The Rockaway Jewish Community Remembers the Holocaust and October 7

 The Rockaway Jewish Community Remembers  the Holocaust and October 7

By Brad Finkelstein

In today’s highly charged climate of college campus protests against Israel, the Jewish people need to “be strong and be courageous,” keynote speaker Professor Stephen M. Berk told the audience at the annual Rockaway community Yom Hashoah program held at Temple Beth El of Rockaway Park, last Wednesday evening.

“Don’t be afraid of a condemnation of Israel. Our cause is just, and antisemitism is a plague that has to stop,” Professor Berk concluded his speech to a standing ovation from those in attendance, both Jewish as well as from the broader Rockaway community.

Normally the annual program is a reminder of the baseless hatred of the Holocaust. This year, the service took on added significance because of the October 7, 2023 attack, as well as the growing antisemitic incidents across our country and particularly on college campuses.

Those in attendance were wearing yellow ribbons. The yellow ribbons are a symbol of the desire to “Bring Them Home;” to bring home the 133 hostages remaining in captivity. Hamas massacred 1,200 women, children and men on October 7, and kidnapped many from the Nova Music Festival and from surrounding Israeli communities.

Among the dignitaries in attendance were Assemblywoman Stacey Pheffer Amato, her mother, Queens County Clerk and former Assemblywoman Audrey Pheffer, City Councilmember Joann Ariola, Monsignor John Bracken, Father William Sweeney, Father James Cunningham, Seminarian Paul Zwolak from St. Francis de Sales Roman Catholic Church, and the Reverend Joyce Dugger of the First Congregational Church of Rockaway Beach.

As it does every year, the program started with an emotional candle lighting procession. The National Anthem was sung by Cantor Jeffrey Wolk of Temple Beth El. Stuart Rauch provided the musical accompaniment throughout the evening. Temple Beth El Rabbi Matt Carl, who is on a mission in Israel, sent remarks, giving the audience a bird’s-eye view of the mood of the Israeli people. Rabbi Rebecca Epstein of the West End Temple, who was also recently in Israel, spoke of what she saw and did, including visiting Hostage Square, an exhibit showing what the hostages are going through that included a replica of a tunnel. “But there is light at the end of the tunnel,” Rabbi Epstein said, adding “May we always find a way to seek light, seek hope and seek redemption.”

At this point in the service, six additional candles were lit by people who are descendants of families that were devastated by the Holocaust: Sharon Eisen, Dr. Jeffrey Vorsanger, Jeannette and Lori Bernstein, Esther Konig, Sara Lefkowitz, and Susan and Melissa Taylor. A seventh candle was lit by Betty Zapolsky, the event’s chairwoman, in memory of those killed or taken hostage on October 7.

Steven Wagner sang the Hymn of the Partisans while Cantor Dennis Waldman said the memorial prayer along with the Kaddish for those murdered in the concentration camps.

This year’s cantata, “Yizkor – With Memory Comes Strength,” was performed in both song and words by Michelle Neuringer, Debbie Schwartz, Kendall Lasky Hamid, Rebecca Tarnarider, Pauline Litvak, Steven Wagner, Harrison Rosenhaus and Zachary Finkelstein.

But Prof. Berk’s speech, “Antisemitism: Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow,” was the climax of the evening. He is a tenured History Department Professor at Union College in Schenectady, New York. His brief lecture outlined the history of antisemitism going back thousands of years to the Hebrew slaves in Egypt, through Roman times, escalating in Europe in the enlightenment period in the aftermath of the French Revolution. Professor Berk showed how, in the aftermath of Germany’s defeat in World War I and the Great Depression, the Nazis were able to use the ancient ideas of antisemitism and racism to amass the support of the German people.

But much of Professor Berk’s speech discussed current conditions on American college campuses. “Every step in Gaza should be laid at the doorsteps of Hamas, not Israel. If Hamas did not act on last October 7, if Hamas had acted to release the hostages, the war in Gaza would come to an end,” Prof. Berk said. “Many of those on the campuses are outsiders”, who Berk termed “old fashioned antisemites. And then many students went along for the ride.”

Berk saved some of his harshest words for American and university leaders, saying it is time to call these people out. “It is a disgrace that some very influential Americans have chosen to remain silent,” he declared.

The Gene Shapiro Foundation, whose family were long-time members of Temple Beth El, generously sponsored the event.  Other sponsors along with Temple Beth El included West End Temple, the Jewish War Veterans and the Rockaway Jewish Community.

The very large Rockaway crowd who attended the evening was powerfully affected by the program. Leaving the beautiful sanctuary of Temple Beth El that evening to the strains of Hatikvah (The Hope), the National Anthem of Israel, I could overhear the positive, supportive and hopeful comments. The evening’s program was taped and will be available for the next 30 days at

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