I worry that with each passing year in this country, Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day, is quietly and gradually becoming obsolete.
You don’t need an actuary to know that the number of survivors of the Holocaust, which took place between 65 and 71 years ago, is declining rapidly, and thus the authentic voices of those who lived through the horrors are diminished every day.
The highlight and centerpiece of the many Yom HaShoah observances I have attended has been the keynote address by a Holocaust survivor, a personal remembrance that makes the unimaginable seem real and that takes the dizzyingly abstract number six million and reduces — yet deepens — it to one vivid, firsthand account.
What will Yom HaShoah be like in a decade or two when there are no more survivors to give witness to the tragedy and all of our knowledge will be secondhand, at best?
Before we reach that time, our community should be giving serious thought to how best to assure that the message of zachor — the command to remember — lives on. The sad fact is that at its present pace, Yom HaShoah in the diaspora may disappear along with the last survivor.
Part of the problem is that there has been no institutionalized ritual, date or time accepted by all communities to mark the occasion.
In Israel, an official Yom HaShoah commemoration can be traced back to 1951, based on Knesset legislation. Initially designated for the 14th of Nisan, to coincide with the anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, that date was considered inconvenient as it fell on the day before Passover. It was moved to the 27th of Nisan, just after the festival and eight days before Yom Ha’Atzmaut, Israeli Independence Day.
Some elements of the Orthodox community, particularly the haredim, do not observe Yom HaShoah. They believe that Tisha b’Av, the Fast of the 9th day of Av, marking the destruction of the Holy Temple, is the appropriate occasion to commemorate major tragedies in Jewish history, including the Holocaust.
Those elements of the Jewish community who do commemorate Yom HaShoah, which this year is observed on Sunday, April 11, often hold a solemn service that includes the lighting of six candles, to symbolize the murder of six million Jews by the Nazis, and the Kaddish, the traditional prayer recited by mourners. Some read lists of names of those who perished, to give a sense of the enormity of the tragedy.
The most dramatic ritual is a national moment of silence in Israel, introduced by sirens at 10 a.m. Throughout the country people stop in their tracks, wherever they may be, and remain perfectly still for two minutes.
In Washington, the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum holds a national observance each year during a week of remembrance.
Among the more creative efforts to mark Yom HaShoah in recent years, the Masorti (Conservative) movement in Israel commissioned a Megillat Yom HaShoah, a scroll and liturgical reading, and a few Modern Orthodox rabbis have designed a home seder, complete with a Yom HaShoah Haggadah that calls for eating potato peelings, to recall the scraps that starving men, women and children ate in concentration camps.
But these innovations have not been adopted on a wide scale.
This year’s annual Park Avenue Synagogue commemoration will take a new tack and be “conducted entirely by young Jews under the age of 40,” according to a synagogue statement, “as part of the process of integrating the culture and memories” of the victims and survivors “into our collective consciousness.”
Meanwhile, one wonders whether Yom HaShoah can best be preserved through a synagogue-centered service or a home-based ritual. There are precedents for both approaches.
Rabbi Ismar Schorsch, the former chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary, is one of the few liberal Jewish proponents of incorporating Yom HaShoah observance into Tisha b’Av. He says current Yom HaShoah and Kristallnacht observances (Nov. 9) 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 told JTA last year. “It is rarely a religious day in the synagogue — and it is the synagogue, through ritual, that succeeds in perpetuating Jewish values.
But having just experienced anew the remarkable lasting power of the seder — which the large majority of world Jewry observed this past week, thousands of years after the original Passover — one could make a strong case for a family-oriented program to take place in the home to mark Yom HaShoah. After all, home-based rituals like Friday night candle lighting and Chanukah menorah lighting have been observed for centuries, in part because they focus on the family unit rather than requiring the participation of the community at large.
In truth, history has shown that it can take many decades, and even centuries, to determine if a ritual introduced to the Jewish calendar takes hold. What is clear, though, is that whether the systematic murder of six million European Jews should best be marked in the synagogue, at home or in some other way, we need to make the ritualized observance of this tragedy a higher communal priority before it is too late.
And follow the Jewish Week on Twitter: start here.