First the good news: According to a 2013 Pew Research Center survey, American Jews see remembering the Holocaust as the most essential aspect of their Jewish identity. Now the bad news (in my opinion): American Jews see remembering the Holocaust as the most essential aspect of their Jewish identity.
As Yom HaShoah approaches — April 24 this year — I find myself reflecting on the meaning of the Holocaust to me, personally, and to the Jewish community. While watching film documentaries of the Holocaust as a teenager, I envisioned myself as a member of the doomed families shown on screen. I thought, had I been born in a different time and place, it could have been me being tossed into the gas chamber.
My subsequent decision to attempt aliyah in the 1970s, in part, was connected to the Holocaust. When I was living, and studying in Jerusalem, my aunt wrote to me in June, 1976 expressing great enthusiasm for the upcoming U.S. bicentennial. With youthful hubris, I wrote back that I no longer shared her love of America (she saved my letter): “What has left a deep impression is the story of the ship full of Jews [the St. Louis] being sent back to Europe because the U.S. and Mr. Roosevelt weren’t interested in any more Jewish citizens. The world, and, yes, even that bastion of tolerance and freedom, America, will sit by and watch if it comes time again for the Jews.”
I made working with the Save Darfur coalition one of my highest professional priorities when I served as senior vice president at the Jewish Council for Public Affairs. Having experienced genocide ourselves, how could we, as Jews, not fight with all our energy to prevent present-day genocides? So, the fact that a large majority of Jews regard Holocaust remembrance as essential to their Jewish identity — 73 percent to be exact — should be a cause for satisfaction. And it is.
At the same time, I can’t help but be disappointed that other identity-building categories received significantly lower scores. Working for justice/equality: 56 percent; caring about Israel: 43 percent; being part of the Jewish community: 28 percent.
In New Jersey, we invest much effort toward Holocaust remembrance. Lawrence Glaser, executive director of the New Jersey Commission on Holocaust Education, told me that ours was the second state in the country (after Illinois) to institute mandatory Holocaust education in the public schools. In the 2015-16 school year alone, some 139,000 public school students were exposed, either to the state’s Holocaust curriculum, or a presentation by a survivor — more than any other state or country outside of Israel.
I also discussed Holocaust education with Barbara Wind, director of the Holocaust Council of Greater MetroWest. She expressed pride in the important work being done in New Jersey as related to the Holocaust, from the federations to the universities to state government. And I have witnessed first-hand the sacred work of federation-supported Jewish Family Service agencies tending to the needs of Holocaust survivors: For the past five years, my wife has been part of a dedicated team of social workers, nurses, other professionals, and volunteers at the Jewish Family Service of Central New Jersey that provides services and socialization opportunities for Union County’s survivors.
I don’t know whether it is simply part of our DNA or the result of the way our community is structured, but Jews seem to respond more strongly to crisis and threat, such as anti-Semitism, attacks on Israel’s legitimacy, and Iran’s nuclear program, than to what is positive, beautiful, and inspiring about Jewish life. Wind, whose professional work is dedicated to the Holocaust, acknowledged that “too many Jews believe that the ‘oys’ outweigh the ‘joys.’” Still, she added, “Jews have survived and thrived since ancient times and that indicates just the opposite.”
The late Professor Jacob Neusner of Bard College, eminent scholar of Judaic studies who wrote or edited more than 900 books, provided the intellectual architecture for understanding why the Holocaust plays such a central role in the American-Jewish consciousness. In his 1987 publication, “Death and Birth of Judaism: The Impact of Christianity, Secularism, and the Holocaust on Jewish Faith,” he posits that the Holocaust and redemption, the latter represented by the establishment of the State of Israel, together have created a distinctive and easily accessible system of American Judaism. The depth of Jewish knowledge and practice, which characterized the immigrant American-Jewish generation, were jettisoned by successor generations who drew further and further away from their European roots. Neusner’s analysis about the Holocaust-Israel connection finds institutional expression in many ways, including in the International March of the Living, which takes young Jews from around the world on a trip that starts in Auschwitz and ends in Israel.
Neusner’s son, Noam, a Washington, DC-based political and communications consultant, told me that he did not recall speaking to his father, who died in 2016, about the 2013 Pew study. “But he wouldn’t have been surprised by the results,” he said. Echoing his father, Noam said, “This is the quickest way to get people’s attention. We attach the Shoah to current issues, like the Iran nuclear deal and Syrian refugees. People need to have a story; just saying we are Americans is not enough. Most of us lost grandparents or great-grandparents in the Holocaust, and this becomes part of our story, our identity.”
Do I want us to diminish our community’s Holocaust-related efforts or the importance of honoring the memory and experiences of victims and survivors? Of course not. But I was disheartened when Glaser told me he often hears from American Jews that, “not wanting to give Hitler a posthumous victory” is what they say for why they remain Jewish. And that is a particularly unsatisfactory answer.
Keith Krivitzky, executive director of the Jewish Federation in the Heart of New Jersey, put it well. “Today,” he stated, “our biggest challenge educationally is to show how being part of the Jewish people and community can enrich peoples’ lives and be something positive. Yet, for years, we have centered our identity and large parts of our education around the Holocaust. A truly important subject…but without that countering narrative focused on Jewish pride, we reap what we sow.”