While we celebrate our religious High Holidays in the fall, this week marked the contemporary “secular” Jewish observances of Yom Hashoah and Yom Ha’atzma’ut—Holocaust Remembrance Day and Israel Independence Day.
Both of these days mark fundamental aspects of the contemporary Jewish experience that are worthy of recognition. And both of these days challenge us. Yom Hashoah forces us to examine our experience of hatred and genocide to ensure that we do not forget it and it doesn’t happen to others. And Yom Ha’atzma’ut forces us to examine how Israel both succeeds and fails at living up to Jewish values and the values stated in its Declaration of Independence.
But I always feel there is something missing. The Holocaust and Israel are part of the psyche and narrative of every person who is a member of the Jewish people. However, neither is directly a part of my family history. Rather, my family narrative is one of immigration from Eastern Europe to the United States at the beginning of the 20th century.
And I am not alone in this story. This is many people’s story as well, with their own variation. Indeed, the United States was also a place of refuge following the Holocaust, and my own personal story is informed by an American meeting a Moroccan-born Israeli in Israel and returning to the United States. (Yohanna’s parents).
The history of the Jews in America stretches much further, to before the founding of the country. And so we need to recognize and realize that the United States is as much a part of the contemporary Jewish experience as anything else. It is the home of one of the largest Jewish populations in the world, and the freedoms guaranteed in the Constitution have allowed Judaism to flourish—and diversify—in a way that is unique in Jewish history. The denomination in which I was trained—Reconstructionism—was, unlike the other major denominations, founded in the United States.
When I was a seminary student, I thought about this a lot (as I still do), and even wrote an article about it. And my suggestion was to not only recognize this aspect of Jewish history, but, like the Holocaust and Israel, recognize it. I suggested we add another holiday to the calendar which I called “Yom Haherut”—Freedom Day.
I won’t go into details here about it, I will instead send you to the article that was published in Reconstructionism Today, which was then the organ of the movement. It hasn’t taken off—I did lead an observance here just a few times—but I stand by the idea.
A holiday elevates an idea or a moment to a level of importance. The Holocaust and Israel are definitely in this category. And so too is our American experience. When we recognize the Holocaust and the founding of Israel, we are recognizing past events that inform our ideas, outlook, and identity. And for those who make their home in this country, when we recognize our American story, we recognize a future that also informs our ideas, outlook, and identity.