Wednesday, October 19, 2011

The Initiative for Moral Courage

I had the opportunity to sit down with Jackie Gmach, a dynamic woman with a passion for education that can change lives and possibly change the world. This native of Tunisia, where the Arab Spring began, founded the San Diego Jewish Book Fair, now one of the largest Jewish Book Fairs in the country.

She 'retired' last year, but in name, only, as she has now brought an even greater vision to life in a new program, The Initiative forMoral Courage (IMC), which is holding its first Symposium from October 24-November 2, 2011 in San Diego. Most of the events of the Symposium are free, and open to the public.

Gmach has assembled an International Advisory Board whose names and affiliations point to the recognized importance of identifying, acknowledging and celebrating the actions of individuals who uphold moral and ethical standards, even at risk to their own lives. Their examples could inspire others to take a stand, too.

The Initiative, whose home is at San Diego State University, includes among its partners SDSU's Jewish Studies Program and Department of Religious Studies, which is offering an Honors program on Moral Courage in what may become a new course of study.

The idea grew out a model at Yad Vashem in Israel, the world center for the documentation, research, education and commemoration of the Holocaust. Since 1962, Yad Vashem has recognized the actions of non-Jews who, at great personal risk, saved the lives of European Jews. They are honored with the title “Righteous Among the Nations”.

The Initiative for Moral Courage focuses on “The New Righteous”, those who, in the recent past as well as today, saved the lives of the oppressed out of the strength of their convictions and moral courage. Modern history has presented several such opportunities, including the genocides in Armenia, Rwanda, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Cambodia, some of which will be discussed during the Symposium. “It is important for society to recognize those righteous individuals who emerge,” said Gmach, “as their efforts ensure that incidents like the Holocaust can never occur, again.” The Initiative will examine a range of issues related to the subject of moral courage under the broader rubric of contemporary global ethics.

The objective of the Initiative for Moral Courage is both modest and ambitious: "If just one person who attends the Symposium or studies moral courage has the strength to stand up for what is moral and just, whatever the cause, then we will have achieved our goal," said Gmach. Is that intention too humble? No, because a single righteous individual has the power to save many times his own number, as well as inspire others to do the same. At a time in our history when suffering is all around us and we may feel helpless to change the status quo, it is important to recognize those individuals who have the moral courage to take a stand. 

The Symposium opens October 24 with an exhibition of The Rescuers, a photographic exhibit that will be on display on the main floor of the SDSU library throughout the Symposium. The exhibit consists of extraordinary stories about ordinary heroes "who resisted overwhelming tides of prejudice and violence to risk their lives saving members from enemy groups. It helps to understand the presence of rescue behavior during genocide or mass violence.” Wednesday, October 26, will feature a musical program: Music and Resistance, based upon melodies from a 1931 cantor's book that was found in an abandoned synagogue in Romania. The Rescuers exhibit will be available for viewing through November 2. 

The main event, The Symposium on Genocides, Past and Present, will take place on Sunday, October 30, from 1:00-5:15 p.m., and will feature speakers on the Holocaust, the Armenian Genocide, and the African Genocide. It will conclude with reflections on the Symposium by Leora Kahn, Fellow at the
Center for Genocide Studies at Yale University, and Dr. Stephen Smith, Director of the Shoah Foundation at the University of Southern California.

The Symposium is FREE and open to the public. For further information, please contact: Jackie Gmach, Community Outreach Director,, 858-382-3254, or visit for detailed information.


  1. Bryna, I finally got my Amazon Review up for "The Accidental Anarchist." Sorry I took so long. It's been a tough year. It said it'll take about 48 hours to appear. So you don't have to wait here it is: Some may at first be taken aback by my calling this an "American Story"-but ultimately, it is, and if you read it you shall see why. Jakob Marateck is the kind of person we'd all like to be-without going through that which formed his Character. Whether you're interested in Adventure, War Stories, History (Polish, Russian, Military, Jewish, Asian),Theology [Judaism & Christianity], Philosophy, Autobiography/Biography-or even Romance, "The Accidental Anarchist" is for you. Whichever of these divergent topics you wish to become engrossed in, you'll be taken on a voyage of Survival-and with many laughs all along the way as the narrator leads you through diverse worlds. We start out with the author as an adolescent: unsure of what he wants to do, though wholly sure of what he does not wish to! All of this is of no consequence, for Russia's Tsar Nicholas II has plans for this young man from Vishograd, Poland, and thus begin his years of death-defying experiences beginning with the Russo-Japanese War in 1905(the topic I was interested in). The story is one of survival and perseverance, and a testament to the fortitude of the Human Spirit Even as a non-Jew, for me , the story is a testament to the Power of Prayer and Faith-the writer's, which is all I can attribute to what allows Jakob Marateck to carry him through the most hellishly violent. cold, and unjust situations of suffering-and always told with a humorous Mark Twain-like perspective of experience and self-effacing critique. I call this an American Story because ultimately the writer is an American, telling the tales only the Old among us can. Every time I feel challenged now I think back with admiration of Jakob Marateck and how he persevered, and it gives me a pang of shame for perhaps giving up too easily when things look daunting for myself (slightly re: The Accidental Anarchist). If you read "The Long Walk" or saw its movie, "The Way Back," you will have a sense of Jakob Marateck's challenges and toughness, but remember that his journey was decades before, and he was alone, and he was Jewish in Anti-Semitic Russia (Europe in general). When you finish the book you shall find the Romance and also an American Dream come true. If you love Adventure you will love this book! My new email is

  2. The Initiative forMoral Courage (IMC) piece you wrote here made me think of the movie "V for Vendetta" because when I saw that again recently I was forced to ask myself "What would I do?" I think when people reflect on past tragedies of genocide it's easier to say "I'd have done this or that" but in seeing something that appears to be going on now in many ways, I really asked myself the question, and I hope I'd do what I told myself I would! I'd like to think so. josh