35 New Jersey rabbis sign petition to Yad Vashem
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35 New Jersey rabbis sign petition to Yad Vashem

Thirty-five New Jersey rabbis from across the denominational spectrum added their signatures to a petition urging Yad Vashem, Israel’s central Holocaust museum, to add materials recognizing a 1943 rabbis’ march to the White House and other Holocaust protests organized by a little-known organization dubbed “the Bergson Group.”

“The rabbis’ march was the only rally for the rescue of Europe’s Jews that was held in the nation’s capital during the Holocaust,” the petition states. “The march and the Bergson Group’s other protests – rallies, lobbying in Washington, and hundreds of newspaper advertisements – helped shatter the silence surrounding the Holocaust, and put pressure on the Roosevelt administration to take rescue action.” (Among the marchers was the then 22-year-old Arthur Hertzberg, who went on to become a world-renowned scholar and Conservative rabbi eventually based in Englewood, and his father, Elimelech Hertzberg, an Orthodox rabbi in Baltimore.)

Mirroring the number of Orthodox rabbis who participated in the march, more than 400 rabbis, including many prominent leaders, also signed the petition. It was delivered last week to Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau, the new head of Yad Vashem. Lau was visiting New York to address the United Nations on International Holocaust Remembrance Day.

The Bergson Group was led by Peter Bergson, whose real name was Hillel Kook. Often referred to as the “nuisance diplomat,” Bergson’s unconventional efforts to raise awareness about what was happening in Nazi Europe have largely been ignored by historians and Holocaust museums.

It has been speculated that this is because as a member of the underground Etzel military group in pre-state Israel, he never had the support of politicians there or in the United States. Though he later served as a member of the Knesset, his wartime activities were not well-known until historian David S. Wyman included a chapter about the Bergson Group in his 1984 book “The Abandonment of the Jews.”

The petition was organized by Wyman’s Institute for Holocaust Studies and spearheaded by Rabbi Haskel Lookstein, one of the first historians to write about the rabbis’ march, and Rabbi Benyamin Kamenetzky, dean emeritus of the South Shore (Long Island) Yeshiva, who was one of the marchers in 1943.

“I signed because I am interested in there being a record kept of all American Jewish efforts to bring awareness of the Holocaust to the attention of the U.S. government in the 1940s,” said Rabbi Debra Hachen of Temple Beth El Northern Valley in Closter, which is Reform. “In this time of genocide in Darfur, I was inspired by the story of the 400 rabbis who marched to Washington…. Our voices are as needed now as they were in 1943.”

Another North Jersey signatory, Rabbi Kenneth A. Stern of Cong. Gesher Shalom-Jewish Community Center of Fort Lee, which is Conservative, said adding his name to the petition was “a no-brainer.”

“There shouldn’t be any controversy about it at all,” said Stern, who was unfamiliar with the Bergson Group before the petition was called to his attention by a Conservative colleague in Israel. “The idea of 400 Orthodox rabbis marching on Washington in 1943 is extraordinary, and Yad Vashem should include some mention of it.”

Stern did not know who else was signing the petition, but was pleased to discover that supporters were so diverse.

“I think it’s a wonderful thing that rabbis of all denominations can support something like this,” Stern said. “I would hope if there’s a need for united action in the future, these rabbis could work together face to face and arm in arm to effect something.”

Rabbi Ron Yitzchok Eisenman of Cong. Ahavas Israel in Passaic said the issue is simply intellectual honesty. “The picture of what Jews did then should be presented from all aspects, and whether one agrees or disagrees is irrelevant,” said Eisenman. “The exclusion makes a statement in and of itself.”

Eisenman added that as an Orthodox rabbi, “even if 400 Reform rabbis had marched on Washington in 1943 I would have been in favor of the inclusion of that at Yad Vashem as well.”

Dr. Rafael Medoff, director of the Wyman Institute, said, “Yad Vashem cannot ignore the fact that such a wide range of American Jewish religious leaders feel so strongly about the omission of the Bergson Group from Yad Vashem’s museum.”

The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington recently installed a new display recognizing the achievements of the Bergson Group, including a photo of the rabbis’ march.

More than 130 prominent Israelis, including past and present Knesset Members, cabinet ministers, Supreme Court justices, writers, and artists last year signed a petition to Yad Vashem urging recognition of the Bergson Group.

Leaders from all Jewish religious denominations signed the petition in “a remarkable and unprecedented display of intra-Jewish unity,” said Medoff.

Other North Jersey rabbis who added their names are H. Philip Berkowitz, rabbi emeritus, Reform, Temple Beth Or, Washington Township; Joshua S. Finkelstein, Conservative, Temple Emanuel of North Jersey, Franklin Lakes; David M. Feldman, rabbi emeritus, traditional, Jewish Center of Teaneck; David-Seth Kirshner, Conservative, Temple Emanu-El, Closter; Wallace Greene, Orthodox, director of Jewish Educational Services of the UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey; Randall Mark, Conservative, Cong. Shomrei Torah-The Wayne Conservative Synagogue; Jordan Millstein, Reform, Temple Sinai of Bergen County, Tenafly; Joel Mosbacher, Reform, Beth Haverim Shir Shalom, Mahwah; Fredric S. Pomerantz, rabbi emeritus, Reform, Temple Beth El of Northern Valley; Ronald S. Roth, Conservative, Fair Lawn Jewish Center/Cong. B’nai Israel; Chaim Wasserman, Orthodox, formerly of Young Israel of Passaic-Clifton and now president of the Council of Young Israel Rabbis in Israel; Arthur Weiner, Conservative, the Jewish Community Center of Paramus; Jonathan S. Woll, Reform, the former Temple Avoda, Fair Lawn; and Ruth A. Zlotnick, Reform, Temple Beth Or of Washington Township.

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