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PresenTenseLA 2014: Telling Stories, Connecting People

This post is a part of a series highlighting the social entrepreneurial ventures that each of the 2014 PresenTenseLA Fellows will be unveiling at Launch Night on May 21st. The Fellows were given the prompt “What’s so Jewish about your project?” and over the course of the series we will be sharing their answers and exploring the very nature of Jewish change-making. Today we are highlighting PTLA Fellows Ilana Ross and Joseph Shamash, whose ventures are each using personal storytelling and narrative to illuminate connections between disparate populations.  

What’s So Jewish About Sharing Our Stories?

Like many fortunate children, I grew up in a house full of books.  And like many fortunate Jewish children, the book that stood above the others, which sat on the highest bookshelf to honor its closeness to the Highest Authority was that encyclopedia of Jewish living: The Jewish Book of Why.  We rarely removed it from its place on the mantle, but it stood over us an unmovable object, just like our faith.  We knew that in that book were all the answers to the strange particulars of Jewish practice — Why do we have two loaves of Challah? Why are they round? Why raisins? Why separate meat and milk? Why yalmulkes? Why on Shabbas? Why not on Shabbas?

I took solace in knowing there would always be an explanation, a because to each why. For a time, there was nothing I could wonder about my life as a Jew that couldn’t be summarily answered in the Jewish Book of Why, Volumes I – III.

But as I got older, and left home, the answers to my questions were more difficult to find. In college, I studied the Holocaust, and the philosophical responses to the communal and personal trauma. How could the Jewish tradition reckon with such destruction? There were no clear answers, but one theologian’s response resonated with me: Emil Fackenheim wrote that the Holocaust was an undeniable part of the Jewish narrative and had to be remembered and incorporated into contemporary Jewish life. It was our communal obligation to do so in the same way that we are called upon every week to observe the Sabbath or every Passover to reenact the Exodus.

In fact, remembering the Holocaust became a key way I thought about my own Jewish identity. I am not alone in this feeling: According to the Pew survey came out 73 percent of respondents saw Remembering the Holocaust as their primary expression of their Judaism.

Jews have always embraced our sorrowful and redemptive history. As a people who know what it means to be a stranger in a strange land, we are taught to spread compassion and uplift the other; that the dignity of all people should be as important as our own.

Our traumatic experience makes us keenly aware of the suffering of others. We are not afraid to dwell in a world of discomfort or pain. We don’t shy away from confronting the realities of the world.

My PresenTenseLA venture is Share Our Stories, a Holocaust arts education initiative of the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust. By teaching this history of the Holocaust to students across this city in an innovative and creative way, we also encourage students to think critically about their own circumstances and the kind of contemporary sources of injustice that may surround them.

As part of our work, we bring Holocaust survivors and teaching artists into public school across Los Angeles for intensive workshops. Students hear the survivor’s story and work with an artist mentor to develop works of art that respond to what they’ve heard and reflect on the universality of oppression.  Students – many of whom face their own trying circumstances and institutional violence – are encouraged to express themselves and find their own voice with the support of a compassionate community.

Share Our Stories helps to fulfill our Jewish commitment to remember the Holocaust and allows this history to feed and inspire advocacy today. We want to support the students in our community to ask difficult questions of this history and of the present. 

By PresenTenseLA Fellow Ilana Ross

What’s So Jewish about The One Wish Project?

The One Wish Project (OWP) is a non-profit organization striving to create social change through film and education. The films target marginalized groups and people in conflict in order to bridge the gap between them.

The Jewish Principles of OWP: 

Learning From Others: “Who is wise? The one who learns from every person…”
(Talmud – Avot 4:1)
OWP prides itself on learning from the “average” person on the streets and hearing perspectives and voices that are not otherwise heard in the mainstream media. Everyone has a story, OWP is their microphone.

Multiple Voices: “These and these are the words of the living God…” (Eruvin 13b) “There are three truths: Your truth, my truth, and The truth.” (Chinese Proverb) We can disagree but we must have respect for the other’s opinion in our search for truth.

Change Comes from Within: “When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.” – Victor Frankl OWP believes there are some situations and circumstances that cannot be changed by external measures, in these instances it is incumbent to place a mirror to our own souls and change our own perspective.

ONE-ness: And the LORD shall be King over all the earth; in that day shall the LORD be One, and His name one. (Zechariah 14:9) We still live in a binary world – OWP seeks to create a world where the illusion of separation is no longer present.

“Let the Conversation Stand”: From the Aramaic word, “Teiku” (Bava Metziah 21a) OWP believes it is the questions that guide us rather than seeking a resolution or a definitive answer, the dialogue and conversation that the questions elicit bring richness to the situationIn other words, “An answer without a question is like planting a seed in cement, there is no growth.”

Compassion for the “Stranger”: “You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the soul of the stranger because you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” (Exodus 23:9) How we treat the stranger is mentioned 36 times in the Bible and is considered one of the most important commandments. OWP seeks to treat the “other” and marginalized members of society with compassion and build awareness for our shared humanity. We also promote their cause and the amazing organizations who are putting in the effort to create change.

Education and Social Action: “Study Leads to Action” (Talmud Tractate Kiddushin) OWP uses our films as a means to incorporate education based curriculum that is rooted in social action. The three pillars (Films + Education + Action) serve as the foundation to create comprehensive change in the world.

By PresenTenseLA 2014 Fellow Joseph Shamash

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