I welcome my younger sister, Randi Galron, as a contributor to this post. Her words will appear italicized in the text.
The first siren introduced herself into my life with no warning. On a quiet and sunny Tel Aviv afternoon in October 1973, as the nine year-old version of me was busy playing a board game with my older sisters, she came through our living room windows, bounced off the walls and took up residence in our floors. The siren grew stronger as she grabbed hold of my feet, causing me to lose my balance. The room had tilted, or so it seemed, as panicked neighbors stopped at our door just long enough to tell us to move down the apartment house stairs to the bomb shelter in the building’s bowels. We sat silently in the dark, dank space for hours until the siren returned to inform us we could emerge, but only to prepare ourselves more adequately for the many times she would return over the next few weeks to send us scurrying back underground.
Every April I steel myself for the visit of the second siren. She comes to visit me in a different way, never catching me off guard. I can anticipate her arrival down to the minute; nevertheless, I am left feeling shaken when she passes. Over the years of my rabbinate, I have busied myself in the month of April with programs, speakers, and songs of Israel. Once the Passover dishes are put back into storage, Yom Hazikaron, Yom Ha’atzmaut, and even Lag B’Omer powerfully reconnect me to Israel and to my Israeli family, friends and places that have become such a foundational piece of my Jewish and spiritual identity. Nothing, however, brings me back to Israel more powerfully than the siren sounded on the morning of Yom Hashoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day). A small piece of me wants to avoid the moment, but the larger piece of me that is insistent upon standing inside it wins out every time.
April 8, 9:09 am, Tel Aviv, Israel
It’s 9:09 am and Craig just texted me. What’s he doing awake at this hour? It’s only 2 am in the States. Riiiiight, he’s the “Keeper of the flame,” a 24 hour vigil that his synagogue observes every Yom Hashoah. I join his “watch” on Zoom and we continue to text. As he writes to me about his reflections, I share my own feelings about what it’s like to have my two sons in the Israeli army at the same time. That both my boys are fighting for and protecting our Jewish homeland is a tremendous legacy to all those who perished. I share with him a picture or two to capture the meaning of this powerful day for me.
April 8, 2:46 am EST, Orangeburg, New York
In a few minutes, the siren will sound in Israel. Most of the country will come to a standstill. Drivers on the highways will pull over to step out of their cars. Merchants will cease their business dealings. The elderly will stand by the young, quietly paying their respects to the fallen.
9:53 am, Tel Aviv
Only 7 minutes to go before the siren. Just a few minutes to quickly finish up what I’m doing to prepare for a moment of reflection and to pay respect to our families and all those who perished in the Holocaust. The time is 9:59 am and from my office on the 48th floor of the midtown office building in Tel Aviv I can already see civilians and soldiers lining the bridge that leads from the Azrieli mall to the Kiryah.
10:00 am, Tel Aviv
The sharp shrill of the siren that pierces the air. The steady siren that symbolizes our mourning and calls us to remember. It’s different from the rise and fall of the air raid “red alert” sirens we hear and heard only a couple of days ago to alert us that our small country is under attack. This siren pierces your heart and stops your breath for an instant. This siren causes the tiny hairs on the back of your neck to stand. This siren calls our entire nation to a halt. An entire nation stopping in its tracks – people, cars, radios, phone calls, the construction site I see down below – all of it. I stand with my head lowered, hands at my sides. I close my eyes. In the background I can hear the faint beating of my heart and I remind myself to take a breath. I try to settle the thoughts and emotions swirling through my mind. I picture the faces of my loved ones, the face of my grandfather who is no longer with us, faces of friends, faces of those whom I don’t even know. But, I remember them. From my office window, I look out at the Ayalon highway. Cars are pulled off to the side, their doors opened, their passengers standing at attention like monuments. I feel a tear on my cheek.
3:00 am, Orangeburg
I stand in our sanctuary before the candles, and I listen to the siren from my sister Randi’s phone. As the alarm pierces the still surroundings, her reverberation connects her listeners one to another, across space and time. Though I stand here seven hours behind, I am transported to that time outside of time, that place outside of space, where the souls of the living and the dead come face-to-face. And even as they are bound up with each other in that moment, the one gazes expectantly, while the other averts its eyes. “Have you learned?” asks the one. The other holds its breath, releases and answers, “I thought I had, but perhaps not.”
While Yom Hashoah and Yom Haatzmaut are inextricably linked on the Jewish calendar, separated only by a week, and while it is so often said that the State of Israel arose from the ashes of the Holocaust like a phoenix, I do not like to perpetuate the idea that Israel exists today due to the Holocaust. There can be no denying that the Holocaust accelerated the realization of a dream that was centuries old, but that dream had already gained major traction in the years leading up to World War II. Even so, the siren of the 1973 Yom Kippur War that lives in my memory and the siren of our annual Yom Hashoah commemoration remind me that Israel’s security and legitimacy–her rootedness in our Jewish past and her aspirations for a Jewish future–are what ultimately give me the luxury of feeling secure as a Jew in the world today.
Randi, kiss your boys for me, and thank them for standing guard on my behalf.
Shalom al Yisrael,
Rabbi Craig Scheff
It is a unique command of Judaism that we not only remember but must experience history as if we were a part of it. The Passover seder instructs us about the Exodus from Egypt as if we ourselves were slaves in Egypt. Soon at Shavuot, we will once again stand at the foot of Sinai to receive Torah. At each moment in our Jewish lives, ritual bypasses our intellect and goes directly to our hearts, requiring us to remember and re-experience. We fulfill this mitzvah of remembering well, we Jews.
But then Yom Hashoah arrives each year. The command to remember becomes so painful that it takes our breath away. We weep for what we never knew, or as Sister Maureen of the Dominican Ministry said today as we gathered to dedicate our Shoah Memorial, we feel physically ill. With regard to the Shoah, the command to remember requires opening our hearts only to have them broken.
When Rabbi Scheff began teaching his sixth graders about the Holocaust this year, he brought them to the front door of the synagogue and asked how we remember things that we never experienced. He showed his class our memorial, then under construction, and asked them how we should remember.
Today, one hundred and fifty of us dedicated our memorial, thanking Dr. Larry Suchoff and the Holocaust Remembrance Committee for their perseverance and passion to see the project to fruition. Survivors, children of survivors, guests, nuns from the Dominican Sisters, congregants old and young, all gathered to hear shofar blasts and to dedicate ourselves to ensuring that we remember as a community. “Never again” is a goal toward which we will continually strive.
Today, Rabbi Scheff’s sixth graders showed how well they had learned the lessons he taught them. Students read short biographies they had written about survivors who are or were members of the OJC. Each student ended his or her brief statement with: “It is an honor to know you.” Spouses and children accepted the simple statements of these eleven-year old children as gifts. I watched the faces of Frieda and Marie as they listened to their stories being told, and I saw fresh grief, but also validation and hope.
From today forward, we will sit on the benches, reminiscent of train tracks. And we will look at the mosaic which depicts either six candles or six chimneys, depending on your understanding. We will teach and meditate and rest in the sunshine. And we will cherish the wall art chosen for the memorial where under the wingspan of the flying bird, our OJC logo, we read: tachat kanfei haShechina, under the protective wings of God’s Presence. And then, we will enter into our sanctified home knowing that we must act in every moment with remembrance in our hearts.
Through the night and all through tomorrow, we will pass by the memorial and quietly enter the sanctuary where six memorial candles burn as we fulfill our ritual of Keepers of the Flame.
For how long do we need to read and teach about the Shoah? Until the end of days. Until then, we will follow the command to remember m’dor l’dor, from generation to generation. Today’s sixth graders will one day teach their own children.
May Yom HaShoah call us to actions of love and understanding and the overcoming of hate and fear. As Frieda Seidner said, as quoted by her biographers today, “The key is to love all people, but love our people most of all.”
May the memory of six million be sanctified and remembered. Rabbi Paula Mack Drill
Read more and watch the video on LoHud News: http://www.lohud.com/story/news/2017/04/23/orangetown-center-dedicates-holocaust-memorial/100695178/
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