At first, Rabbi Noam Marans didn’t think an interfaith Holocaust commemoration was a good idea.
This was 32 years ago — it was 1987 — and Rabbi Marans led Temple Israel and JCC in Ridgewood then. Today he is the director of interreligious and intergroup relations for the American Jewish Committee, and he will be the featured speaker at this year’s commemoration. (See box.)
“I was wary that undue universalization of the Shoah might dilute the particularist Jewish understanding of that horrific event,” he said. “But I came to understand that Holocaust remembrance is even more important for non-Jews than it is for Jews.
“If we are trying to create a world where the Holocaust or other genocides don’t happen, we need the entire world — not just the Jewish world — to be on board. After all, the Holocaust happened not only because of the heinous perpetrators, but because of the complicity of those who stood silently by. They had the power to do something and not enough of them did.”
David Fine, Temple Israel’s rabbi since 2009, agrees.
“I’ve occasionally had people asking, why do we say the El Malei prayer for the martyrs in a church? I answer, what more meaningful way is there to go forward?”
This year, the commemorative service will take place at West Side Presbyterian Church. And Rabbi Marans was invited to speak because of his harsh criticism of the national Presbyterian church’s attacks on Israel — and his call for Jews to strengthen their relations with local Presbyterian churches.
“As far as I’m concerned, this is a hijacking of the denomination,” Rabbi Marans said. “I don’t believe the views that are pushed through their General Assembly are representative of the people in the pews. But at the end of the day, the Presbyterian churches are accountable at some level for what their leadership is doing. It’s not unfair to indicate that the Presbyterian Church has been the most challenging of the liberal Protestant churches in this regard.”
The Ridgewood Holocaust commemoration has alternated between Temple Israel and West Side Presbyterian in the last few years. The church has its own footnote in the annals of the Holocaust. It was the childhood church of the journalist Varian Fry, who grew up in Ridgewood. In the 1930s, Mr. Fry reported from Nazi Germany for the New York Times, describing the brutality of anti-Jewish riots in Berlin, during which “Nowhere did the police seem to make any effort whatever to save the victims.”
In 1940, after France surrendered to Germany, Mr. Fry organized the Emergency Rescue Committee, which set out to rescue anti-Nazi intellectuals from France. Eleanor Roosevelt helped secure a special emergency immigration quota for their efforts. Among the nearly 2,000 people Mr. Fry rescued were Marc Chagall and Max Ernst. He died in 1967 at 60. In 1994, he became the first American honored by Yad Vashem. In 2005, thanks to the efforts of Temple Israel member Catherine Taub, the street where West Side Presbyterian is located was renamed Varian Fry Way.
The other connection between West Side Presbyterian and Holocaust remembrance is Francis H. Schott. Dr. Schott was born in Germany, the child of a Jewish father who converted to Christianity and a Christian mother. He was 11 years old in 1938, at Kristallnacht, when Nazi storm troopers ransacked his family’s apartment. In 1944, he was deported to a labor camp. He and his immediate family made it to America, and he became a prominent economist. On the 50th anniversary of Kristallnacht, he detailed his memories in the New York Times, where he warned that “by fanning prejudice and hate, a government can turn a populace into assault troops.”
Dr. Schott is a member of West Side Presbyterian and frequently lights a seventh candle at the Holocaust commemoration “that commemorates all the other victims of the Nazis that are not part of the six million Jews murdered,” Rabbi Marans said.
“Last year he read my strong criticism of the Presbyterian church and reached out to me,” Rabbi Marans said.
“Interfaith relations are ultimately about our common humanity,” he continued. “The core principle of interfaith Holocaust remembrance is that we are all God’s creations, all God’s people, and that the demonization of any group is a demonization of all groups. We are only as safe as the least safe.”
And so, despite Rabbi Marans’ initial opposition, “Lo and behold, we are now at 32 years. It’s still a potent, central element of the Ridgewood interfaith calendar. And for those of us who know a little bit of the history of Ridgewood, there’s an even greater poignancy. After all, as late as the 1950s there were restrictive covenants that prevented Jews from easily owning homes in Ridgewood.”
What: Interfaith Holocaust commemoration
Where: West Side Presbyterian Church, West Ridgewood Avenue and Varian Fry Way, Ridgewood
When: Wednesday, May 1, 7:30 p.m.
How much: Free