Debate over Yom HaShoah observance grows

new york | At a small, suburban New Jersey synagogue next week, a pair of Holocaust survivors will pray, bar mitzvah children will recite the poem “Butterfly” by a teenage death-camp inmate and a choir will sing the El Maleh Rachamim blessing of God’s compassion.

Jeff Marder, a keyboardist for Cirque Du Soleil in Las Vegas, also will premier new music at the unusual event on Monday, April 19, called “Never Forget.” The piece was commissioned by Beth Haverim, a Reform synagogue in Mahwah, and the nearby Ramapo College Center for Holocaust & Genocide Studies to mark Holocaust Remembrance Day, Yom HaShoah.

“There is a sense that first-hand witnesses to the Shoah are fewer and fewer every year, and it becomes important that we find new ways to remember,” says Beth Haverim’s rabbi, Joel Mosbacher.

“Never Forget” joins scores of new productions across the denominational spectrum creating new liturgy to mark Yom HaShoah, on Sunday, April 18.

Nationwide, synagogues are staging events featuring candle-lighting, reciting the names of Holocaust victims, watching videos of survivors’ accounts, conducting Shoah seders and reading prayer books such as the Conservative movement’s new Megillat Hashoah.

The efforts are fueling a growing debate about how the relatively new Yom HaShoah should be ritualized, or whether the holiday should be folded into others.

“It will take another 100 years before we know for sure, but the growth of Yom HaShoah is the trend,” says Rabbi Irving “Yitz” Greenberg, president of the Jewish Life Network and founding president of CLAL — The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership.

Among the leading advocates for new Yom HaShoah observance is Menachem Rosensaft of New York, founding chairman of the International Network of Children of Jewish Holocaust Survivors.

As the son of Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen survivors who lost entire families, Rosensaft insists that Holocaust remembrance “is not just an obligation for those with a direct, familial link with the dead.”

“This was the greatest tragedy in post-biblical Jewish history,” he says. As survivors vanish, the next generations “are in a position to ensure that the remembrance of Holocaust victims will be a permanent, separate part of the Jewish national consciousness.”

Rosensaft departs sharply from those who maintain that Jews should remember the Holocaust on Tisha B’Av. That day of mourning was set to lament the destruction of the First Temple in 586 BCE, and the Second Temple in 70 C.E. and subsequent Jewish tragedies as well.

Among those who advocate adding the Holocaust to the list of misfortunes commemorated on Tisha B’Av is Ismar Schorsch, chancellor of the Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary of America.

Schorsch once wrote that Yom HaShoah, as well as the marking of Kristallnacht on Nov. 9, are events that are “ritually and spiritually impoverished.”

“One of the reasons Yom HaShoah has not penetrated the Jewish consciousness is that it has not taken a liturgical form,” he says. “It is rarely a religious day in the synagogue — and it is the synagogue, through ritual, that succeeds in perpetuating Jewish values.”

The debate echoes arguments that surfaced in Israel in the early 1950s, when the young state sought ways to mark the still-fresh Holocaust.

Some fervently religious leaders of the time said that general prayers of Kaddish, or mourning, should take place on the 10th of Tevet, which marks the start of the Babylonian siege of Jerusalem.

But in 1951 Israel’s Knesset made Yom HaShoah a legal holiday, and eventually Israelis began observing the day with sirens that bring the nation to a standstill. Some Israelis found they could relate better to those who resisted the Nazis, and the day gradually came to focus as well on ghetto fighters and partisans.

Yet the question of how Jews should remember the Holocaust religiously continues to spark debate.

Rosensaft, for example, doesn’t preach a specific ceremony, but rather suggests that synagogues hold a “yizkor-type” service that may include survivor narratives.

What Jews do remains “an evolutionary process,” he adds.

Despite his opposition to a separate commemoration of Yom HaShoah, Schorsch calls Megillat Hashoah “the first great liturgical articulation of the calamity of the Holocaust.”

Others maintain that the synagogue may be the wrong place to observe the holiday.

Rabbi David Nelson, director of the Jewish Life Connection for the Bergen County Y-Jewish Community Center in Washington Township, N.J., says that three of the four new sacred days in the Jewish calendar — Yom Hashoah, Yom HaZikaron (Israel’s Day of Remembrance for fallen soldiers), Yom Ha’Atzmaut (Israel Independence Day) and Yom Yerushalayim (Jerusalem Day) — are largely ignored outside the Jewish state.

“The real challenge is, how should this holiday be observed privately?” says Nelson, a Reform-trained rabbi who considers himself post-denominational.

“Normal Jews are not historians, but they are storytellers. The question is, how will we ritualize the salient points of the folk memory of the Holocaust?”

Some say the debate mirrors Jewish history itself, as Jewish observance ebbs and flows around Jewish law and its interpretations.

“The Jewish people are still creating liturgy,” Greenberg says. “You can see how it grows and spreads and competes, and you see a new dimension of Jewish tradition grow before your eyes.’

For information on community-wide Yom Hashoah events in the Bay Area, go to Also check to see if your local synagogue has an event scheduled.


Edit: We must never forget

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