he did something I don’t really know how to feel about.

Earlier this month, my youth director at the synagogue called me up to ask me a question about our Shabbat service on Friday, March 8th. She started by asking me if I knew about the red solo cup event, and after finding out that I did, she began to explain to me what she was asking of me. Some of the students from the party had issued apologies about their actions. My rabbi had read these apologies and deemed them sincere. The youth director was calling me now to let me know that my rabbi was planning on meeting the students who’d apologized, confirming their sincerity and maturity, and inviting them to our Shabbat service tomorrow. And they wanted me to act as an ambassador for the youth at our synagogue and participate in welcoming the invited students.

I was in complete shock. Wait, we’re inviting these people to Shabbat? And I should welcome them? My thoughts were all over the place. I was angry, confused, and worried. Again, I didn’t know what to think. What am I going to do? I stuttered out a response to my youth director on the phone: “W-well, as long as Rabbi Steinberg makes sure they’re sincere, I guess I could do it.” I was so torn. Part of me wanted to follow what I’ve been taught: everyone is worthy of forgiveness. Part of me was really not sure about all of this. How could I welcome someone who would laugh over the suffering of my culture? How could I forgive someone who willingly treats my harsh, horrid history as a joke to drink over? This was so difficult for me, just like myself. I am not so forgiving as my religion would like me to be. I hold grudges and carry internal irrational anger. And I was supposed to represent forgiveness by welcoming these students. I didn’t know what to think.

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It was an interesting service, to say the least. I’m still not incredibly sure how to feel about it. First of all, it wasn’t a traditional Friday night Shabbat service, to begin with. It was a teens-only service hosted by our Rabbi at his house, not at the temple. So that threw me off a little, but it wasn't a huge deal. But I was harassed with nervousness walking in. The three party students had already arrived when I got there. They were three girls, I couldn’t tell exactly what grade they were in. I was hesitant, but they were talking to some of my friends, so I went up and introduced myself. They seemed polite enough. I didn’t really get to converse with them until later.

My rabbi began our little service around 7 pm, with a little introduction of why this Shabbat was special (although most of us already knew); he welcomed the girls and explained the situation. We said our blessings over the wine (grape juice) and the bread, and then the rabbi asked the girls to join him in front. He then just asked them to explain. Explain what they were doing at the party and what they were thinking about now. How they felt to be there with us and any other thoughts they had. If they felt changed, and how. He just let them speak. One girl began, she seemed to sort of lead the three of them. Of course, she began by apologizing, which is expected. But she was very eloquent in how she spoke and what she said. She was very sincere and was truly sorry. Each of them was. They expressed their disappointment in themselves, and how each of them was changed for the better after this experience. They told us about how they had taken the time to learn and study heavily about the Holocaust, about their trips to the Holocaust museum, and how they now understood what went down and how they could not unsee what they had seen. They were almost close to tears at certain points in their speeches. It was very emotional for all of us. They ended by telling us how they were now changed and were going to become advocates against intolerance. That’s what really impressed me.

We all ate dinner together afterward. I sat near the girls, a bit eager to hear some more details about what happened at the party. What I learned from them was that they were two sophomores and a junior, they had been invited to the party separately, not knowing each other at the time. There was drinking, but there was an adult providing it. The girls said that they were outside taking pictures when a boy began to build the swastika, and they got into the picture with it, not knowing how offensive it was. The boys began to salute Hitler as the photo was being taken. There was no corresponding Star of David made out of red solo cups, just the swastika. They also told us how, though they were apologetic, that they knew some of the others at the party were definitely not. They laughed it off, and were not mature about it, even after it became a widespread story.

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Overall, I think this was a positive Shabbat for everyone involved. The girls were open to our activities and our food (sharing bowls of matzo ball soup with us) and participating in both conversation and discussion. They were willing to answer any questions we had and told us to ask away. I’m very grateful to them for how open they were, and it was incredibly mature of them to come and share with us.

I believe the three of them. In their case, they proved to me that they deserved my forgiveness. (They spoke for themselves. I withhold my forgiveness for the rest of the party students.) Just as they learned about us and our history, I learned about my own character. I was quick to judge, though I still believe I had every right to be. I learned that forgiveness is not always so difficult. I learned that I shouldn’t be so reluctant to trust. And I learned that, even after the biggest mistakes you can think of, you can still be a good person, and you can always change.

This was so difficult to write down. I don’t know if I’ve ever been so nervous about something such as this. But it’s done, it’s finished, and I feel good about getting it all down on paper. Because how could I not say something about all of this? As a young adult, active in the Jewish community, I believed it is my duty to express my thoughts and teach others about what Jews are thinking in situations like these, even if I feel that they don’t want to listen. And I’m not looking for anyone’s pity. All I want is for people to know what it feels like to be in a situation such as this one. I can’t expect people to understand right away. I’m still in the process of doing that myself. I’m glad to be able to share this story because, just like the Pittsburgh incident, it is so incredibly important to me. I know it’s a very tender and often somber, serious subject, but I think it’s so important that this does not remain a topic that people tiptoe around.

Abby Lisk