Remembering to Remember

On this week in which we commemorate the Holocaust, a disturbing report came out: memory of the events of the Holocaust are fading, and fewer people in younger generations know basic facts about the destruction of European Jewry and Nazi Germany.

It is disturbing, and on one level not surprising—the more we temporally move away from important events, the less we feel a connection to them. And in the case of the Holocaust, as with each passing year more survivors die, there are fewer and fewer people to serve as witnesses and share first-hand accounts.

Which is why we can not accept this fading memory as a fait accompli. For us as Jews, who are connected to these events both physically and emotionally, remembering the events of the Holocaust comes naturally. Our concern must be with others outside the Jewish community, who aren’t directly connected to these events, so that it doesn’t fade from the general collective consciousness.

I wonder at times, if my child was not connected to these events, if he did not get Holocaust memory handed down to him as part of our family transmission of Jewish identity, what exposure would he have had? What would he have gotten at school? What would he know?

I can guess anecdotally that the surveys and reports are true. My father, who in his retirement has spent much time as a volunteer and docent at the United States Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC, has noted to me that many on his tours lack basic knowledge and understanding of the Holocaust. There is comfort in the fact that by visiting the museum they are seeking it out, but without that visit, there is a chance that they would continue on with limited exposure.

And yet, now more than ever, as memory of the Holocaust is reportedly fading, is memory of the Holocaust vital. Hitler’s rise to power and the institution of the Nuremberg Laws remind us what can happen when democratic institutions fall to the whim of a person bent on power. The story of the St. Louis, the ship from Germany turned away at U. S. shores, remind us of the perilous journey of refugees in search of safe haven. The fact of Auschwitz and Dachau remind us of what can happen when we dehumanize and scapegoat a group of people that is perceived to be the “other” and the “enemy.”

So we commit to keep the memory alive. In our spiritual practice, we read the story of the Torah every week of every year—an ancient text that in many ways embodies a time from which we are so far removed. Yet by continuing to read it, it continues to be relevant, and thus stays a part of our collective memory. We read of the events of the Torah, but more importantly we read of their meaning.

As we continue to move farther away from the actual events of the Holocaust, we continue to tell the stories so that they too become part of our collective memory. And we will remember not only the events, but more importantly their meaning, both for us as a Jewish people and as a world community.

Don’t Just Mark the Jewish Holidays, Mark the Jewish Intervals

This post originally ran on the Rabbis Without Borders blog. You can read the original here.

The Jewish calendar is a bit interesting since we also live on Gregorian time. The fact that it is a lunar-based calendar means that every year the Hebrew dates shift vis-a-vis the “regular calendar” so that certain holidays, while they fall around that same time each year, will fall on a different date of the Gregorian calendar.

Internally, the Jewish calendar is also interesting in its composition, with its cycle of festivals and special days. While the Jewish calendar, like other calendars from other traditions, has a sequence of holidays to mark natural seasons and historical events; it also gives us the opportunity to focus our thoughts and spiritual energy on important ideas and values. Additionally, the Jewish calendar has a series of important “intervals” that link the various holidays, not just highlighting important days, but important times.

These times can be the holidays themselves—Passover, for example, is not one day but a week, giving us a period of time to remember the Exodus and reflect on the themes of oppression and liberation. In the fall when we celebrate the High Holy Days of Rosh HaShanah, the New Year, and Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, we do not just mark those individual days, but the period of time between them takes on heightened importance as the Yamim Nora’im, “The 10 Days of Repentance”—a week and a half to reflect, repent and take stock of our lives and behaviors.

On the contemporary calendar, we just recently marked both Yom Hashoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day, and Yom Ha’atzmaut, Israel’s Independence Day. The former marking the greatest tragedy of modern Jewry, and the latter marking one of modern Jewry’s greatest projects. And the six days between these two days give us the opportunity to reflect on the interplay between them: not just how the historical fact of one contributed to the historical fact of the other, but how tragedy and renewal, despair and hope, mourning and celebration are a continual cycle in our lives.

And now we are continuing through the period of the Omer, the seven-week period that links Passover and Shavuot, the festival marking the events of Sinai—the creation of the covenant and the revelation of the Torah. A biblically-ordained practice to literally count the 49 days, the Counting of the Omer has its roots in ancient agricultural cycles. Today, it serves as a means to link the themes of the two holidays: how simply breaking the chains of oppression does not lead to true freedom, but rather developing a system to guarantee those freedoms does. The Omer allow us to continue the process of leaving behind that which binds us that we began on Passover and to prepare ourselves for the new wisdom and insight that we will receive on Shavuot.

When I was reflecting on some of these ideas at my congregation over Shabbat, I was approached after the service by a congregant who is a runner. He explained to me that to be a successful runner, one needs to pay attention to the intervals—the time between runs. It is his belief that the intervals are as important if not more important than the runs themselves. We need to be able to rest and recover from one run in order to perform at our best at the next one.

The Jewish calendar and yearly holiday cycle contains similar wisdom. We celebrate and mark the important occasions. But we also need to pay attention to the intervals, the time between those occasions. They are as important as the days themselves, for they allow us to fully integrate the spiritual teachings of one holiday and prepare us to fully prepare for the next.

Why American Jews Should Stop Observing Yom Hashoah

This post originally was on the Rabbis Without Borders blog.

An interesting thing happened two weeks ago.

When President Trump issued his executive order banning refugees from seven predominantly Muslim countries, setting off a wave of protests and condemnations, many Jewish groups who opposed the ban noted the cruel irony that the ban was issued on International Holocaust Remembrance Day.

In addition, Jewish groups also noted with dismay that the statement the Trump White House issued in observance of that day failed to mention Jews specifically, saying that they “took into account all of those who suffered.”

What was interesting is not just these two developments, but that the American Jewish community was paying attention and giving weight to International Holocaust Remembrance Day. In general, the American Jewish community reserves its commemoration for the Holocaust to Yom Hashoah.

The background of the two days are different. International Holocaust Remembrance Day is on January 27, designated by the United Nations General Assembly and coinciding with the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. Yom Hashoah (also called “Holocaust Memorial Day” in English) is on the 27th of Nissan on the Jewish calendar (so the Gregorian date shifts year to year, this year it falls on April 24), designated by the Knesset in Israel and meant to evoke the date of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising.

And so while American Jewish communities generally join with the Israeli community commemorating the Holocaust on Yom Hashoah in the spring, these recent events suggest that perhaps the American Jewish community should shift its observance of the Holocaust to International Holocaust Remembrance Day in January.

The Trump executive order coinciding with International Holocaust Remembrance Day has highlighted for American Jews a fundamental aspect of our narrative: that we are a people whose history — both mythic biblical history and actual history—is one of immigrants and refugees.

This Shabbat in our weekly Torah reading cycle we read Parshat Beshallach, which recounts the climax of the Exodus narrative when hundreds of thousands of Israelites leave Egyptian slavery. It is a paradigmatic story of liberation from oppression, which also involves a mass migration.

And Jewish history is replete with examples of Jewish communities fleeing and seeking safe haven in other lands. American Jewish history is defined by immigration, and we also know too well how this country’s refusal to admit Jewish refugees from Europe during World War II led to devastating consequences. (For example, the story of the St. Louis)

The Trump order and its corresponding date thus provided an important reminder to American Jews—that when we commemorate the Holocaust, our commemoration should fit our narrative and history as American Jews, and not the narrative of Israel. The histories are different, the outcomes are different, and we need to claim our unique story in the development of post-Holocaust Jewish community.

[Which is why, too, the absence from the Trump commemorative statement proved so shocking.]

The American Jewish community has embraced the values not only of Judaism but of America. When confronted with presidential orders that limit immigration and ban refugees, we need to recall our own history as immigrants and refugees. When orders target one religion, we need to recall our own struggle, with both the promise of religious liberty and the challenge of belonging to a minority faith. When certain groups are deemed “other,” we need to recall our own fight against anti-Semitism and hatred, and the promise that all people are equal.

Thus the new political reality provides a new opportunity of activism for Jews in which we “do not oppress the stranger, because we were strangers in the land of Egypt,” as it says many times in our Torah. And it may prove a shift in how–and when–we remember the most devastating episode of our modern history as well.

Holocaust Remembrance: Particular or Universal?


Today is Yom Hashoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day. This is a reflection I wrote yesterday on the Rabbis Without Borders blog on My Jewish Learning.

Holocaust Remembrance: Particular or Universal?