Divre Harav/Words from the Rabbi – April, 2013

April 7 is Yom Hashoah V’hagevurah, the day designated by the Israeli Kenesset as the day to remember the Holocaust and the Heroism of those who resisted. I have been thinking a lot lately about how we commemorate Yom Hashoah. Some survivors choose to remember by telling their story, others are very reluctant not only to tell the story but to have it know that they have a story at all. Having heard quite a few survivors speak, I understand quite well those who feel that telling the story satisfies a human voyeuristic impulse to gaze upon another’s pain, but can never fully transmit the depth of the actual experience and does not always transmit useful lessons.

What troubles me about the stories is when the survivor uses his or her story as a weapon, a club to beat people over the head with. I heard one such story the last time I took a group to the Halocaust Memorial Center in Farmington Hills – the survivor repeatedly looked at the audience and accused them of passivity, complicity, and asked them what they are going to do to prevent another holocaust. “This is what happened to me,” the survivor said, “and you” – looking at my Christian college group – “would have been guilty. This is what they did to me – what would you have done about it?”

I fully support Steven Speilberg’s project or documenting, recording, and saving the stories. We need to retain the hard evidence of human stories and suffering to keep the holocaust deniers at bay. However, if the only result of publicly telling a story is to make the audience squirm with guilt that they, who were born 50 years after the end of WWII, didn’t take action, what’s the use of the story?

There are many ways of commemorating Yom Hashoah. My Rabbinic colleagues have created a “Megilah Hashoah,” a Holocaust Scroll, modelled after Jeremiah’s Biblical book of Lamentations. They suggest reading it liturgically on Yom Hashoah just as we read Lamentations on the 9th of Av, the anniversary of the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. Some fast; most do not. Some say Kaddish for those whose lives were lost. Some give tzedakah to organizations that fight hated and/or murderous dictatorships. Some gather together and tell and hear stories. Some say extra prayers for the souls of the murdered six million. Some demonstrate against ongoing holocausts and other slaughters taking place in Africa and the Middle East today. Any and all of these things are good ways to observe Yom Hashoah. The only thing that should not be acceptable is to ignore the day completely. So take action. Make April 7 into Yom Hashoah. Post a remembrance on your Facebook status. Do something.

I don’t want the world to forget, and I want the remembering to have a useful outcome.

***

I do a variety of things in addition to writing sermons and bulletin articles, answering questions by phone or email, going to Board and Committee meetings, teaching religious school classes, leading study groups, and visiting members of the congregation. Here are some of my activities of the past month:

  • • Unfortunately, we experienced three funerals in the past month, and one additional Shiva home from an out of town funeral.
  • • Between Purim and Pesah, I studied a tractate of Mishnah, concluding the book on the morning prior to Pesah with a celebratory meal to break the fast of the first born.
  • • I administered the Ma’ot Hittim program – collecting money, buying Meijer gift cards, and distributing them to those who need extra help buying Pesah food.
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What do you learn from a Holocaust Museum?

I brought a group of college students to the Holocaust Memorial Center in Farmington Hills Michigan today. The experience of visiting Holocaust museums always leaves me uneasy. While walking through the exhibit and listening to the docent, I am constantly asking myself, ‘What is the intended outcome of such a visit? What impression is it meant to give the visitors?’

The tour began with a nod towards the Armenian holocaust, with a look at a special exhibit by an Armenian artist. The implied message is, ‘See, Jews are not unique. It happened before, and no one noticed.  There has always been tremendous evil in the world, and unless we recognize the signs and take action, it will happen again we will be guilty of complicity.’  At the same time, however, we wonder why, if Jews are not unique, there are no museums of the Armenian Christian Holocaust?  Why don’t they remember and shout out warnings to the world, as we do?

The tour guide made the point over and over again that Jews are not unique. ‘Who is the Jew,’ he asked. ‘Every and any one of you,’ he answered. The average citizen who knew what was happening and let it happen made the Holocaust possible. You have to believe that it can and will happen again.  You have to believe that you might be among the next set of victims, unless you understand how to watch for the signs and how to take action.

Then we approach the introduction to the permanent exhibit, pausing at a list of Jewish Nobel prize winners. A sign points out that Jew make up less the one percent of the population, but comprise 25 percent of the Nobel prize recipients. We are asked to imagine what the world destroyed when 40 percent of world Jewry was wiped out.  We are invited to imagine how much better the world would have been if the brilliant potential of European Jewry had been allowed to flower.

I wonder what my students took away from the experience.  I wonder what the two predominantly (or completely) non-Jewish grade school groups who were also visiting today took away from their experience.  Did they absorb the message that Jews are better and smarter than other people, and therefore our tragedy is monumentally worse than the Armenian Holocaust?  Or did they absorb the message that the same philosophy that gives birth to Jew hatred also spawns hatred of people of color, people with disabilities, and/or people of any minority religion?

The exhibit seems to want it both ways.  On one hand, Jews are just like anyone else, and the next victim could be you.  Other other hand, Jews are a unique treasure.

We realize that Jews have ritualized memory and the importance of remembering things, good and bad, to a depth possibly unmatched by other ethnic or religious groups.  Deep down, however, I think there is deep Jewish ambivalence about what to do with the Holocaust memory.  We have been trained by Passover and Purim and Yom Kippur to reenact our most important memories in order never to forget them.  On the other hand, we recognize that the Holocaust was an intensely painful and deeply dysfunctional period of our history, and we understand that unlike our other historical memories, this one does not have a positive lesson unless we can convince other people to join with us in taking responsibility for the evil and guarding the world so it will never happen again.

Students — Tell me:  How do you understand the experience you saw and heard today?