Why commemorate the Shoah in a church?

Why commemorate the Shoah in a church?

Temple Israel, Ridgewood, Conservative

I have had the privilege of presiding over Ridgewood’s interfaith clergy association for four years now.

I have found throughout my career that the local collegial bonds across faiths are both a blessing of potential friendships and an essential component of security for minority faith communities. Most local clergy associations exist through the personalities and commitments of those involved, and generally are characterized by monthly meetings, over breakfast or lunch, and joint ventures such as an interfaith Thanksgiving service. The blessings are to be found in collegial exchange across religious boundaries. My colleagues and I smile when we discover how the pressures of congregational life and politics are the same, no matter the faith community or denomination. We share the same frustrations with preaching to empty pews on our separate holidays and regular worship days. And more significantly, we continue to discover how we see eye to eye on the critical issues of social engagement, communal responsibility, and the role of the spiritual life, even if we tell our stories in different ways.

Local interfaith friendships between clergy also have been essential in protecting the interests of minority faith communities. Judaism is not the only non-Christian faith tradition in our neighborhood. Whenever a concern is raised by any of the minority communities, be it an issue of security, an incident of prejudice, a problem in the schools or recreation programs, or any other matter in relation to local governance or police, the clergy association is able to, and regularly does, intervene on behalf of the minority community.

Beyond friendship, learning, and lending a voice when necessary, local clergy associations also are charged with providing key interfaith worship experiences. A Thanksgiving service, while seemingly simple, nevertheless is a very complicated matter behind the scenes. How specific can we be in expressing the various faith traditions without making others uncomfortable?

There are two basic approaches here. One is to seek the basic common denominator, so that all worshippers can participate in all prayers. The other is to let each tradition express itself in the context of the broader service. This means some religious-specific prayers that will exclude others, but it also means incorporating each into the totality. I prefer the second approach, although in reality we often find ourselves somewhere between the two poles.

A far more complicated matter is an interfaith Holocaust service. Ridgewood has held an interfaith Holocaust memorial service for many years, and this year we held ours in a church, with the sermon delivered by a Muslim scholar who teaches Holocaust studies and comparative religion at a Catholic college. What a combination! Dr. Mehnaz Afridi spoke beautifully on building bridges across faiths through Holocaust memory. Our combined interfaith choir sang Yiddish songs, as it does each year. Christian, Muslim, and Hindu clergy led readings. Holocaust survivors and their children lit candles. The Ridgewood cantor sang the El Malei, the Hebrew prayer for the souls of those we have lost, and I led the assemblage in the words of the Kaddish.

While we often hold this service in our synagogue, it is important to me that it is held in a church at least every other year. My Christian colleagues tell me how meaningful it is for them to join us in the synagogue, to wear a kippah and to say amen to the Hebrew prayers. I appreciate that and welcome it. But I also explain how meaningful it is to me, to my community, and to the future, for me to join them, me in my tallit and kippah, they in their ecclesiastical vestments, in their sacred space, praying in memory of those who suffered through the Holocaust.

That is because Holocaust memory is about more than the rites of Jewish prayer and nostalgia. The role of non-Jewish clergy and worshippers in Holocaust memory has to be more than a mere crossing of the threshold into the synagogue. Holocaust memory must be a Christian act as well as a Jewish act. It must signify the crying out of the voices of religious leadership against the wrongs of the past. It must signify a common unity against prejudice and hatred in our shared society.

As an historian of German and Jewish history, I have always been bothered by the setting up of the Holocaust as a chapter within the drama of Jewish history rather than an element that is part and parcel of German and European (and Western) history. That is, rather than just a story of something that happened to the Jews, we also should understand the Holocaust as something that the non-Jews did to the Jews, and to others.

It is a terrible chapter in Jewish history but also a terrible chapter in German history, European history, and Christian history. When we invite non-Jews into the process of memory and history, we expand the circle of responsibility that comes from study and self-reflection.

Each year I encounter well-meaning Jews who are worried about sharing this heavy moment of memory outside the protective walls of Judaism, both figuratively and physically. I understand and sympathize with this reaction. My response always is this: If Germany of the 1930s and Europe of the 1940s had had the kind of interfaith bonds and shared communities that we take for granted today, the Nazis would have been less successful in their evil designs. Of course there were brave Christian clergy who stood up for the Jews and other victims of Nazism. Their memory lives on in the rolls of the righteous. But their acts should not have been so exceptional.

We need to build a better world, where shared responsibility is the new mainstream. Out of the ashes of the past, we can build a society that would not allow what happened ever to happen again.