CHICAGO (August 25, 2011) — Seventy pastors, church leaders and guests recently gathered for the first Fellowship Holocaust Awareness Conference in Skokie, Illinois, hosted by the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews (IFCJ), the world’s largest channel of Christian support for Israel and the Jewish people. They traveled from near and far–some drove from Chicago and surrounding areas, and others came in from Indiana, Wisconsin, Ohio, Pennsylvania, West Virginia and even Texas–and one pastor felt so inspired to learn about the Holocaust and anti-Semitism that he flew all the way from Nigeria!###
The day-long event began at the Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center in Skokie, where the group spent two hours on a guided tour of the museum. At various points during the tour, they met with three Holocaust survivors, who shared their personal stories of horror and heartache. Their message was clear and concise: you can be a bystander or an “upstander” – the first watches life go by while the second takes the initiative to get involved when a situation calls for action.
Such was the case with the Holocaust itself. Much of the world’s population were bystanders, while a small but significant group were upstanders, helping with resistance efforts during World War II, aiding the fleeing Jews even when it endangered their own lives, and speaking up about the injustices and atrocities of the Holocaust, so we will never forget what happened there.
Yael Eckstein, IFCJ’s ministry outreach director and the daughter of IFCJ founder and president Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, asked the group to take action and speak out against not only anti-Semitism but also the deplorable conditions that thousands of Holocaust survivors find themselves in–not 70 years ago but today. In Israel and the former Soviet Union, thousands of elderly Holocaust survivors find themselves alone, living in deplorable conditions, with no living family to help them, she said.
“Many of the Holocaust survivors that I’ve seen in Russia and in Israel don’t have enough food. They’re living without heat, they’re freezing in the winter,” Yael said. Quoting from the Bible, she said: “‛Comfort ye, comfort ye, my people.’ What greater comfort is there than alleviating these dire humanitarian needs that exist today?”
Sharing with the group that her own grandfather is a Holocaust survivor, Yael challenged the pastors and ministers in attendance to be proactive. “You are the leaders. It’s through you that many more people will know that the Holocaust is not only a history lesson—it’s something that we have to take to heart today.”
Concluding the emotion-filled day, the church leaders surrounded the Holocaust survivors in a show of support, holding up their pledges to present more than 100 sermons or study sessions on anti-Semitism in the coming year. Rather than being bystanders, each committed to being an upstander, who will teach others about the Holocaust, point out the examples of anti-Semitism and racism that still exist today, and urge everyone to work to put an end to it.
Each church leader who pledged to educate his or her congregation about anti-Semitism in the coming year received complimentary educational resources and DVD teaching material.
Visits with the Holocaust survivors moved many of the church leaders to tears. But the survivors themselves were emotional, too, seeing for the first time that there are Christian people willing to stand up and say, “Never again” in support of the Jewish people.
Agnes Schwartz, a Holocaust survivor from Hungary who escaped the death squads with the help of a Christian housekeeper, was overcome with emotion. With tears in her eyes, she told the group, “I don’t usually cry, but I didn’t know there was a group like this [IFCJ]. You have restored my faith in humanity.”
Also addressing the conference were Richard S. Hirschhaut, museum executive director; George Mamo, senior vice-president of IFCJ; and Uri Steinberg from the Israel Ministry of Tourism.
The 2011 Fellowship Holocaust Awareness Conference was designed to educate, engage, and energize Chicago-area pastors and ministers about IFCJ’s work in Holocaust education and the care of aging Holocaust survivors. The recent global upswing in anti-Semitism prompted IFCJ to start its national campaign—beginning here in Chicago on August 15—in an effort to unite the voices of church leaders against anti-Semitism. The program will now be expanded to regional conferences with tours, when possible, of the more than 30 Holocaust-related institutions in the country.
For more information contact Denise Jones at Denise.Jones@ifcj.org.
The International Fellowship of Christians and Jews (IFCJ), headquartered in Chicago and Jerusalem, was founded in 1983 by Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein for the purpose of building bridges of cooperation and understanding between both faith communities and together supporting Israel and Jews in need throughout the world. To date, the IFCJ has raised two-thirds of a billion dollars to support programs aiding the sick, elderly, orphaned and at-risk populations in Israel, the former Soviet Union, Ethiopia, India, Latin America, and Arab countries. For more information about IFCJ programs and projects, visit www.ifcj.org.
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CAPTION: Yael Eckstein, daughter of Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, (second from right), stands with three Holocaust survivors who shared their personal stories with a group of church leaders at the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews first Holocaust Awareness Conference in Skokie. Photo courtesy of IFCJ
PHOTO CREDIT: IFCJ