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When Hitler came into power before he tried to wipe out the entire Jewish population of Europe, he burned Jewish books: books written by Jews or about the Jewish religion or culture. He also decimated Jewish houses of worship and schools.
Jews have been referred to as the people of the book because they brought the Bible to the world. They also have been thought of as a bookish people, because literacy and study is a very large part of their culture and tradition. Until modern times, Jews weren’t allowed to belong to guilds or attend most universities, so Jews spent time in Jewish schools, studying the Five Books of Moses (The Torah), the Bible, the Talmud and other Jewish texts. Prestige was obtained in Europe by the Jewish population not by who was richest, but who was the greatest scholar.
A Rabbi from Canada, David Hofstedter, whose parents were Holocaust survivors, was troubled by the fact that even though since World War II many Jewish schools sprouted throughout the world, many did not just reach that high level of learning that the European Jewish schools (referred to as Yeshivot) did prior to the War.
Around 20 years ago he sought to change that. He formed a religious and Jewish educational organization and had new books written that included the teachings of both ancient and modern Jewish scholars. He also developed standardized tests so that all students could know the high level of knowledge that should be expected of them. He developed a system so that both young and old could study. One can study in a school, a synagogue or just with some fellow students. Scholars even get monetary awards for high test scores.
So Hitler succeeded in wiping out most of European Jewry, but he failed at wiping out Jewish education. Fascists and terrorists often try to wipe out religions and cultures. Two examples are how the Soviet Union tried to forbid religious worship and how ISIS destroys great works of antiquity from which Western culture has grown.
However, Dirshu is a testament that when one thinks all of a culture is lost, if one has a will to keep it alive, it can be done.
Rabbi Hofstedter was committed to the continuance of a high level of Jewish education and now 150,000 Jews from around the world are a part of his Dirshu program.
Recently, in Antwerp, Belgium, 1,500 European Jews came together to have an enormous celebration called a siyum to mark the end of a cycle of learning. Even those who never studied with Dirshu came to celebrate. There was one group who came from Amsterdam led by a Rabbi who was raised in America. He had led various study groups. He said that the Dirshu program brings Jewish learning to people from all walks of life. He even teaches a former member of the Dutch navy! So there in Europe, where Hitler felt confident he had wiped out a culture, Jewish civilization and learning thrives.
Dirshu teaches an invaluable lesson to others. As we see many countries in the Middle East crumble in disarray they should know that in time things can change for the better. Good always triumphs over evil and ancient cultures cannot be erased if there are people who care to remember and build upon past learning.
Pinczow, the Synagogue (George K. Loukomski/Creative Commons)