NOVEMBER 1, 2018, MARBLEHEAD – Rabbi Ariel Burger was 15 when he met Elie Wiesel for the first time. His stepfather, a conductor who worked with Wiesel on a musical project, introduced the two after a lecture in New York, sparking a connection that would span over a quarter of a century.
As Wiesel’s undergraduate student, doctorate candidate, and teaching assistant at Boston University, Burger developed a relationship with the Romanian-born American Jewish writer, professor, political activist, Nobel laureate, and Holocaust survivor that transcended protégé. The two became close friends.
During his five years as Wiesel’s teaching assistant, Burger witnessed the transformative power of his mentor over hundreds of students. He lets the public peek through the keyhole door into this classroom dynamic in his newly published book, “Witness: Lessons from Elie Wiesel’s Classroom,” a detailed chronicle of student interactions and Burger’s personal conversations with Wiesel about intellect, faith, tolerance, and truth.
“A lot of people had the chance to study with my teacher, or at least to hear him lecture or speak publicly,” Burger said via email. “But we can no longer do that. So it’s up to us who knew him and learned with him to share what we learned.”
Wiesel, who passed away in July 2016 at age 87, supported Burger’s project. “I think he was excited whenever his students created new work, especially books. And I was able to share with him some very early sketches of the book, chapter titles, things like that for his feedback,” Burger said.
A true Renaissance man, Burger has been drawing, painting, and illustrating since he was a young boy. He works in a variety of media, from acrylic portraits to pen and ink illustrations, to digital collages.
Referring to himself as “an educator and artist whose focus is leadership, spirituality, and creativity,” Burger strives to empower others to access their spirituality, or “the less common inward-facing stuff. We’re meant for more than plodding through our days with shopping breaks. And the problems we face as human beings demand better and deeper responses.”
The master storyteller and rabbi also began studying conflict transformation after spending time in Israel from 1998 to 2003, where he experienced the Israeli-Palestinian conflict firsthand. He was unsatisfied by the prevailing attitudes he encountered: the “us v. them” mentality and others that seemed to avoid the real issues altogether.
“I came away with a sense that we needed to deepen our approach to otherness, to difference, to competing claims and stories,” he said. “I wanted to know what my own tradition, and especially the hidden side of our tradition – the mysticism – had to say about how we might transform conflict.”
After studying in several other yeshivot, Burger finished his rabbinical studies at the orthodox Bat Ayin Yeshiva in the West Bank and was ordained in 2003. Wiesel neither encouraged nor discouraged this pursuit. “In general, he didn’t push me in any specific direction. He usually answered my questions with other questions. But this helped me a lot, because his questions were so much more precise, and asking them helped me clarify what I wanted,” Burger said.
As Scholar-in-Residence at Temple Sinai in Marblehead this year, Rabbi Burger will bring all his hats to wear leading the audience in three sessions devoted to learning and growing. “The Temple Sinai community and Adult Education Committee feel a responsibility to provide exciting programs to the whole area that will inspire people to continue evolving and learning as part of leading a Jewish life,” said Rabbi David Cohen-Henriquez.
A member of the committee had met Burger and thought his fusing of text and traditions with the arts would be a good fit for the temple’s program. “And as a student of Wiesel, Rabbi Burger also focuses on one of my favorite passions — the power of storytelling,” Cohen-Henriquez added.
At the first session on Oct. 21, which was part of the Jewish Book Month speaker series, Burger spoke about “Witness” and his personal and professional experiences with Wiesel. “I always hope to connect listeners to themselves, to each other and to wisdom,” he said. “I feel very committed to helping heal our broken civic discourse through sharing stories and studying text. I’m continuing to travel and teach, learn, listen, and share stories about a man who continues to have so much to teach us.”
Rabbi Burger wants people attending his sessions to leave with two takeaways. “Hope, and new questions,” he said, echoing his mentor’s mantra.
The winter and spring sessions will integrate text study, art, and storytelling. For more information, go to templesinaiweb.org or call 781-631-2763.