By Katie McFadden
Yom HaShoah marks Holocaust Remembrance Day and on the evening of Sunday, April 23, Temple Beth-El honored the occasion with a ceremony remembering the six million Jewish people who were killed during the Holocaust, and a theme questioning whether or not schools are doing enough to combat antisemitism today.
At the ceremony that was open to all, The Temple Beth-El sanctuary in Rockaway Park was filled on Sunday evening with congregants of Temple Beth-El, West End Temple and others in Rockaway, as well as people of other faiths, such as Councilwoman Joann Ariola and even Monsignor John Bracken of St. Francis de Sales, showing that the events of the Holocaust are not just important to the Jewish people, but to humanity. The annual ceremony served as an emotional evening of memories, reflection and unity.
The evening began with members of the Jewish War Veterans bringing up the flags and the singing of the National Anthem. Then a procession of people walked through the sanctuary and placed candles at the bimah. One of the youths leading the ceremony also made note of something very special at the front of the sanctuary—a Torah that survived the Holocaust. “This Torah was ravaged and physically abused during the Holocaust but fortunately, was rescued to teach, guide and inspire us. Appropriately on the Torah mantle is the word zachor—Remember.”
Rabbi Matt Carl of Temple Beth-El acknowledged the presence of Councilwoman Ariola and Msgr. Bracken. “The representations of organizations, that are in some ways, outside of our community, is extremely important. People of other faiths, people in government positions, send a message that this is not just an event that concerns the Jewish community. This is an event that concerns everyone,” he said.
“Our theme this year is Antisemitism: Are School’s Doing Their Job? We’re living in times when we see the diary of Anne Frank being censored, not being placed in schools in our country. We see the rejection of schools teaching basic understanding of the history of oppressions in this country,” Rabbi Carl said. But he said there is hope. “We see teachers themselves and school districts around the country pushing back against these sorts of things. These are things that the entire country, entire community, entire world needs to address, and we will do so.”
Rabbi Rebecca Epstein of West End Temple then spoke of Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel and his student, Ariel Burger, who wrote a book called “Witness.” “In the book, Dr. Burger recalls hearing what happened when a student of Elie Wiesel’s asked, ‘what should we do, who never experienced the Holocaust, who never experienced suffering like yours? How can we really take on your lesson if we have really not experienced it ourselves?’ And I think that’s the question that we’re facing today, with so few survivors left to really share their stories,” she said. Rabbi Epstein then shared a story with a message that even just sharing the story is enough.
The youth then spoke of the significance of the number six. “Six has a visceral connotation and represents the staggering and incomprehensible number of the six million souls murdered in the Shoah, including the one and a half million children,” she said. Six individuals were then welcomed up to the bimah to light a candle in memory of loved ones who were impacted by the Holocaust. Some lit candles in memory of parents or grandparents who were either killed in death camps or while trying to flee, and those who went on to survive the Holocaust.
A special song was sung in tribute to those who were able to rise up and fight back during the Holocaust. They came to be known as partisans—“fearless fighters who took on the Nazis and established a bold motto,” a youth speaker said.
Another spoke of the rise in antisemitism in recent times. “This past year, we saw the biggest increase in antisemitism incidents in the U.S. since the time of the Holocaust. Jews make up 2% of the population but are the target of more than 50% of religious hate crimes. Furthermore, it’s become routine for celebrities, athletes and even members of congress to utter anti-Jewish slurs with little or no impunity. At this Holocaust memorial, we say enough.”
Three speakers then spoke on the subject of “Antisemitism: Are Schools Doing Their Job?” A high school senior, Sarah Roberts, spoke about experiencing antisemitism for the first time at eight years old in a public school, where she was teased for being Jewish. She said the principal of the school was notified but took no action, resulting in her transferring schools. “The only thing you can do about this is spread awareness to people. Students need to be more aware of their words and the way they treat others, as well as standing up if they see something. Teachers should not ignore student problems,” she said.
Liv Musumeci, a 20-year-old art history student at FIT said she experienced antisemitism in 8th grade music class, when she found a swastika drawn on her desk. She notified a teacher, but never heard anything more on the issue afterwards. “Institutions must be proactive, educate staff, faculty and students on antisemitism and how to combat it,” Musumeci said.
Lastly was Dr. Alexander Gruenstein, a dentist who had spent time volunteering in Israel and serving in the Israel Defense Forces. When applying for a dental residency in New York in 2021 and using the application portal to add his volunteer experience, Dr. Gruenstein found that all of the cities in Israel were translated from Arabic, when in 2017, this wasn’t the case. “The residency application service got political and attempted to strip our people over any claim over Israel. I wasn’t going to stand for this,” he said. Dr. Gruenstein contacted several people multiple times until he got someone to pay attention and make the change. “When I’m confronted with antisemitism directly, I don’t tolerate it. I attacked it head on and ultimately made a positive change. If it’s not you, it’s no one. It doesn’t get better on its own. It only gets resolved when we do not stay silent,” he said.
The ceremony ended on a hopeful note, with examples of Jewish people fighting back against antisemitism in recent times. There was then a youth cantata with several of the youth singing hymns and songs that sent a message of “Never Again,” in hopes that the Holocaust will only be something in memories and stories. They also acknowledged Ruth Pagirsky, a local Holocaust survivor who passed away last year, and how she was always touched when she saw the youth carrying out the Yom HaShoah ceremony.
“I cried two times during this ceremony,” Cantor Dennis Waldman said. “Once because of the nature of the evening and second, I cry for joy because of what the youth represent and offer, mainly that precious gift called hope,” he said. The ceremony then concluded with an anthem of hope, the Hatikvah, sung by all congregants, showing true unity to end the evening.