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As Yom Hashoah Gains Traction, Debate Grows over How to Mark It

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 April 19 event called “Never Forget” that Beth Haverim, a Reform synagogue in Mahwah, and Ramapo College’s nearby Center for Holocaust & Genocide Studies have commissioned to mark Holocaust Remembrance Day, or 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, which falls this year on 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 their 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 means to draw a sharp distinction 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 Orthodox 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.

Efforts to ritualize the holiday have ebbed and flowed, though none have become universal. In 1988, the Reform movement published “Six Days of Destruction” by Holocaust survivor and author Elie Wiesel and Rabbi Albert Friedlander. The book wove survivor stories with the six days of creation.

For years, Avi Weiss of New York, an Orthodox rabbi, has held special seders revolving around a Yom Hashoah Haggadah he published.

Meanwhile, the public, non-sectarian ritualizing of Yom Hashoah also grew. In 1980 Congress passed legislation creating the National Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, whose role was to coordinate a national annual service during a week of remembrance.

That service, which includes the lighting of a six-branched menorah and a processional by a U.S. Army band carrying flags of the 36 divisions that liberated the concentration camps, takes place in the Capitol rotunda.

Other public events at military bases and state capitals have grown. Last year, for the first time, all 50 U.S. states marked the holiday, museum spokesman Arthur Berger says.

“It really is a national effort to remember what happened,” he says.

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

Rosensaft, for example, does not 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.

The Park Avenue Synagogue, an established Reform congregation in New York City where Rosensaft prays, often invites survivors to read testimonies. Meanwhile, Rabbi Stephen Tucker, of Temple Ramat Zion in Northridge, Calif., says his Conservative synagogue has read from Megillat Hashoah, the new Conservative prayer book that has sold more than 10,000 copies so far.

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.”

If the book grows more popular, it will “prolong” the holiday, he says — but Jews also could use it for Tisha B’Av prayers more effectively, he adds.

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

The holiday that proves most enduring worldwide — even among the least active Jews — is Passover, because of its simple, powerful narrative that spurs “ritualized memory,” Nelson says.

Nelson sponsored a forum on “re-imagining the Holocaust” this week at the Bergen County Y-JCC to examine the debate around Yom Hashoah rituals.

“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?” he asks.

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.”

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