Social Justice

A Tree of Hope for the Future

Earlier this month I had the pleasure of traveling to Little Rock, AR for the dedication of an installation containing a sapling from Anne Frank’s tree at the Clinton Presidential Center. The project was a partnership of the local Congregation B’nai Israel Sisterhood and the Clinton Center. When the sisterhood president heard about The Sapling Project, she was inspired to begin the five year journey that would lead to that moment.

Anne Frank lovingly wrote about ‘her’ tree throughout her famous diary and for decades it remained outside the secret annex that has become a memorial and museum perpetuating Anne’s hopeful message to the world. Several years ago, knowing the tree would soon die, the Anne Frank Center devised a plan to cultivate several saplings, which are now planted around the world and serve as a focus for education and inspiration. The selection criteria for obtaining one of the 11 saplings destined for the U.S. required the host community to assure it would be used to educate the community about its own history.

This particular tree will serve as a reminder of past acts of discrimination and persecution that took place in Arkansas. Its roots will be nourished by the tears of Native Americans as they were forced to leave their ancestral lands for parts unknown. The soil in which it will be planted was aerated by the barbed wire of Japanese relocation centers during World War II. And the dirt around the young sapling will be packed down by the tread of Jim Crow. Strengthened by the lessons of the past, the sprouts that will flourish from the sapling will inspire a new generation to recognize—and defeat—injustice.

Contrary to earlier reports, I was not able to actually speak at the event, though I did enjoy a ‘meet and greet’ with the 42nd President of the United States. I suppose being ‘bumped’ by a president is not so bad. Fortunately, there was one speaker allowed to participate from the local congregation. The chosen speaker was not the rabbi, or the sisterhood president, or the funders, or the visionary leaders who made the project come to fruition. Instead, the speaker was Lexi Elenzweig, the youth group president, who, like Anne, is a teenager finding her place in the world and raising her pen and her voice to speak truth to power. She said:

I am 17 years old. I am just a little older than Anne Frank was when she died. The tree inspired Anne to write about her hopes and dreams for the future. Anne’s words, written in her diary, have inspired millions of people around the world, including me. I hope one day our “little” tree will began to grow and flourish, and resemble the tree that provided comfort and hope to Anne.

The roots of this sapling are grounded in history. As the roots take hold and provide a solid foundation for its growth, this tree will also become part of this place, anchoring itself into the future of this region.

The branches are reaching towards the future. As the branches grow higher, they will provide inspiration for us to always reach towards the good and light in this world. Like the tree, I hope together we continue to grow towards the light and into the future.

The director of the Anne Frank House and President Clinton both spoke brilliantly during the dedication. But it will be the dreams of youth that will keep this tree alive: forever-15 year old Anne, the courageous Little Rock Nine, young George Takei at the age of five interred just a few miles away, and inspiring Lexi Elenzweig.

And if all of that was not enough, the best moment for me was Lexi’s opening line: “As a leader of our youth group and a future member of a sisterhood, I am inspired by the legacy of the women of sisterhood and the ongoing work they do today to repair, heal, and transform the world.”

It doesn’t get any better than that!

Rabbi Marla J. Feldman is the WRJ Executive Director.  This blog was originally posted here.