ON Sunday evening, Oct. 10, at 6:30 p.m., a stone will be laid into the soil of the University of Denver, marking the beginning not only of a physical place but of a noble idea.
With that action, the new Holocaust Memorial Social Action Site will be born, as will the university’s newly charged dedication to the ideals of social justice and peaceful dialogue.
The place and the idea, says Sarah Pessin, director of DU’s Center for Judaic Studies, are inherently and symbiotically linked.
“It really is an opportunity for gathering and dialogues,” she says, “which is very much ?in the mission of what the space is.”
That mission is not only to memorialize those who perished during the Holocaust, but to “transform memory into social consciousness and action” by utilizing the same piece of ground for lectures, performances, readings and vigils dedicated to the goal of preventing future instances of genocide and oppression.
In physical terms, the action site will be an outdoor venue, a small but visually striking amphitheatre, located on what Pessin calls “a wonderful piece of the campus” — until recently an unused grassy area just off Evans Ave., between DU’s library and Mary Reed Building.
It will stand in the shadow of the historic Buchtel Tower, the last remnant of the Buchtel Chapel, most of which was destroyed in a 1983 fire.
A central focal point will be a long stone seating bench, in the shape of the Hebrew word chai, symbolic of life.
Radiating outward from the main bench will be a row of semi-circular stone benches, made of ?stone from a Wyoming quarry, rising in a “gentle grade” of three or four feet.
At the top border of the grade, there will be metal lattices, designed in the form of Hebrew letters spelling out the word hineni, which means “here I am.” The symbolism, Pessin says, was carefully considered.
The “life” symbolism of chai is self-evident in the context of a Holocaust memorial.
Hineni was chosen, she says, because its reference to the self “indicates that the self is an ethical respondent.” She views the concept as “a very strong call to an intense ethical consciousness.”
Some 18 people will be able to sit on the main chai bench — 18 is the Hebrew numerical equivalent of life — and an additional 50 or 60 can gather around on the surrounding benches. With folding chairs, as many as 150 more people could be accommodated at an action site event. On cold or rainy days, events could take place in the nearby tower.
DU’S architect, Mark Rodgers, in concert with architect Spence Nickel of 5design, is the primary designer for the site.
“We’re very excited to work with this team because this is a further testament to the idea that this is an organic part of the community,” Pessin says.
The action site is being funded by an extended campaign of one-on-one fundraising efforts spearheaded by Leland Huttner and Sharon Mushkin, longtime supporters of the Center for Judaic Studies’ Holocaust Awareness Institute.
The site itself will cost some $750,000 to build, and an additional $250,000 will be used for an endowment to provide initial programming at the site.
That funding is part of an overall fundraising campaign that is seeking a total of $3 million, which will also cover a new endowed chair of Holocaust studies, a yet-to-be-hired DU faculty member who will teach Holocaust education, head the Holocaust Awareness Institute and serve as a vanguard for the university’s social justice awareness efforts.
Completion of the action site project is expected to be the spring of 2011.
ALTHOUGH designed to become an integral part of the DU campus, the action site will be available not just for classroom groups or various campus activities, but also for community and religious organizations — “anything that works in the spirit of learning intercultural bridge-building and dialogue,” Pessin says.
That will remain the underlying theme.
Already, two annual projects dedicated to that theme — the Social Justice Digital Media Storytelling Project and Voices of Dialogue: Interfaith Bridge-Building Workshop — are associated with the site.
Pessin says that DU administrators and faculty have been discussing both ideas — a Holocaust memorial and a social justice venue — for years, largely inspired by the university’s mission to contribute to “the public good.”
The pace of those efforts accelerated in recent years, especially since Pessin assumed direction of the CJS. She helped articulate a specific focus for the project. Other members of the campus community also jumped aboard.
“There are many energies on this campus dedicated to social justice,” Pessin says. “Eventually, they all came together in the conclusion that this would be a wonderful new possibility.”
She believes that the idea of combining a Holocaust memorial with a venue dedicated to human rights and social justice issues is unique.
“This is something that was created as a concept,” Pessin says.
“This is a perfect opportunity for something new, a Holocaust awareness social action site. This is a new model for what a Holocaust memorial can be . . . a place for campus and community consciousness activities.”
Pessin admits that some people aren’t terribly fond of the long name — the Holocaust Memorial Social Action Site. She notes, in fact, that the original idea for the name was even longer. But all the words in the name are intentional, because the site is meant to be considerably more than just a traditional memorial, usually consisting of sculpture or art.
“Those five words coming together are very important in a conceptual space of Holocaust memorials that are more traditional as inspiring pieces of art or monuments,” she says.
“This is taking real direction from the fact that we are on a college campus. What can we do with this kind of rethinking, of gathering and learning that happens, and the dialogues and conversations that take place there? It might be a conversation that has to do with the Holocaust or with ending homelessness or with social justice issues of any sort — making the world a better place.”
Tying the Holocaust with current social justice concerns forms a perfect nexus, in Pessin’s view.
“It’s more than just a place. All of this honors those lives that were destroyed by hatred. This is the most intense living of the expression ‘never again’ — never again to allow injustice to go unchecked in the world.”
Pessin, who says she has recently been researching post-Holocaust theology, has obviously had a lot to do with the evolution of the concept at DU.
The granddaughter of Holocaust survivors, Pessin says “this connection between remembering the Holocaust and living in an intensely ethical way” is also a highly personal part of her life.
She is aware that college campuses today can often be places of intense conflict between pro-Israel and anti-Israel, or Muslim and Jewish, students. Nor does she feel that DU, with significant populations of both groups, is immune from those tensions.
But the action site, she feels, can be a place where conflict and distrust can be channeled into what might become a more effective and positive forum, which allows students and others to discuss highly controversial differences in a respectful and peaceful way.
“One subset of social justice that we feel particularly strong about is intercultural dialogues,” she says.
“Part of what needs to happen at the Holocaust Memorial Social Action Site is to create genuine, engaged, facilitated and safe opportunities for students and community members from different cultures and religions to deeply respect one another.
“We hope that will take place at this site.
“One of the main pillars of post-Holocaust theology is to find a space to truly build bridges with one another. That has to be one of the lessons of never again.”
During Sunday’s ceremonies to lay the first stone at the Holocaust Memorial Social Action Site, a time capsule will be buried beneath the stone. Themed “Words of Memory, Words of Hope,” the capsule will contain words from Holocaust survivors, students, community members and others. Names of those lost in the Holocaust can be included, as can messages of hope for a better future.
Copyright © 2010 by the Intermountain Jewish News