Opinion | On Yom Hashoah: A Call to Action

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By Susanna Lachs Adler

It was an honor to be with so many of our community members as we gathered to pay tribute to the six million lives lost in the Holocaust this past weekend.

On Sunday, April 28, we mourned the recent tragic losses on Saturday, April 27, the last day of Passover, at the Poway, California Chabad synagogue who became victims like our brothers and sisters in Pittsburgh at the Tree of Life synagogue massacre. And we mourned all of our faith-based partners who are victims of hate crimes.

Had it not been for a change in the weather, this year we would have held the ceremony at the newly dedicated Horwitz-Wasserman Holocaust Memorial Plaza at 16th and the Parkway. We are grateful to the generosity of those who made the plaza happen, led by David Adelman and the Holocaust Remembrance Foundation. The Philadelphia memorial is home to the first of its kind in the United States, established in 1964 by the very generous and thoughtful leaders of our community then.

We remember today all of those founders, including, of blessed memory, Dalck Feith and Joe Smukler, former board president of our Jewish Federation. It was Joe who had the foresight and the dream to grow that original memorial into the plaza that now includes an eternal flame, a Ner Tamid, to remember the victims, six pillars for each million of them, original train tracks from the railroad adjacent to Treblinka and a grove of trees grown from a Theresienstadt sapling.

From that vision, 55 years later, we have kept alive the memories of the original six million whom we honored at the ceremony. We observe Yom Hashoah this year amid a tide of worldwide anti-Semitism that continues to rise. The scale and brazen nature of anti-Jewish bigotry and hate crimes is alarming.

But this is not only a startling reemergence of an old prejudice. Today, anti-Semitism is coming from all political extremes, and it has shamelessly moved out into the open, all over the world. Last year, 2018, anti-Semitic incidents in France went up 74 percent. In Germany, violent anti-Semitic attacks rose by 60 percent, and Jews were urged that for their own safety, they should stop wearing kippot in public. In Poland, lawmakers tried to make it a crime to say that they had been complicit in the Holocaust. The Anti-Defamation League logged a 57 percent rise in anti-Semitic incidents in the United States in 2017, compared to the previous year, and in our own state of Pennsylvania these incidents rose by 43 percent, a significant number in schools and college campuses.

This growth in anti-Semitism also includes disturbing anti-Israel sentiment, about which we need to be very concerned and vigilant. Given what the world looks like in 2019, this day of collective and public remembrance becomes all the more important. We must stand up and speak out. We must say: We will not succumb to fear and hate. We know where hate and fear lead, and we will never forget it, because we will always remember the Holocaust. It happened to us. And we will continue to remind the world of that history, from generation to generation, so that such an atrocity will never happen again. Not to us, not to anyone.

We must be vigilant. History has taught us we cannot be bystanders. The memory of the Holocaust reminds us of the importance of recognizing hatred and bigotry when we see it, of calling it out and of taking action. Every instance of baseless hatred should be a call to action: anti-Semitism, racism, Islamophobia, homophobia, xenophobia. And it is our duty, individually and collectively, to denounce each and every instance of discrimination when we see it.

At the Horwitz-Wasserman Plaza, a mobile app called IWalk is breathing new life into the memorial as it guides us through the backdrop of personal testimonies of Holocaust survivors and witnesses from Philadelphia, enabling all visitors to explore the universal lessons of the Holocaust, to counter prejudice, hatred and indifference through these testimonies. IWalk takes middle and high school students and the general public through a multimedia learning experience, including videos, maps, photographs and personal accounts.

In partnership with ADL, Philadelphia-area teachers are being trained in the IWalk’s curriculum. And our Jewish Federation of North America is partnering with ADL through our Secure Community Network to work with national and local law enforcement to keep us safe, and to train us all in calling out hate.

We must continue to work tirelessly to build bridges and create communities of understanding and support for all our neighbors. With each instance that we work together to bring more tolerance into the world; each time we insist upon seeing the humanity within one another; each time we stand up for what is right, we have repaired the world just a little bit more.

Thank you to all our partners and volunteers who joined us to shine a light on the past so we can Carry the Light into the future and joined us in saying “Never Again.”

Susanna Lachs Adler is the board chair of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia.

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