President’s Speech from the Holocaust Remembrance Service – Yom HaShoah
Temple Beth El is sponsoring a community interfaith program titled A Season of Faith and Understanding that brings people together to learn more about other religions in Oneonta and to offer the opportunity to have conversations with people of other faiths. Our first event occurred at St. Mary’s Roman Catholic Church, and from a Jewish perspective, it was very interesting. In Father David’s introduction to Catholicism, he expressed reverence for Judaism, respect for our faith, and shared that, like Jesus, the Church is inspired by the Hebrew Scriptures. However, in the week’s reading from the Gospel of John we read negative language about Jews that contradicted what we heard. Asked about this contradiction and the rift between the Catholic Word and the Catholic Heart, Father David explained that Catholic teachings have changed in contemporary times and that it is important for the Catholic Church to acknowledge its long, shameful history of anti-Semitism in Europe.
The second event in the series occurred at First United Methodist Church, a progressive church by any measure. Before the service, we met with Pastor Teressa Sivers, a friend of Temple Beth El whose deep respect for Judaism is obvious. During her introduction, she announced that she was conflicted about the weekly reading from the Book of Acts because of language that is considered anti-Semitic (in the passage, Jews are blamed for the death of Christ). She decided that an explanation of the context of the passage would be useful in teaching the true history of Christianity and demonstrate how far Christian thinking has evolved. My church visits reminded me that Jewish representation in the story of Easter is the origin of Jewish vilification and it has persisted for two millennia. And as we know, Christian anti-Semitism created a brutally hateful culture in Europe that led to the Holocaust.
As I sat in both churches sharply aware of my discomfort, I thought of my great-grandmother, Baba Raisza. Baba left her Polish shtetl around 1930 after burying her third husband. An old woman weary from the old country, she arrived at Ellis Island and was greeted by her daughter in Manhattan, my grandmother, who had been sent alone to America many years earlier at the age of 12. Baba moved into the crowded Lower East Side tenement with her daughter, son-in-law, two granddaughters and two grandsons. (These were my grandparents, aunt, uncles, and mother.) Baba was something of a mystery to my mother and her siblings, all of whom were children of immigrants on the path to assimilation. Her old world ways and the glass eye she kept in a glass of water on her nightstand made Baba other-worldly to her grandchildren. Other than Yiddish, Orthodox Judaism, and the apartment they shared on 4th Street, they had very little in common. Their apartment happened to be on the same street as a Catholic church. As my mother recalled, every Easter, the priests, in full vestments and robes, led a religious procession through the streets of the Lower East Side. Parishioners followed the priests, carrying flags and singing hymns. The sight of this parade of Catholic Americans was, for Baba Raisza, too much to bear. The victim of many brutal pograms in her village, she had seen her family and community ravaged. The psychological, emotional, and spiritual damage it did to Baba Raisza was profound. Though she survived pogroms with her body intact, Baba Raisza’s soul was not. She survived the Catholic rage of her Polish neighbors who, like her American Catholic neighbors, also marched into her life. She could no more endure the sight of Catholic priests and parishioners marching in front of her home in the New World than she could in the Old Country. So she did the only thing she could – on the Lower East Side of New York City, Baba Raisza did what she learned back in Poland – she cowered in the farthest corner of a dark closet. And she waited. She waited for what must have seemed to her an eternity. An eternity spent praying to escape the inescapable reach of Christian rage. Baba Raisza did this every Easter until her death. She passed away when my mother was in elementary school, but the memory of her suffering endures.
It is my duty to remember Baba Raisza and the branch of my family tree destroyed at the hands of depravity and hate. Nazis alone did not kill 6 million Jews, they had the cooperation of Christian neighbors in every village, city, state, and country. We are all here tonight to remember. And we all have reasons to remember. But we also must keep our eyes open in the present. The increase in acts of antisemitism in the US has been staggering, nearly a 60% increase in 2017 (according to the B’nai B’rith Anti-Defamation League). While Temple Beth El enjoys strong and supportive relationships with our Christian neighbors, in the past year, American Jews have been jarred out of complacency. At a Holocaust Remembrance service, we not only look back to our martyrs and heroes, to honor them and their blessed memory, but to reflect on today and imagine tomorrow. As this service continues, we will remember the 6 million silenced voices, but we must remember that we can speak. We can be heard. And it is our obligation to ensure “Never Again” means for us, and for all humanity.