By Rabbi-Cantor Cheri Weiss
If someone asks you about Jewish holidays, your response probably involves Passover, the High Holy Days and Chanukah. You may also think of Sukkot and Purim. These are holidays that are either detailed in the Torah or Talmud and have, therefore, been celebrated for thousands of years. Honoring and learning from our past anchors our Jewish hearts and continues to propel us forward.
In the last century, our Jewish calendar has expanded to honor additional days of reverence, three of which will be celebrated this year in April: Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day), Yom HaZikaron (Israel Remembrance Day) followed by Yom HaAtzmaut (Israel Independence Day).
Yom HaShoah commemorates the six million Jews who were murdered by the Nazis during World War II as well as those who fought in the resistance movement. Yom HaZikaron honors those who died founding of the State of Israel and those in the military who perished defending the State. In recent years, this day has come to also include civilians who have died as a result of terrorism. Yom HaAtzmaut celebrates Israel’s Independence Day.
All three of these days deserve as much reverence as our long-established holidays. In Israel, on both Yom HaShoah and Yom Ha’Zikaron, alarms lasting between one and two minutes are sounded throughout the country. Activity comes to a complete halt for the duration; even those who are driving stop their vehicles and stand in silence. Although many years have passed since I lived in Israel, the piercing sound still echoes in my memory, and I remember the way people lowered their heads in respect for those gone but not forgotten.
Outside Israel, it is mainly synagogues and other Jewish organizations who offer programming to honor the dead and the State of Israel on these days. The further away we are from the establishment of these holidays, the more important it is for us to find ways to honor them. Holocaust survivors have been telling their stories to spellbound audiences, but they are soon to be a lost generation. Future generations will not have the opportunity to hear a first-hand account directly from a survivor. Instead, they will have to rely on archival footage, videos of survivors’ stories, museums, the Internet and books in order to learn details of the tragedy that befell our people. The impact will not be as great.
American Jewish commitment to Israel is, sadly, not as strong as it was in previous generations. Its establishment as a State in 1948 offered hope to those whose families were lost during the Holocaust and served as a living testament that Jews now had a place to go in the event of a future threat to their existence. Yet today, decades later, we have become complacent, confident in our status as Americans and our belief that such a tragedy as the Holocaust could never happen again. This is a mistake. Our current national fractured psyche proves that our hold on the freedoms we enjoy is tenuous.
Jewish life is bound up in collective remembrance. This is what has kept us alive as a people for thousands of years. I, therefore, encourage you to take time this year and in years to come to refresh your memory on the horrors of the Holocaust and to renew your commitment to the State of Israel. It is by honoring our Jewish past that we preserve the future for generations of Jews to come.