Yom HaShoah’s Uncertain Future

Will lighting six candles and reciting "Kaddish" rouse the emotions and intellect of generations of Jews who never met a Holocaust survivor?

Within the next 40 years or so, most Holocaust survivors will no longer be alive, making this question less theoretical. Before that happens, Holocaust scholars and professionals are challenging today’s Jews to take responsibility for either etching Yom HaShoah as a permanent fixture onto the Jewish calendar, or letting it fade into history along with the survivors who founded it.

"I have been alive for every Yom HaShoah in Jewish history. It’s the equivalent of being in the first generation that observed Passover," said Michael Berenbaum, director of the Sigi Ziering Center for the Study of the Holocaust and Ethics at the University of Judaism. "We are precisely in that first iteration as that first generation. That is why we are reaching for forms. It is an incredible privilege and an incredible responsibility, and part of that responsibility is how do we shape the forms that will endure?"

The question comes amid increasing debate about how prominent a role the Holocaust should play in American Jewish identity, and whether resources would be better spent on Jewish education and positive cultural activities. At the same time, and pulling in the opposite direction, increasing anti-Semitism and violence against Jews in Israel, Europe and other countries has called into question the comfort of assuming that the world has learned the lessons of the Holocaust.

"A basic rule for the times we live in today is that we should no longer stand in silent tribute to dead Jews with anyone who has no respect or concern for live ones," said Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center.

But wherever one falls on the balance of how central the Holocaust should be to American Jewry, most agree that remembrance on Yom HaShoah is appropriate, and the only question becomes in what form.

"We are in a transitional period in Jewish history," Cooper said. "The survivors, the witnesses, are slowly but inevitably leaving the scene, and the connectedness to the first-person experience is certainly crucial. It’s going to be a challenge to maintain the poignancy, the educational aspect and the communal commitment to remembering Yom Hashoah. In order to have that, you have to have more year-round education of our young."

To that end, the Wiesenthal Center makes sure that at least half the audience at Yom HaShoah programs are students, and thousands of students visit the Museum of Tolerance every year.

Interfaith memorials and joint ceremonies with other groups who have been victimized — Rwandans, Armenians, Kosovars — have also become common. Marcia Reines Josephy, former director of the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust, said that as long as the uniqueness of the Holocaust is not compromised in such events, such joint remembrances help transmit what she thinks should be the key message of Yom HaShoah.

"The lesson I always tried to tell the students who came to the museum was that the Holocaust is the ultimate degradation of humanity, but if we can learn from that that you don’t have to like everybody you associate with but you can respect differences, than we’ve learned something important," Josephy said.

While lighting six memorial candles, reciting "Kaddish" and the "El Maleh Rachamim" memorial prayer have become standards at most events, some are trying to bring Yom HaShoah into line with other enduring Jewish observances by adding sacred texts and ritual actions.

The Conservative movement last year introduced Megillat HaShoah, a six-chapter booklet written by Rabbi Avigdor Shinan that tells of the Holocaust from six different vantage points.

"We felt there was a need for a sacred text that would be read every year — like the Book of Esther on Purim, or Ruth on Shavuot," said Rabbi Perry Rank, president of the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly.

Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky of B’nai David-Judea Congregation has created a Yom HaShoah seder, where teenagers act out and retell the stories of survivors — both published ones and the personal stories of shul members. Incorporated into the storytelling are ritualized foods — dry bread and watery boiled cabbage. At various points participants are asked to put their jewelry and glasses into a large box, or to get up and move away from their children.

"What I found is that survivors themselves deeply appreciate this kind of observance and have been very forthcoming in giving us their stories for adaptation," said Kanefsky, who picked up the idea for a seder from Rabbi Avi Weiss in Riverdale, N.Y. "The children have a means of connecting to the Shoah in an emotional and intellectual way they wouldn’t otherwise have."

Dr. Joel Geiderman, director of emergency medicine at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, is looking for a more subtle but universal observance. Geiderman, the son of survivors who sits on the United States Holocaust Council, is promoting the idea of everyone — Jews and non-Jews — wearing yellow star lapel pins on Yom HaShoah.

"I think even in the United States there is not enough awareness of Yom HaShoah," said Geiderman, who hopes to launch the pin next year. "I think in the last few years there are more events and community activities, but it would be nice if there was something done in a more routine manner, more universally. This was a tragedy for all mankind."

Berenbaum said he believes more people attend Yom HaShoah events today than did 25 years ago, because rather than fading from memory the Holocaust has gained significance as it moves further into history.

"I think it is safe to say that there are enough institutions that are committed to remembering the Holocaust that they will succeed in preserving the memory," said Berenbaum, who played a key role in creating the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. "In every field of knowledge worldwide — films, museum, literature, historical scholarship — the Holocaust occupies an enormously significant role and that is because it has become the negative absolute of modern society. Consequently it would be wrong to presume that it would not be around in another generation."

Add to that the unprecedented volume of recorded firsthand testimony, and the legacy of the Holocaust seems all but assured.

The Israeli parliament in 1950 established the 27th of Nissan as Yom HaShoah V’hagevurah, the Day of Holocaust and Heroism. While early remembrances were primarily attended by survivors, by the 1960s the date was more universally observed, and in 1980 the United States Congress established the Days of Remembrance, mandating federal agencies to commemorate the Holocaust during the week of Yom HaShoah.

It was then that large communal observances began to take shape, such as the communitywide memorial at Pan Pacific Park, which attracts hundreds every year (see sidebar).

Today, the Jewish community again finds itself at a juncture in Holocaust remembrance.

Berenbaum watches all of these attempts with interest, aware that the searching going on in this generation will help Yom HaShoah to find its natural and hopefully lasting expression.

One of the reasons a satisfactory expression has remained elusive is because the topic itself is so difficult, he said.

Some historical tragedies, such as Tisha B’Av and the destruction of the Temple, are remembered in theological terms — we sinned, God punished us, we repented. Others, such as Purim and Chanukah, are about God snatching the Jews from the jaws of defeat.

But the Holocaust neither makes theological sense, nor can the deaths of 6 million be termed anything other than defeat, despite attempts to train the lens on resistance.

"The Holocaust challenges our religious forms, it challenges our religious responses, it challenges a whole range of things," Berenbaum said. "When we don’t develop an easy language of commemoration in part it is because the reality of how to deal with the Holocaust is complex and tough."