How USC Shoah Foundation inspires me

Mon, 12/17/2018 - 10:24am

This blog post was written by Thom Melcher, co-chair of USC Shoah Foundation’s Next Generation Council, shortly after the Institute’s Ambassadors for Humanity Gala last month in Los Angeles.


I have been associated with USC Shoah Foundation since 2007.

I attended my first gala that year because a close friend of mine was the honoree. I knew very little about the Institute before attending and I was blown away when I started to learn the story. The mission touched me deeply.

It also happened to be 18 days after my youngest daughter was born. I don’t know how other parents feel, but I found myself thinking a lot about the world my two girls were going to be brought up in and the responsibility I have to teach them to be open, compassionate and loving humans. 

At the time, I was focused on the benefits of a sound moral compass, without thinking about the consequences of the absence of empathy. Being exposed to the work of the Institute actually highlighted the devastating consequences of not standing up to hate and intolerance in all circumstances.

I knew I wanted to help, but because I’m not Jewish, it wasn’t immediately clear to me that there was a place for me at USC Shoah Foundation. 

Thanks to the kind encouragement of the leadership, I learned that was not the case. But the truly clarifying moment came during a small dinner in New York, hosted by USC Shoah Foundation Finci-Viterbi Executive Director Stephen Smith, where I first met Jayne Perilstein, the Institute’s managing director of advancement, and heard her passionate explanation of the human problem that we all share. On that night I not only realized there was a place for me, but I also realized with great clarity that USC Shoah Foundation’s mission would never be realized without people from all backgrounds being willing to step up and speak out.

A number of years later, when Jayne called to ask if I would co-chair the Next Generation Council, I was honored and humbled. I also felt we needed to focus the efforts of the group. That’s when the concept of viewing our actions through the lens of “align, extend and amplify” took shape. Our efforts must align with the priorities and mission of the Institute.  Our time, talents and resources must extend the capacity of the Board of Councilors and the amazingly talented and dedicated staff. Our voices and actions must amplify the call to action. These concepts remain aspirational, but we have also made both individual and collective progress on each of those three pillars.

One thing that will stay with me forever is the memory of the one-on-one time I had with kids from Parkland, Fla., whose school – Marjory Stoneman Douglas High – was targeted in a horrific mass shooting in February of 2018.

They are regular kids who had their innocence shattered in a dramatic and traumatic way. Those that survived had a piece of their soul stolen from them.

Although the circumstances are vastly different, the parallels to Holocaust survivors are striking. And the two liberators who attended our Nov. 5 gala honoring Rita Wilson and Tom Hanks took my breath away. At the age of the high school kids in the room, those boys (now frail men) did something more heroic and meaningful than I can ever hope to achieve in my lifetime. We were in the presence of greatness, courage and humility in doses that were hard to comprehend.

Then there is Ivy Schamis, the teacher at Marjory Stoneman whose class was targeted in the shooting, and who received USC Shoah Foundation’s inaugural Stronger Than Hate award. As her class was literally under fire and she had to face the horrifying thought of confronting the shooter, she was able to compose her thoughts and decide that her words for the gunman would be words of love.

There is no better proof that LOVE IS STONGER THAN HATE.

How can I not be grateful and humbled to assist in the mission of the Institute? How can I not be in awe of the Institute’s staff, the Next Generation Council, Ivy and her kids? My goal is to give back in proportion to the immeasurable inspiration that all of you provide to me. By that measure, I can never give enough.

Lastly, we gathered shortly after the tragic antisemitic murders at the Tree of Life synagogue in Squirrel Hill, Penn. -- a town I lived in, only blocks away from the site of the mass shooting, when I first got out of college. Unlike many other shootings, where the gunman kills himself or is killed, this gunman was taken to a local hospital. 

There he was cared for by Jewish doctors and a Jewish nurse. A man who was so hate filled that he could murder people while they peacefully prayed was now under the care of those he despised. Our (my) lesser angels would allow us to seek revenge -- and perhaps even feel justified in doing so.  But the Jewish nurse, Ari Mahler, said the following: “I chose to show him empathy. I wanted him to feel compassion.” 

A day or so later, Ari posted a statement online. In it he wrote, “Love. That’s why I did it. Love as an action is more powerful than words, and love in the face of evil gives others hope. It demonstrates humanity. It reaffirms why we’re all here. … I could care less what [Robert Bowers] thinks, but you, the person reading this, Love is the only message I wish to instill in you. If my actions mean anything, love means everything.”  

He was also quoted as saying “I felt that the best way to honor his victims was for a Jew to prove him wrong.” 


We all have an obligation to do our part to change the world. The actions of a few became the actions of many to a devastating end during the Holocaust. We need to make the actions of a few become the actions of ALL by demonstrating respect, tolerance and love in all our actions and interactions. 

Thomas Melcher