Re-Imagining Holocaust Remembrance Day

By Avram Mlotek and Jon Leener

On April 28, Jews around the world will commemorate Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day. The day is traditionally marked with candle light vigils, reading of Holocaust victims names and memorial prayers. In the next generation, there will be no living survivors left and the Holocaust will be relegated to history books, pictures and films. What do we want to transmit to future generations? How will we balance memory while also not becoming paralyzed by a victimhood mentality?

Today, we honor Yom HaShoah as if antisemitism is a distant nightmare, left on the shores of Europe. The classic post-Holocaust mantra has been "Never Again." And yet, antisemitism runs rampant and history has witnessed Rwanda, Darfur and the current massacres in Syria. In recent weeks, we have seen blood spilled on the streets of Kansas City's Jewish Community Center, with the assailant proclaiming "Heil Hitler." Days ago, anti-Israel activists left mock eviction notices on Jewish students' dormitories on the NYU campus, a hate tactic echoing Nazi practices.

We can be dismissive of these events as isolated cases, but to do that would undermine a key factor: Antisemitism is not a Jewish problem; it is a deadly virus that endangers humanity, like racism, sexism and homophobia. Hatred of one's fellow is indicative of a society that is morally broken. Acknowledging antisemitism should not promote a victimhood mentality rather, awaken us to the suffering caused by baseless hatred. The legacy of the Holocaust must be twofold: honoring the murdered victims while concurrently combating hatred's fiery power.

How might we actualize this lofty call to action? First, we must reimagine our memorial services to reflect the vibrant Jewish life that existed before Hitler's rise. Six million Jews were six million individual worlds filled with dreams, passions and ambitions. The streets of Warsaw, Lodz and Cracow were home to countless synagogues, theaters, schools and community centers. Remembering the Holocaust is not only about lighting memorial candles; it is about learning of the past. In order for Holocaust education to be relevant for future generations, our emphasis cannot solely be on how Jews died, but on how Jews lived.

We must also combat hatred by leaving the comforts of our own homes and places of worship and respond to the suffering of others. The rabbis of the Talmud teach, "When the community is in trouble, a person should not say, 'I will go to my house and eat, drink and be at peace with myself.'" For the legacy of the Holocaust to be fully observed and realized, we must ensure that any acts of hatred do not become sensationalized in the media, but get matched with counter-acts of empathy and loving kindness. When the window of a mosque gets shattered, a rabbi must feel as if a swastika has been graffitied on his synagogue. When Jewish students are threatened with eviction notices on their college room doors, African American students must feel as if segregation signs have been posted onto university bathrooms. This ethos cultivates a spirit of reciprocal compassion, which is integral to a healthy, vibrant and civilized community.

As grandchildren of Holocaust survivors, World War II veterans and as rabbinical students, we are mindful of our family histories. Both our families lived on the famous Mila Street during World War II, where physical and spiritual resistance emerged. We will honor this sacred tradition by reimagining Holocaust education along with responding in action when encountering injustice. The time has come for the words of "Never Again" to become more than a refrain. Our generation's task must be to bring this slogan to life.