In the midst of the Holocaust, many Jews continued to cling to their belief in religious law, seeking answers to such questions as “Could tea be used instead of wine during a Passover seder?” and “In view of the shortage of candles in the ghetto, could the mitzva of lighting Shabbat candles be fulfilled by using an electric light?”
Rabbi Aaron Schonbrun of Congregation Torat El in Oakhurst shone a spotlight on these and similar questions at a group discussion during Jewish University for a Day, a day of learning held April 27 — Yom Hashoa — at Monmouth University in West Long Branch.
The program was presented by the Jewish Theological Seminary and Context, its adult learning programs, in partnership with Monmouth University’s Jewish Cultural Studies Program, and sponsored by Jewish Federation of Monmouth County. It featured talks by four internationally renowned Jewish scholars speaking on topics ranging from the meaning of zahor (remembrance) to the history of the Sephardi community following the 15th-century expulsion from Spain.
The four-hour program also included group discussions led by local rabbis.
In his session, Schonbrun said the tea and candles questions were posed to Rabbi Ephraim Oshry, spiritual leader to many Lithuanian Jews in the Kovno ghetto. The rabbi, who died in 2003 at the age of 89, wrote them down on bits of paper torn from cement sacks — sacks he had to carry as part of the Nazis’ forced labor details — and then buried the scraps of paper in tin cans.
When the war ended, he dug up the cans and eventually produced five volumes of questions and answers.
Other discussions led by Monmouth County rabbis ran concurrently with Schonbrun’s. Rabbi Edward Friedman of Freehold Jewish Center focused on the concept of minhag hamakom (local custom) in Judaism. Rabbi Brooks Susman of Congregation Kol Am in Freehold raised the question, “Is There an ‘Evolution’ to God?”
And Marlboro Jewish Center’s Rabbi Michael Pont led an analysis of the recently released Pew Research Center report, which delivered mixed messages on the strength and viability of the American-Jewish community.
While the study showed climbing rates of interfaith marriage, it also noted an extraordinarily high percentage — 94 percent — of respondents who said they are proud of their Jewish identity.
On balance, Pont said, he is optimistic. “There are a lot of people out there who identify as Jews,” he said. “Some may be ‘partial’ Jews, the products of intermarriage, or people who do not view themselves as deeply committed to Jewish worship and ritual.”
Nevertheless, he said, “These people represent a lot of potential for Jewish organizations and congregations. What we have to do is learn how to reach out and connect with them. I remain hopeful.”