‘Telling’ the Holocaust

‘Telling’ the Holocaust

Some five years ago, Rabbi Adina Lewittes began what has now become an annual ritual at Sha’ar, her Tenafly-area synagogue.

"I came across a Yom HaShoah Haggadah edited by Rabbi Avi Weiss of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale," she said, explaining that she was drawn to it not just because of its powerful content but because "it was a framework for engaging in a ritual to remember the Holocaust, and that brings great power. It makes very immediate something that’s hard to teach and to feel."

Lewittes said that the Hagaddah, published by Amcha: The Coalition for Jewish Concerns, Weiss’ social action organization, "creates a natural invitation so soon after Pesach, capturing us while we’re still in the spirit of reflecting through doing."

Using a Haggadah and participating in a seder that tells the story of the Holocaust "helps make Yom HaShoah more gripping — a more accessible experience," she said.

She added that the Yom HaShoah Haggadah is an important contribution to Jewish life because it helps us express "what we feel in our hearts. Where words end," she said, "ritual begins."

"A point is made in the [Haggadah] introduction that we’re quickly losing firsthand witnesses to the atrocities," she said. "Soon we who were not there will have the responsibility to tell the story." To tell it effectively to succeeding generations, we must first learn to feel it deeply, she added.

Lewittes explained that just like the Passover seder, the service outlined in the Haggadah for Yom HaShoah inspires us to "learn, reflect, read, and taste" the story. And just as the Passover Haggadah would have participants in every generation feel that they were personally involved in the Exodus, so too does the Yom HaShoah Haggadah aim to create "the immediacy of memory."

She noted that what began in her congregation as a small gathering, with some ‘0 people, now draws more than 50 people "who look forward to it because it is so moving. It’s become an annual part of my rabbinate," she said. This year’s event, scheduled for May 1 and open to the public, was to take place in the community room of a Fort Lee apartment building.

Lewittes noted that among the attendees are survivors, including one congregant who had been part of a Kindertransport — children sent, without their parents, out of Austria, Germany, Poland, and Czechoslovakia to Great Britain during World War II.

"We’re enriched and humbled by the presence of people who went through this," said Lewittes. "We’re privileged to have people sharing at that level." She noted that when survivors are present, she departs from the scripted Haggadah, asking those present to tell their own stories.

The Haggadah itself, she said, is highly structured, containing sections targeting physical destruction, spiritual destruction, the killing of children, and resistance. Within each section are segments devoted to preparation, reading, testimony, songs or poetic readings, and some sort of physical action or ritual.

For example, she explained, in the section on physical destruction, participants remove their shoes and jewelry to represent the loss of possessions. To illustrate spiritual destruction, they take a page containing the alef bet — representing the Torah — tear it into pieces and set it on fire. To portray the destruction of children, the text asks the children present (Sha’ar invites youngsters 10 years of age and older) to sit in a separate part of the room, cordoned off from their parents. The entire service takes about 45 minutes, she said.

"I’ve also added a fifth section," Lewittes explained, "focusing on an example of oppression in the contemporary world, such as Darfur." She noted that while these atrocities are not meant to be conflated with the Shoah or to dilute its significance, "it is informed by our response to our memories. It’s the transformative piece," she said, noting that in Judaism, remembering is not done for its own sake but to inspire us to "learn from the past and build a better future."

The Haggadah also makes aesthetic suggestions, said Lewittes, noting that participants, if possible, sit on the floor in the dark, surrounded by the light of yartzeit candles. The service culminates with El Maleh Rachamim, Mourners Kaddish, and Hatikvah.

The rabbi pointed out that immediately before the seder, the synagogue will offer a family education program inspired by the work of Holocaust hero Janusz Korczak, who led an orphanage in the Warsaw Ghetto. Focusing on the life of Korczak and his relationship with the children he cared for, the program, "Kites and Dreams," will include a kite-making project "symbolizing freedom and optimism," said Lewittes, noting that the kites will be taken out and flown, possibly during the synagogue’s upcoming mission to Israel.

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