MAHOPAC, N.Y. - Temple Beth Shalom marked the annual Holocaust Remembrance Day (Yom Hashoah, May 1) on Sunday (April 28) with guest speakers, a candle-lighting ceremony and, sadly, a brief ceremony recognizing and mourning the murder that had taken place at the San Diego synagogue, Chabad of Poway, the day before.
“It is the synagogue to which a very dear college friend’s parents belong, and the woman who was murdered is their family friend,” said Rabbi Sarah Freidman. “So, it hits close to home, not just because of that but when any sacred space is violated. It hits us in the gut and in the heart. Sadly, this is the third or fourth attack in a month. I hope this will be the end of the list. So, we offer a little prayer and we know our faith is a beacon of love, truth and compassion and justice wherever we go. So, here we are to affirm the sacredness of our lives, our traditions and our space… and hopefully, find a respite from the anxiety.”
Gail Freundlich, president of the temple’s executive committee, said the escalation of anti-Semitic attacks has forced Temple Beth Shalom to examine its own security needs.
“It’s painful to stand up here like we did six months ago when we were talking about the shootings in Pittsburgh,” she said. “But I am also thinking about our future. We say the words all the time: Never again. How will we get there? Some of the ways are very practical. We have people who have been focusing on the safety and security of our beloved synagogue.”
Assemblyman Kevin Byrne was on hand to present Freidman and the congregation with a special state legislative resolution memorializing the International Holocaust Remembrance Day.
“I want to thank Rabbi Sarah and the congregation for doing this every year,” Byrne said. “I’ve been coming to this [event] for three or four years now and you do such a great job. You always create a bigger picture.”
This year’s keynote speakers were Brett Bowden and Bernice Guest
Bowden teaches social studies in the Croton-Harmon School District and has been formally studying the Holocaust since 1980. Outside the classroom, he’s a longtime member of the Education Program Committee at the Holocaust and Human Rights Education Center located in White Plains and was admitted to the New York State Bar in 1990.
Guest is the daughter of two Holocaust survivors. She is a member of the Holocaust Human Rights Education Center, whose mission is to teach human rights through the lens of the Holocaust. One of the programs of the organization is called Safekeeping Stories. The 18-week workshop helps the children and grandchildren of Holocaust survivors to tell their families’ stories so the world can learn the lessons of this evil time in modern history. Guest resides in Yorktown and was sharing the story of her parents’ escape from the Nazis for just the second time.
Bowden discussed the role education plays in fighting bigotry.
“Education is hugely important; that’s how we get through ignorance here,” he said. “We battle indoctrination through education. We meet propaganda and tropes from both the left and the right with facts and history. For me, the answer to hate speech is not censorship, it’s actually more speech-the marketplace of ideas.”
Bowden said it was important to remember the Holocaust and one way to do that is to speak with those who went through it and survived.
“What we do to remember this event is to visit with and cherish our few remaining survivors and liberators,” he said. “There are many ways we can deal with ignorance, but how do we deal with ambivalence? For my money, we deal with it with passion. Passion for Judaism; passion for Torah; passion for Israel.
“The Holocaust is not a Jewish tragedy; it’s a human tragedy. It’s all our tragedy,” he added.
Guest told the story of her parents’ long and treacherous sojourn to America as they survived concentration camps and World War II raged around them.
“Dad said he had sympathy for the Nazis because he pitied someone so filled with hate,” she said.
Guest agreed with Bowden, saying it is important for the world to hear these Holocaust stories.
“We cannot tell the stories of those who were murdered. Fortunately, the Nazis did not complete their goal and there were survivors,” she said. “We can tell their stories one by one to learn about resilience, strength and determination.”
Guest said her mother was liberated from a concentration camp by allied forces on April 15.
“She thought of April 15 as her birthday because it was the day that she was reborn,” Guest said. “I remember, later in life, when she felt she needed to diet and would turn down the extra piece of bread and said she couldn’t believe she had too much food and was actually turning bread down by choice.”
Guest, now 70, was just an infant when she arrived at Ellis Island with her mother and father. She said when the ship pulled into the harbor and they saw the Statue of Liberty, everyone felt elated.
“I was the new beginning of the chain that Hitler tried to destroy,” she said. “I was the start of the generation that needed to repair and strengthen the links of the Jewish community.
“My parents went through unthinkable experiences, but they survived,” she continued. “That made them lucky. But to me, they are heroes because, after their liberation, they let go of anger and hate and chose to create a new family with strong Jewish values.”