By George Castle, Special to Chicago Jewish News
Scott Bernstein can both check his phone and pay close attention to the subject matter at hand – the old “walk and chew gum at the same time” adage that long preceded Bernstein and his committed friends’ births.
Bernstein, wife Carly, Aaron Tucker, Jordan Goodman and wife Danielle break the stereotype of Millennials. In fact, they absolutely destroy it.
Millennials have been branded as a coddled, helicopter-parented generation with no sense of history. But that is definitely not the case with this Jewish quintet. They understand that past is prologue. Because the past – the Holocaust – has reached into their families.
They also know that if the lessons of history are not learned, an evil horror could be repeated. And they are on guard emotionally during times when the concept of “white nationalism” has crawled out from under a rock and is beating its chest.
Proud of their sense of Jewishness since childhood, the Bernsteins, Goodmans and Tucker all are active in both the historical efforts and the fight against present-day anti-Semitism of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington. They are chairs of the 2019 Risa K. Lambert Luncheon being held on Monday, Sept. 9.
Some 2,000 attendees – among them 250 Holocaust survivors — are expected at the noon luncheon at the Sheraton Grand Chicago. Former Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel will be honored for his efforts to promote Holocaust education and fight anti-Semitism.
Keynote speaker will be leading Holocaust expert Deborah Lipstadt, who will discuss her latest book, “Antisemitism: Here and Now,” which examines the resurgence of this ancient hatred and what can be done about it.
While in their early 20s, the Millennial quintet wanted to attend a museum event to begin their involvement in its multi-pronged efforts. However, an initial barrier seemed to be placed in front of them. The event was geared for a middle-age crowd and its cost was out of the reach of fresh college graduates.
“When Jordan and I were dating, we went to a ‘Next Generation’ event of the Midwest office,” said Danielle Goodman. “But ‘Next Generation’ was defined as basically 40 to 60. That was the next generation after the Holocaust. So it just wasn’t approachable for us.”
Added Jordan Goodman: “We were kind of the lone soldiers (as younger Jews) in the room.”
Concerned that there was literally a generation gap in involvement in the museum and its noble efforts, the Goodmans and a few others opted to take action. Lack of action has been a criticism of Millennials, two generations removed from hot-button issues of Vietnam and civil rights that brought hordes out into the streets in protest. The Millennials have been stereotyped as being bogged down in everyday worries such as lack of legitimate job opportunities coming out of the Great Recession and crushing college debt.
“We wanted to get involved as the next ‘Next Generation’ to learn about the museum and the great work it does,” said Danielle Goodman.
“We knew we wanted to help start something that was more focused and more geared to people our age,” said Scott Bernstein.
And so, starting in June 2010, the Goodmans, Bernstein, Tucker and others began working with the Midwest office’s director Jill Weinberg to create the present Chicago Next Generation for their own age group, and have continued their involvement into their 30s.
Bernstein, Jordan and Danielle Goodman, and Tucker got together in person and via phone at the same time for a group interview with Chicago Jewish News to detail their journey into Jewish activism.
Of the four, Danielle Goodman was the most verbally passionate, despite tending to three ill children under age 3 on the other end of the phone line. The Holocaust, she said, had reached squarely into her life.
As a child, her father Tom Rudas, hid in Budapest, Hungary, during the last year of World War II dodging fascist roundups of Jews. The dragnets continued despite a U.S. bombing raid on Budapest in July 1944 intended to send a message, and despite extensive U.S.-prompted rescue efforts aided by Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg.
Tom Rudas’ father apparently was shot and killed in the Danube River near the end of the war after being “marched out,” Danielle Goodman said. Eventually, the younger Rudas made his way to the U.S. by himself in 1956, eventually bringing his mother and sister to join him.
“That’s something we talk about in our house today,” Danielle Goodman said of the Hungarian fascists’ uncompromising anti-Jewish efforts to aid the Gestapo despite the U.S. air raid and the steady advancement of Allied forces.
“I was always aware of the Holocaust,” she said of her upbringing in a “culturally Jewish” house in Northbrook. “I think it’s really important more than ever that we are standing up for minorities, and standing up against anti-Semitism and white supremacy.
“Obviously, it’s extremely important to preserve the memory of the Holocaust. But, moving forward, we need to create tools and ways to ensure these things never happen again.”
Aaron Tucker is just as committed, with leadership flowing through his veins. He grew up with a strong sense of Jewish values, with a solid foundation of “respect” ingrained by his parents while growing up in Highland Park. What prompted his involvement in the museum was hearing tales of his great aunt Sylvia Melamed.
Melamed outsmarted the Nazis, including the infamous Dr. Josef Mengele at Auschwitz, amid her journeys in and out of the camps.
“She told us her story,” Tucker said. “Her story is on permanent display in the museum. I did my bar mitzvah project on my Aunt Sylvia.”
Around the same time as that project, Tucker first learned about the museum during a trip to Washington, D.C. While attending law school in Chicago, he ramped up the Next Generation group, putting on fund-raising and awareness events for years.
“Growing up, I was taught to respect both retrospective and prospective, and the museum does that in an important way,” Tucker said. “It honors the memory of the past and the absolute horrific tragedy, but it also (works to prevent) those tragedies from happening to anyone else around the world.”
Scott Bernstein had two connections to Holocaust remembrance efforts. His uncle’s father, Samuel Schimel, was a Holocaust survivor. And his parents, Irwin and Jill Bernstein, have been longtime museum supporters.
Bernstein, who grew up in Highland Park, attended Indiana University, where he had a chance to meet a “more diverse” group of people at a school noted for its academics, its basketball program and its after-hours party-hearty entertainment. He interacted with students from rural Indiana who had never met a Jew. But he has never wavered on his Jewish values.
“It is important that Holocaust remembrance be a current issue. We want our children to want to meet survivors.”
Jordan Goodman said he “did not have to work very hard at being Jewish” growing up in Highland Park.
“I was surrounded by relatives very involved in Jewish philanthropy,” Goodman said of both sets of grandparents. “Getting involved in Jewish causes was always in my roots. I didn’t go to that (first) event setting out to start a new Next Generation group. I went to take part in something and educate myself.”
Goodman said he believes that American society is at a very pivotal time on two fronts.
“We have an aging (Holocaust) survivor population increasingly concerned that future generations won’t care and won’t remember,” he said. “And we have a society that perpetuates a lot of hate — not just anti-Semitism, but hate across the board. It is an important time to step up and show we care to deal with the issues society is facing today. We care to make sure people know the U.S. Holocaust Museum will continue to do the great work they’re doing.”
Aaron Tucker said he strongly believes that fervent white nationalism, and resulting anti-Semitism, deserve more than to slither back under the rock from which they were hiding until the political climate invited the maladies to bask in the sunlight and gain some crazed followers.
“It doesn’t belong under a rock – it deserves to be stamped out,” he said. “People have made anti-Semitic comments to me, not realizing I was Jewish. I’ve had to very loudly remind them of their ignorance, and tell them such comments should not be tolerated in society.”
Danielle Goodman said sometimes all the horrific current events “become overwhelming and become too big, and you feel like you can’t necessarily do anything to change them. I have committed to not having that attitude. I feel the museum is an amazing vehicle and institution to support to help change the rhetoric as much as possible.
“What we encourage people to do is not become apathetic. So much bad is happening. We have to encourage people to be motivated.”
Scott Bernstein said he is a big advocate of education. “It makes a difference, because not everyone has been as lucky as us in learning about our history,” he said.
Tucker said his group of original Next Generation activists have been grooming successors, with younger participants serving on a Next Generation Associate board.
“We have been able to pass the torch to new chairs of the associates board who are our age when we started,” he said. “Fresh blood. I certainly have a lifelong dedication to the United States Holocaust Museum.”
Successive waves of activists will echo Tucker’s viewpoint on human relations.
“It all goes back to respect,” he said, “to the concept of honoring thy neighbor, honoring anyone in society with the common dignities that everyone deserves to have. It means the more you promote those values, the fewer mass shootings and terrorist acts happen.”
Said Danielle Goodman: “I just want to make the world better for our kids. I want to make it more kind.”
Tickets to the Risa K. Lambert Luncheon begin at $250. Table sponsorships are available. Reservations are required at ushmm.org/events/2019-chicago-luncheon. For more information, contact the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum Midwest Office at 847/433-8099 or firstname.lastname@example.org.