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Commemorating the start of a vital Holocaust education source

The Midwest Center for Holocaust Education is celebrating the 30th year of its founding in this new year. As one of the agency's newest volunteer board members, I want to encourage all of you to know about MCHE and to support it financially and in any other way you can because of the important work it does.

MCHE-logoIn this era of resurgent antisemitism, MCHE is more important than ever. (This renewed antisemitism has produced, here and there, ideas for how to work against it. You'll find some of those ideas in this article from the Huffington Post.)

First, here is MCHE's own account on its website of its history:

"The Midwest Center for Holocaust Education (MCHE) was founded in 1993 by Holocaust survivors Isak Federman and Jack Mandelbaum. We teach the history of the Holocaust, applying its lessons to counter indifference, intolerance, and genocide. MCHE’s first executive director was Jean G. Zeldin who served from 1993 until her retirement in December 2019. Located at the Jewish Community Campus in Overland Park, MCHE reaches thousands of youths and adults each year through school and community outreach programs, often offered in cooperation with other not-for-profits. More than 400 individuals are current members of MCHE. An operating endowment totaling over $2 million is prudently invested to ensure the future operations of the organization."

(That membership figure of 400-plus is way too low -- partly, perhaps, because a lot of people seem not to know that MCHE is a membership organization. Which is why the board and staff, under the guidance of Jessica Rockhold, executive director, have set a goal of doubling it this year. You can join here.)

TWJP-coverMy own connection with MCHE goes back to 2007-08, when Rabbi Jacques Cukierkorn and I were working on our book They Were Just People: Stories of Rescue in Poland During the Holocaust, which was published in 2009 by the University of Missouri Press. The MCHE staff worked with us to make sure that what we wrote reflected history properly. And, by the way, one of the co-founders of MCHE, Jack Mandelbaum, assisted Jacques and me in Poland by helping to translate from Polish to English some of the interviews we did there for the book.

After I retired from The Kansas City Star I eventually became a member of MCHE's Board of Advocates and then, some months ago, a member of the board.

I've also been a volunteer judge for the annual White Rose student research essay contest. It's an important way for MCHE to teach young people about the history of the Shoah and what we must learn from what happened then. It's one more way to stand against delusional Holocaust deniers. (If you have children or grandchildren in junior high or high school and the school is not participating in this essay contest, I hope you'll ask school leaders to look into it.)

Many people became aware of MCHE last year when it co-sponsored the amazing exhibit, "Auschwitz: Not Long Ago, Not Far Away" at Union Station in Kansas City. Indeed, more than 300,000 people saw the exhibit. Many also participated in the related speakers' series. You can read the Flatland column I wrote about the exhibit's opening here.

The role of MCHE isn't simply to describe to anyone who will listen the horrific story of how the Nazi regime in Germany in World War II systematically murdered six million Jews, plus millions of others. Rather, MCHE exists to be a strong voice against hatred of any kind. Yes, the MCHE focus is modern antisemitism, which has deep roots in century after century of Christian anti-Judaism (my essay on that subject is here). But the larger story is that whenever we dehumanize people, which is what Hitler's regime did to Jews, whenever, in other words, we don't recognize them as worthy of respect and dignity, we move down a path that can lead, at its worst, to the kind of genocide we witnessed in the Holocaust.

Jessica Rockhold puts it this way: "With the rise of antisemitism, hate speech and racial tensions, the lessons of the Holocaust are more relevant than ever. It is critical that MCHE continue to teach about the consequences of unchallenged bigotry in the face of inaction, complacency and apathy."

She also notes that "MCHE has announced the Herman Family Initiative has offered a challenge grant supported by MCHE benefactors Karen and Mike Herman. It will match the first $50,000 in new memberships through 2023."

So let's give thanks that three decades ago some wise people in the Kansas City area created this vital resource. I'm honored to serve on MCHE's board and I invite you to join in MCHE's work in whatever way you can.

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Bills-prayingNo doubt many of you noticed the Buffalo Bills kneeling in prayer on the football field Monday night when one of their players, Damar Hamlin, collapsed after a play and needed on-field CPR to get his heart started again. The group prayer was a beautiful gesture that reminded the players -- and everyone who was watching -- that there are times when we are simply helpless.

I sometimes call such emergency pleas 9-1-1 prayers. And I want to suggest that not only is there nothing wrong with such prayers, they may be among the most sincere ways that human beings have of expressing their need for a loving power beyond themselves. I'm betting that in that crowd of players there were a few individuals who identify as agnostic, atheist or simply religiously unaffiliated but who, in the spirit of coming together as a team, didn't make any stand-offish objection to team prayer and unity. Indeed, that approach is reflective of good theology. Did -- or will -- those prayers make any difference in whether and how Hamlin recovers? That remains to be seen. But such prayer is a deeply human response to crises and we all should remember that it's a hopeful act to which any of us can turn in a time of catastrophe, no matter what our faith or lack of it. Perhaps there are no atheists on NFL football fields. Or, in the end, anywhere.

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Healing the World: Gustavo Parajón, Public Health and Peacemaking Pioneer, by Daniel Buttry and Damáris Albuquerque. Gustavo Parajón, born in late 1935 in Nicaragua, contracted polio when he was four and a half years old. He survived, though it left him with a life-long limp. But it also left him with an unquenchable desire to help heal others afflicted with any of the thousands of diseases that plague humanity. And that's what he did as both a physician and a pastor, as this new book (to be published Jan. 24, but available for order now) describes in much detail.

The list of Parajón's accomplishments is long and impressive and a testimony to his Christian faith (he was a Baptist in predominantly Catholic Central America). So reading about all of that is inspiring. But Parajón's life (he died in 2011) can serve as a reminder to many of us citizens of the U.S. that there's a bigger world beyond our borders and that throughout that world we can find amazing people doing amazing things.

Although I've been in roughly 35 different countries in my life and have lived overseas for two years of my boyhood, my experience with Central and South America has been almost completely missing. Here's the best I can come up with: two brief trips to Tijuana, Mexico. So the world south of the U.S. border is mostly a mystery to me. That's what reading this book told me over and over, as I waded into political upheaval, earthquakes and desperate needs for physicians in Nicaragua and nearby areas of Central America. And that's who Parajón was until his death.

Parajón clearly left a remarkable legacy, winning many awards. Former President Jimmy Carter even once nominated him for the Nobel Peace Prize. And his story can encourage others to devote their lives to being a healing presence in the world, whether or not they are physicians. The authors even note that "Gustavo's legacy ripples out and influences the lives of his younger surviving family," including grandchildren and great-grandchildren, to say nothing of thousands of people outside his family.

There's even a Kansas City connection to this book. Author Buttry's late brother Steve and I worked for The Kansas City Star for several years at the same time. And author Albuquerque attended high school for a time in the Kansas City area when her father was a student at Central Baptist Theological Seminary here. But even without those connections, this is a story that needed to be told, and one that can help shape young lives today.


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