As a 15-year-old, Ariel Burger was grappling with heavy questions about the relationship between Jewish learning texts and art, between tradition and creativity and between legacy and innovation. Having been “an artsy kid in an ultra-Orthodox elementary school,” he was trying to bring everything together in a coherent whole. He met Prof. Elie Wiesel, Nobel Laureate, activist and author of more than forty books, who bridged those seemingly incompatible worlds as a traditional Jew, but also as an international human rights activist and a writer accountable for his own words but with freedom of expression.
Burger, who was drawn to Wiesel as a teacher and mentor, said, “He was remarkably receptive to me, always encouraging me to ask questions and then responding with other questions.” Burger said. “Of all my teachers, Elie Wiesel was the greatest. To tell you who I am is impossible without including the influence this man has had on me.”
The two studied and taught together for many years. Burger’s book, “Witness,” which he will speak about at the Jewish Book Festival on Sunday, November 17, chronicles the intimate conversations between these two men over decades, as Burger sought counsel on matters of intellect, spirituality and faith, while navigating his own personal journey from boyhood to manhood, from student and assistant to rabbi and, in time, teacher. “Witness” takes readers into Elie Wiesel’s classroom, where listening and storytelling keep memory alive. As Wiesel’s teaching assistant from 2003 to 2008, Burger gives readers a front-row seat witnessing these exchanges in and out of the classroom. The act of listening, of sharing these stories, makes the readers witnesses.
Burger has mirrored Wiesel’s eclectic personality by being an author, artist, teacher, rabbi and consultant whose work integrates education, spirituality, the arts and strategies for social change. An Orthodox rabbi, Burger received his Ph.D. in Jewish Studies and Conflict Resolution under Wiesel. He also wrote songs, played guitar at Carnegie Hall with Richie Havens, exhibited art in galleries, danced with thousands of Breslover Hasidim at their annual pilgrimage in Ukraine, participated in interfaith groups, illustrated folktales, became a teacher, worked as an executive at a non-profit, taught, lectured, led workshops and began using storytelling to connect people across communities.
“I went deeply into Jewish studies while creating art, finding out how my inner landscape fit together,” he said. “I learned that there is no choice between one’s own identity, family and tribe and the human rights of humanity as a whole.”
Burger explained that Wiesel had commitment to text in understanding the repeating patterns of human behavior. “We can look at historical moments to accelerate our response time,” he said. “It’s very helpful to put an event in context, even if it’s provisional. When we see the beginning of hatred, which usually starts with words and symbols, it leads to actions of violence against the vulnerable. We need to act, and history can alert us.”
He added, “Rather than getting used to what is happening, we have to reach out to create alliances and coalitions to reflect the values of friendship and respect that will lead to learning, growing and self-examination. Rather than just protesting, we should examine what is happening and call a Congressman or Congresswoman to do something about it or find another constructive way to act. When something negative sparks dialogue, we need to create vessels and forms to sustain it. We have to build in budgets for study groups and conversations. Interfaith, intergroup study can create greater sensitivity and connection.”
Burger has been traveling around the country talking about the lessons from Elie Wiesel’s classrooms to make his wisdom available.” He believes that it is important to draw from wise people and traditions, so he is providing “a book talk that is a public teaching dialogue.”
Burger questioned everything in search of an answer. When he met Wiesel, he realized that questioning is the answer. Of Wiesel, he said, “He helped guide me to where I am today – a teacher, artist, speaker, spiritual healer, and now the author of a memoir of the time we spent together.”
He added, “At a moment when the loss of civility is eroding human connection, I draw on my teachers’ lives and wisdom to help promote civility and kindness. My mission is to help counter superficiality with nuance, to replace estrangement with encounter, and to empower people to be creative and kind citizens of the world.”
Burger concluded, “Living in a time with a lot of challenges can be depressing. Prof. Wiesel taught that hope is a moral choice. Choosing to give up is guaranteeing that darkness will grow. Choosing joy, hope and courage ensures that light will grow.”
Prof. Burger will be speaking at the Jewish Book Festival of the Jewish Federation of Greater San Gabriel and Pomona Valleys at Temple Sinai of Glendale, 1212 N Pacific Ave, Glendale, CA 91202; (626) 445-0810. The book talk, Q&A and signing event is slated for Sunday, November 17, at 4 p.m..
ilene schneider is a contributing writer to jlife magazine.