by Bobby Harris, URJ Camp Coleman Director
“Whoever saves a life, it is considered as if he saved an entire world.” -Talmud
Before today, the Coleman community had never heard of Chiune Sugihara. After today, I do not think that they will ever forget about him. Today, in commemoration of Tisha B’av (a holy day that remembers many sad events in Jewish history), we decided to plan a day to learn about Mr. Sugihara. Unfortunately, his story is almost completely unknown.
Chiune Sugihara, a Japanese diplomat in Lithuania during World War II, defied his government’s official policy. At great personal risk, Sugihara signed thousands of visas to free Jews who had no other place to go and who, without his assistance, would have almost certainly died. It is estimated that nearly 100,000 Sugihara survivors and their descendants are alive today because of his deeds.
Following breakfast, Bryan Kellert, Coleman’s karate specialist, taught the campers about “heroic courage” – a core element of the Bushido code that he learned about in training for his Black Belt. Some historians claim that Sugihara was influenced by this code and it helped guide his decision to defy policy in order to save lives.
After lunch, the whole camp had an interactive Skype call with Mr. Rick Salomon, son of a Sugihara survivor. Rick shared his father’s story with the campers as they listened and were given the opportunity to ask their own unscripted – and excellent – questions. “Did anyone fear that maybe Sugihara was trying to trick them?” (Ely Silverman from Bonim) “What were the real risks that Sugihara took?” (Joey Kelso from Chalutzim) and “How did the Jewish people end up knowing that they could go to Sugihara? (Matthew Rubenstein from Kesher) were among the several questions that were asked.
From watching segments of a PBS movie about Sugihara to participating in activities and discussions throughout the day, the campers and staff came to understand the awesome challenge that Sugihara faced – they began to understand Sugihara’s unique greatness and love of humanity. Thanks to Anne Akabouri from the Visas for Life Foundation, we also displayed 40 photographs throughout camp highlighting the travels and key moments in Sugihara’s life.
Perhaps the highlight of the day came during evening services led by the Kesher Boys whose theme was “finding courage in everyday life”. Each of the participants and their counselors spoke to this issue as we welcomed Japanese Consul General Kazuo Sunaga to participate in our service. The Consul General spoke about Sugihara as Camp Coleman presented him with a special gift in commemoration of Sugihara’s righteous actions created by our Art Director Grace Sherman. Throughout the service, led by Beth Schafer, the campers sang passionately and, as is the Coleman custom, they snapped their fingers in appreciation when they liked what they heard. The Consul General himself also smiled throughout the service, snapping and singing with the Coleman community. After listening to a fervent rendition of Matisyahu’s “One Day” at the end of the service, Consul General turned to me and said “I am deeply moved by this—the Japanese youth need more of this type of thing that you are doing here”. Sometimes it takes someone from the outside our community for us to recognize what we have and to realize how fortunate we are. Thanks to all of the counselors, programmers, campers, songleaders, faculty, campers, for making today so special. We are indebted to Chiune Sugihara for making today possible.
The campers told me, we should look to honor a person like this every year. Yet, people like Sugihara are not easy to find—I am glad we could find him and tell his story. I do not believe that the campers will ever forget him.