Hundreds of people filled Congregation Shaaray Shalom in West Hempstead for its annual Yom Hashoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day) program.
“Our goal is to reflect on the events of the past and ensure a promise for a better tomorrow,“ said Larry Rosenberg, chair of the congregation’s Holocaust Remembrance Committee. “It’s not just about history but events happening today. Today we can embrace survivors who are still alive and remember survivors who are no longer here.”
Along with Holocaust survivors and synagogue members, many community leaders were in attendance.
Arthur Vernon, rabbi of Shaaray Shalom, set the stage, remarking that it has been 80 years since the outbreak of World War II, a lot of time to gain perspective. “What have we learned?” he asked. “Does it have anything to do with our current reality? What is the significance of the Holocaust to Jewish communities and to other communities as well? In light of the events that seem to bombard us almost daily, have we learned anything?”
Nassau County Executive Laura Curran spoke next, praising the faith leaders in attendance. She remarked on Israel’s siren in memory of Yom Hashoah and how everyone stops what they’re doing to reflect.
“I’m glad tonight we are taking some time to reflect,” she said. “First, to acknowledge the sober reality. We have not eradicated anti-Semitism in this world. In fact, it is on the rise globally. We must call out and condemn in unequivocal terms the rise of white supremacist violence that is targeting Jews and we must call out those same forces of bigotry using the tools of dehumanization that threaten Jews, alongside immigrants, Muslims, and all other minority groups. Tonight we renew our commitment to say ‘never again’ and to remember that it is up to all of us here to ensure this never happens again.”
The statistics Curran quoted are shocking. “Forty-one percent of Americans and two-thirds of millenials cannot say what Auschwitz was. Holocaust denialism remains persistent, and Holocaust skepticism is terrifyingly steadily growing.” She quoted Deuteronomy, saying, “It doesn’t matter what our faith background is or even if we don’t have any faith at all; ‘Justice justice, you shall pursue’.” She asked the audience to repeat, “‘Justice, justice, WE shall pursue.”
New York State Comptroller Tom DiNapoli spoke about the rise of anti-Semitism. “In 2019, we really have to shake our heads and say, ‘What is going on here?’ We as citizens must speak up and say, ‘It’s starting to happen again and that should scare us’.”
State Senator Todd Kaminsky addressed Vernon’s question: Is there anything to learn?
“There absolutely is,” he said. “There are a few things we have to take away from what we’re seeing in our society now and what we learned from the Shoah. The first is this, if you give hatred room to breathe, it will breathe, it will grow, it will metastasize, and it will take action. People are waiting in the shadows … they have been waiting to take action. That’s why it’s up to every official and every person to stand up and call it out. No matter where it happens … or who is attacked, it has to be called out. And when we call out hatred we are taking a stand that matters.
“Second, the statistics that county executive [Laura Curran] gave are dumbfounding. Two-thirds of millennials don’t know what Auschwitz was? How can that be? … We can do better making sure our young people realize what’s at stake, what our past was and where it is. And I think that can be true with our role as Americans and our role in the world.”
Kaminsky spoke about the St. Louis, a World War II ship that was turned away and sent back to Europe. Most of its passengers were then killed in concentration camps. When we see people trying to come to America to escape persecution, he said, we should take a step back and remember that we were once strangers in Egypt.
“And lastly,” he said, “we must never forget that right after the Holocaust, the world made a determination that Israel would be the Jewish state. It would be the permanent homeland. And yet every day we still find it under attack and under threat and we must always stand by her side to make sure she is free and strong and always there to accept Jews from wherever the world.
“I hope that as we move forward we don’t have another backwards year. That we aren’t talking about a 55 percent rise of anti-Semitic hate crimes in our state, which is the statistic that came out yesterday. That we aren’t talking about young people who don’t know their own history. And we’re not talking about, G-d forbid, people walking into houses of worship and unloading weapons of war on other Americans.”
Police Commissioner Patrick J. Ryder reassured attendees that the Nassau County Police Department “has your back.” “I don’t put my head down on my pillow and treat your children any different than I treat mine. We’re one family in this town. Hatred has no place in Nassau County.”
“Look around the room,” he said. “Recognize there’s no color, no race, no religion. When acts of violence occur, we have to come back and get together.”
The keynote speaker, Joseph Potasnik, executive vice president of the New York Board of Rabbis, thanked all the non-Jewish people who came, “because we all need each other.” He shared his background as an only child of Holocaust survivors who had lost five children from their previous marriages during the war.
“It’s important that we look back at what happened then and now,” he said, discussing America’s disapproval of the increased immigration from Nazi countries. He said that at the Pesach Seder, we say that every person is obligated to see himself as leaving Egypt. “I would add that every person is obligated to see himself as leaving Auschwitz.”
When he was younger, Potasnik recalled, during the reading of the Purim Megillah there were people shushing the children who made noise when Haman’s name was called out. “Don’t be a shusher,” he implored. People need to speak up when they see injustice. When the New York Times ran an anti-Semitic cartoon, they apologized because people from both sides attacked the paper. When we unite, we can make change, he explained.
“The shooter in Poway didn’t care that it was an Orthodox shul,” Potasnik said. His late father once told him, “I don’t care about the Judaism you practice; just be proud of the Judaism you practice.”
Do we say ‘Never again’ with a question mark or exclamation mark, he asked the audience. “We need to make it an exclamation mark.”
To close the program, the audience sang Hatikvah, the Israeli national anthem, the song of hope, a message of yesterday for today.