In the years following World War II a question of Jewish memorials arose: For those who perished in the Holocaust with no known yahrtzeit, or date of death, when do the surviving relatives, if any, say the kaddish?
In 1949, prior to the 1953 inauguration of Yom Hashoah, the Chief Rabbinate of Israel established the 10th of Tevet, a minor fast day on the Jewish calendar, as such a day of Jewish remembrance.
“We can process death in a classical Jewish sense by the domains of time and space,” explained Rabbi Daniel Yolkut, spiritual leader of Congregation Poale Zedeck, who addressed the significance of the date during a 10th of Tevet program last Sunday. But when the two are obfuscated, the question of mourning is complicated.
Grappling with this concept, Yolkut designed a “thought-provoking day of learning” for his congregation. The program, which included a film, selected readings and discussion, acknowledged the day’s origins and explored a larger question of communal relationships. Titled, “Jew and Non-Jew: Navigating a Complex Relationship,” the event welcomed 40 people to the Squirrel Hill congregation.
Many Jews walk a fine line, said the rabbi. “How do we as Orthodox Jews balance the twin values of sanctity and fraternity of the Jewish people, and also embrace universal human dignity and sensitivity of human suffering as authentic Torah values?”
By thinking critically, and relying upon “rigorous and source based” materials, Yolkut sought to probe that dynamic.
He began by showing “Hiding and Seeking,” a 2004 documentary that follows Menachem Daum, an Orthodox Jew and the son of Holocaust survivors, on a quest to augment his two adult sons’ perspectives. Though Daum’s sons are content to remain engrossed in their yeshiva-based studies, Daum and his wife bring the boys to Poland with multiple objectives: to “expand their consciousness,” search the towns where his parents grew up and locate the Catholic family who sheltered his wife’s father and uncles for 28 months during the war.
With the personalities of the many parties portrayed, the characters, from all religions and walks of life, are hauntingly familiar, said Yolkut. “I feel a kinship to the movie because my mother’s parents were saved by Oskar Schindler.”
Following the film, Yolkut distributed and discussed essays from his teachers, Rabbis Jacob J. Schacter and Ahron Soloveichik. The printed materials, which ranged in topic from the misappropriation of tikkun olam to Jewish jurisprudence and the biblical origins of democracy, offered ideas on navigating one’s place in the world.
What is our relationship to the “other 5 billion people who share the planet?” Yolkut asked. “What does it say about us if we hear about human suffering and don’t react at all?”
After working his way through generations of Jewish thought, the rabbi posited, “Is part of our Jewish mandate to feel part of that suffering … can we afford not to think about these things and not to react at all?”
“There is an interconnectedness of people. We depend on each other and we have to come together,” said Rabbi David Lazar, who attended the program with his wife Naama.
Such is necessary, agreed Chantal Belman of Squirrel Hill. We have to “stop being scared of the other, go into other communities, put your hand in and work together.”
As the film demonstrated, “saving one person can save generations,” said Lazar, adding that the Hebrew word shalom could be understood not as “hello” or “goodbye,” but as “completeness.”
“Shalom is wholeness, the world is completed by saving one person at a time. Sometimes we save a person with a word,” explained Lazar. This message is “really important,” noted Belman. “I wish more young people were here. We are so caught up in day-to-day life and we should be more involved. … We need more of this. People should feel as though it’s as important as their Facebook feed.”
Adam Reinherz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.