Why We Need to Change the Yom Hashoah Narrative

Up until relatively recently, Yom Hashoah was a day of atrocity and victimization at the hands of history.

Tyler Jones is 31, attends a small, poor, historically black — even though he is white — Episcopal church, and cannot understand what anti-Semitism is or why it is exists.

Tyler is the reporter for the religion and lifestyle section of the Brunswick News, the small local paper where I live, and he was interviewing me for an article on Yom Hashoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day, when he told me that he just doesn’t get it.

Yom Hashoah has new meaning in the world we live in today.  Anti-Semitism is on the rise in America over the last several years and our consciousness of anti-Semitism has certainly piqued in the last several months. Yom Hashoah can easily exist as the battle cry against those who are against the Jews. But our collective Jewish relationship with the Holocaust and the day we have appointed to remember it is more complex than this.

Over the last decade or so, much has changed in mainstream Jewish organizational life. In short, we have seen a decline in synagogue attendance and participation in large religious institutions while witnessing a rise in the number small start-up Jewish groups and innovative experiments for engaging people meaningfully in Jewish life. This change in the Jewish world affects how the collective is doing/experiencing/celebrating/ritualizing everything.  Up until relatively recently, Yom Hashoah was a day of atrocity and victimization at the hands of history…again. But with this change in the Jewish landscape, I think we are also seeing a change in our Jewish narrative. A new emerging Judaism and Jewish populace is not content to be the suffering victims of society throughout all time. We want, demand and are claiming a different identity than that. And so Holocaust must therefore be rethought.

We’re not shtetl Jews anymore.  We’re not insular.  And we’re not afraid of our non-Jewish neighbors like we once were or even were raised to be. We’re overwhelmingly proud to be Jewish according to a 2012 Pew research study.  And anecdotally at least, it seems fewer people now believe that anything like the Holocaust could happen again to us here.

This brings me back to Tyler Jones. The idea of hating Jews is just beyond the scope of what he can imagine. I think Tyler represents the future.  The up-and-coming generations live in a global world where hate and fear like we saw in Hitler’s Germany is beyond what their Worldwide Web-fed brains can grasp. Thank God.  It may be quite possible that all the hate mongering we see in America today still goes on because the next generation is just that-next; still too young to run the show, not yet having wrested the power of our world from the hands of those who came before them; from those who are, in their eyes, doing it wrong.

The up-and-coming Jews of tomorrow — and maybe even some of us who are the Jews of today — are young, strong, vibrant, and fearless.  The Yom Hashoah narrative of today must have room for heroes because we ourselves are heroes. And it does.

Rabbi Andrew Jacobs of Ramat Shalom Synagogue a founder of ISH in Fort Lauderdale Florida, created a Yom Hashoah service last year that focused on themes of bravery, courage and strength.  It was inspired by some of his middle school students who wanted to hear about tough Jews who tried their best not to be bullied.  The service includes stories of heroes, ordinary people, saving one another’s lives or even saving one another’s souls. I heard Rabbi Jacobs describe this service at a conference where he remarked that people walked out feeling uplifted and empowered.

In my own congregation on the coast of Georgia, we did a similar service modeled after Rabbi Jacobs’ on Friday evening.  I invited a local Episcopal minister to give the sermon on Friday after studying Christian Holocaust theology during lent. Let’s just pause for a moment to appreciate that Christian Holocaust theology is actually a thing.  The Holocaust narrative has already changed in so many ways.

Reforming our Holocaust narrative is one important aspect of our changing relationship with Yom Hashoah.  Another is including a call to justice.  I wrote above that fewer people believe that anything like the Holocaust could happen again to us here.  But something like the Holocaust is happening to other people in other places right now.  Something like the Holocaust could happen to other people, not us, right here in our own country.  If we are to be brave and vibrant and fearless then we must bring that pioneering spirit to bear on the injustices of our day. To truly say “never again” cannot only be about saving ourselves. We would be no different than those who allowed the Holocaust to happen to us because it was not happening to them. “Never again” must mean not to us, not to you, not to anyone, not now, not ever.

So on this day of Yom Hashoah, we are called to remember the 11 million people murdered in the Holocaust.  We are charged to honor the memory of those who were lost, the communities decimated, and the generations snuffed out by moving out of our history of victimhood into a present of empowerment and strength.  And from that place of power, we must fight for those who cannot fight for themselves.

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