September 1, 2014 marks the 75th anniversary of the outbreak of World War Two.
I write these words in Rome, having just experienced a powerful visit to the Arch of Titus and the Coliseum. For the Jewish People, both are iconic symbols of Imperial Rome and our 2,000 year old exile.
As we stood by the Arch, I was reminded of the story of the Ponovezher Rav, Rabbi Shlomo Yosef Kahaneman, a survivor of the destruction of Lithuanian Jewry, who committed himself to rebuilding academies of Torah study in Israel in the post-Holocaust era. When questioned as to his ambition to rebuild on such a grand scale, he recited the verse "When God returns the captivity of Zion, we must live as dreamers!"
His post war communal responsibilities led him all over the globe in the attempt to raise the significant funds necessary to actualize his dream. A determined man of action, he left little time for sightseeing. However, when visiting Rome he asked his driver to stop by the Arch of Titus. He stood by the Arch, and defiantly cried out in Yiddish "Titus Titus! Vu bist du! Where are you!?"
Our guide recalled that it was as late as 1870 when the Jews of Rome were finally released from incarceration in the local ghetto. I could not help but ponder the stark reality that their emancipation lasted but 70 years until the Nazi deportations, and here we are again, a similarly short cycle later, and the ugly face of anti-Semitism has raised its specter across the world once again.? I don’t know if the number 75 is particularly significant, but any anniversary provides us with perspective and a time for reflection.
On Seder night we raise our glasses and propose a toast of sorts to the miracle of Jewish survival. We sing ‘v'hi she’amda’ – that in every generation there have been those who have sought to rid the world of the Jewish nation and all for which we stand. However, we continue in the Haggadah to recall the divine promise. We shall survive. Perhaps the millennial persecutions came to a climax 75 years ago with the German invasion of Poland and the ensuing Holocaust, but anti-Semtism is as old as the Jew. Two post war generations that responded to the Holocaust with the cry of ‘Never again’ today tragically experience a worrying increase in anti-Semitic attacks and sentiment across the world.
The results of contemporary research studies indicate that only a proud and confident internalization of the meaning of that divine promise and all it entails will ensure the Jewish commitment of our children. Our community’s educational agenda must be a proactive one that boldly asserts ‘Am Yisrael Chai!’ – the Jewish people lives and flourishes.
However the words of this song composed by Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach in the ‘60's continued to proclaim ‘Od Avinu Chai’ – Our (Heavenly) Father still lives! The claim that ‘God is dead’ is refuted by the continued existence and flourishing of the Jewish people and its eternal message.
The values and commitment that sustained and nurtured our ancestors over our 3,000 year journey are as relevant now as they have ever been. It is this faith that gave them the confidence to stand strong and overcome all odds. We must imbue our youth with a pride in their heritage as a means for ensuring a brighter Jewish future, because that ultimately is the source of our survival.
As I look around Rome I don’t see any ancient Romans. In fact, the ancient Egyptians, Babylonians, Greeks, Crusaders, Inquisitors, Communists and Nazis too are no more. T?hose civilizations that tried to destroy our nation are no longer, but the Jewish nation, with our eternal message, has outlived them all.
In order for the third generation since the Holocaust to make an informed choice to raise high their own torch of Jewish survival in the 21st century, their education must include both of these assertions – that of ‘Am Yisrael chai,’ the physical survival of the Jewish People, and of ‘Od Avinu chai,’ the eternal Jewish values the God gave to us through His Torah.