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Third Thursday Thoughts: Reflections from the Executive Director


September 15, 2022 | Third Thursday Thoughts
Dawn LaRochelle, Executive Director

Four days ago, on September 11, 2022 — a picture-perfect late summer day here in Portland – I was standing outside on my front porch with my eyes closed, soaking in the glorious sunshine. Twenty-one years ago, on September 11, 2001 – another picture-perfect late summer day — I was rooted to the couch in my living room with my eyes wide open, barely able to process the horrors unfolding live on my television screen.

Twenty-one years ago, on September 11, 2001, we as a country mourned precious lives lost, struggled to comprehend the incomprehensible wound to our humanity, and collectively echoed the Yom HaShoah refrain “Never Forget.” Four days ago, on September 11, 2022, antisemitic and racist banners proclaiming “JEWS DID 9/11” and “DEFEND WHITE COMMUNITIES” were unfurled over busy public intersections in Saugus and Danvers, Massachusetts – my home state for over two decades before I moved to Maine.

I wish I could say I was surprised. The Anti-Defamation League (ADL), which tracks antisemitic behavior nationwide, reported 2,717 antisemitic incidents in 2021. That’s a 34 percent rise from the year before and averages out to more than seven antisemitic incidents per day… the highest number since the ADL first began tracking these incidents in the 1970s. And there is a direct link between conspiracy theories, which thrive in segments of the electorate that lack critical judgment and media literacy and often spread virally, and antisemitism.

Relatedly, while the command to “Never Forget” originated in the devastating aftermath of the Holocaust, a recent nationwide survey revealed that 1 in 10 adults under 40 did not recall ever having heard the word “Holocaust” before. You can’t “Never Forget” something if you haven’t learned about it, in the first place. This is why the Maine Jewish Museum is a proud sponsor of the upcoming Ken Burns documentary The U.S. and the Holocaust , a three-part, six-hour series examining America’s refusal to open its doors to more than a fraction of the hundreds of thousands of Jews seeking refuge from the Nazis. The series premieres this Sunday, September 18, at 8:00 PM and 10:00 PM on Maine Public TV and continues on Tuesday, September 20 (8:00 PM and 10:00 PM) and Wednesday, September 21 (8:00 PM and 10:00 PM). You can also watch all three episodes on Sunday, September 25 starting at 11:00 AM. And October 20 – 27, we hope you will join us for the  Violins of Hope exhibit we are hosting in collaboration with the Portland Symphony Orchestra, featuring a collection of violins rescued from the Holocaust and lovingly restored to stand witness to the musicians who once played them (we will also be co-hosting a  Violins of Hope concert on October 17). With Jews continuing to be victimized and even killed by those with antisemitic motives almost eight decades after the Holocaust, supporting Holocaust education, exhibits, and programming is more important now than ever.


Moreover, while antisemitism most immediately and directly impacts Jews, it is of grave concern to those outside the Jewish community, as well. As the world’s “oldest hatred,” antisemitism exposes the failings in each society, and while Jews are often the first group to be scapegoated, they are never the last. History has shown us, time and again, that hateful discourse initially targeting Jews inevitably broadens to other members of society – especially systemically marginalized members of society. If ever there were a time for underserved communities to form a united front against the perils around us, the time is now. But to do this, we need to foster enhanced understanding among people of all races and backgrounds. Which is what we are aiming for with next month’s three-part come-to-one-or-come-to-all series  Can We Talk? Building Bridges Instead of Walls. With this program, we hope to begin a long-overdue dialogue between Maine’s Jewish and Black communities. No academic jargon, no finger-pointing, no shaming – just a warm and welcoming coming together around art, food, fun, and good old-fashioned conversation you do not want to miss.

Four days ago, on September 11, 2022, over pancakes with my oldest son, now a newly-minted college graduate, I retold the story of what I was doing and where I was when I first heard about the terrorist attack on our nation. Twenty-one years ago, on September 11, 2001, I was clutching my oldest son, then nine months old, to my chest and sobbing hysterically because at that moment, frozen in amber, I did not think we would live to see his first birthday.

With all the tears shed that day and in the years to follow, with all the promises made in the names of victims of hatred, history keeps repeating itself. We all need to do our part to grow in compassion, empathy, and tolerance. We have no time to lose.