The 2013 Pew Research Center’s recent survey of the American Jewish community reported that, among those people who identify themselves as Jewish, a whopping 73 percent say that remembering the Holocaust is an essential part of what being Jewish means to them. That element of Jewish identity received the highest response rate, outpacing other suggested elements such as leading an ethical life (69 percent), caring about Israel (43 percent) and being part of a Jewish community (28 percent). Why does this element of Jewish identity receive such prominence? Is it the guilt that would accompany not remembering, the notion that we might afford Hitler (may his name be blotted out) a posthumous victory if we forget? Is it the particularistic notion that we must remain vigilant against our enemies who are constantly seeking to eliminate us? Is it the universal lesson that makes us better human beings because we will not idly stand by the persecution of any group?
This past Sunday night we commemorated Kristalnacht, the 76th anniversary of the Night of Broken Glass, the event that many say was the official starting point of the Holocaust. German Jewish shops were destroyed, men were beaten, detained and killed, synagogues burned. And rescue workers stood by to make sure that the fires didn’t spread to the neighboring non-Jewish homes and businesses.
The Rockland community observed the commemoration ceremony this year at the OJC. Over 200 people gathered to see the presentation of colors by the Jewish War Veterans, to hear the words of County Legislator Harriett Cornell and the personal testimony of survivor Paul Galan, and to stand in solemn solidarity with the 30 teens holding candles as the words of El Maleh Rachamim, the Jewish memorial prayer, filled the sanctuary.
As I think about the surprising Pew survey statistics, I can understand the relatively high importance we place on remembering the Holocaust in light of what I witnessed Sunday night. I felt our children’s hearts swell with pride as they watched our Jewish veterans salute the American flag, pledge allegiance and sing Hatikvah.
I felt our children’s souls ignited by the memorial candles they held. I felt our children’s minds understand at a level beyond words what it means to remember. Our children recognized that Jewish remembering is not passive. Our remembering is an obligation we fulfill that shapes our Judaism, our identity as Americans, and our humanity. For our children, the lessons of the Holocaust also inform their obligation to defend the values for which they stand, and shape their responses to social issues they confront on a regular basis, like bullying and intolerance. The Holocaust is six million individual Jewish stories of vulnerability, fear, insecurity, cruelty, powerlessness, hope, courage, faith, redemption and love. It is the story of our people as much as the exodus from Egypt, and it is a part of our narrative that must be told.
How will you remember? Participate in our Kaddish project. Match yourself with an individual who died in the Holocaust with no one left to observe their yahrzeit. Learn their story. Say Kaddish for them. Contact Larry Suchoff, our Holocaust Remembrance Committee chairperson, or just walk into the OJC office, to adopt a story. Perhaps remembering the Holocaust will become an essential part of what being Jewish means to you.
Rabbi Craig Scheff