Earlier this week, on Monday morning, fifty Jews became B’nei Mitzvah.
As Natalie [Bat Mitzvah girl on bima] knows, any Bar or Bat Mitzvah is an extraordinary celebration of Jewish life, commitment and continuity. But this celebrationion was different.
It was different because these 13 men and 37 women were not able to celebrate a Bar or Bat Mitzvah when they were 13. When they were teenagers, some of them lived in concentration camps. Some were penniless and could not take time away from difficult laborious jobs to train and tutor. Others hid their Jewishness out of fear. All 50 of these adult B’nei Mitzvah are Holocaust survivors.
Elie Wiesel wrote, Because I remember, I despair. But because I remember, I have the duty to reject despair.
This week commemorates Yom Hashoah, and we do indeed remember. In fact, we tell ourselves and our children over and over again never to forget. Never to forget that 6 million of our brothers, sisters, husbands, wives, sons and daughters were killed simply for being Jewish. Never to forget that hatred can lead to the systematic slaughtering of millions. Never to forget that we were strangers in the land of Egypt. We were strangers in Europe. And if we do not remember, if we do not act, we know that we may again be strangers.
We remember and we despair, but we also must reject despair.
As we recall the horrors of the Holocaust, we must remember so that we can be a light that extinguishes hatred and prejudice, fear and intolerance.
Two years ago, I joined our confirmation class in walking through the Museum of Tolerance in New York City. Our guide showed us a wall of images that projected what the museum called a “spectrum of hate.” On one side, we saw what might seem to be innocent racial and religious jokes. On the other side were images of Jews being murdered by Nazis. We learned that pure ideological hatred starts toward one side and then moves to the other. Jokes lead to stereotypes. Stereotypes can morph into unfair treatment. Unfair treatment can lead to unjust laws and quite possibly, to horrors even worse.
We remember that Hitler did not start with the systematic extermination of Jews, or the Romani community, or LGBT people. He started with the language of fear - with speeches and writings that spewed forth prejudicial generalities.
We remember the despair so that we can move from this spectrum of hate to a spectrum of hope. The hope is for us. Never again shall Jews be killed for expressing their Judaism. Never again. But, the hope is not only for us. Never again shall a people be hated and feared simply because they are different. This is the lesson we remember. This is the Egypt we need free others from.
Gal Moshe was one of the 13 men that celebrated his Bar Mitzvah earlier this week at the Western Wall. He is now 80 years old, and came to Israel from Poland after World War II.
He said,When I found out I could do a Bar Mitzvah now I wanted it a lot. I also asked my two grandsons to come with me. I was at their Bar Mitzvah and now they are at mine.
Gal Moshe lost most of his family during World War II, as did many of our relatives. He was persecuted and hated for being Jewish, as were many of our relatives. Despite the horrors that he has experienced, he has decided to live a Jewish life that is authentic, meaningful and hopeful.
Our memory of the Holocaust should lead us to do the same. We can not be idle when others use hatred and fear to create walls. That is despair. We can not be silent when others are persecuted for their religious identity, sexual orientation, gender identity or race. That too is despair.
Yom Hashoah - We will remember. We will never forget. The Holocaust will always be a deep wound for us and our families. But like Gal Moshe and those 49 other remarkable men and women, despair will not define us. Hope, hope is what will define us. This is what I choose to remember.
Because I remember, I despair. But because I remember, I have the duty to reject despair.