What We Should Really ‘Never Forget’

On this 79th anniversary of Kristallnacht, my thoughts turn to what does it mean to be Jewish today? In 1945, it’s estimated that there were 11 million Jews left in the world, out of a total world population of 2.5 billion. Today, the global Jewish population is estimated as 14 million, 17 million if you count people who are partly Jewish, and 20 million if you count non-Jewish members of Jewish households.  In comparison, the world population has now ballooned to 7.6 billion.  The rest of the world has more than tripled, and even by the most generous estimates, we haven’t even doubled, and actually have just barely nudged the needle over the past 70 years.  The sad truth is that even though Hitler and Stalin died long ago, we don’t need anyone to oppress us or exterminate us in order to reduce our population.  Thanks to assimilation, we are doing that ourselves, practicing self-extermination even more efficiently than ever before. Why bother with gas chambers and firing squads when the allures of eating lobster and celebrating Christmas work just as well?

We can’t shed our collective Jewish identity quickly enough.  We have rightfully devoted a lot of attention to remembering and honoring the 11 people who were killed in Pittsburgh last Shabbat, but on that same Shabbat morning, how many more Jews were getting ready to marry non-Jewish spouses that day, thus tempering their Jewish identity and exterminating their future generations of Jewish children?  The truth is, we lost a lot more than 11 Jews that Shabbat, we lost a lot of future growth potential that day as well.  Yes, it’s true that the numbers of Orthodox Jews, and especially ultra-Orthodox Jews are growing, and they have a higher than average birthrate, but they are becoming a bigger fish in a smaller pond.  For every Menachem Mendel born, there’s a Moshe or David marrying a Tiffany or an Amber.

Jewish identity starts with a Jewish family, and that means a Jewish home where Jewish values are instilled.  Children remember our actions more than our words.  They notice what our parents view as important.  We see the dangers of intermarriage in Parshat Tolodot this week, where Esau, born to two Jewish parents, marries two Hittite women who continue their idolatrous ways, and serve as a source of constant consternation to his parents, Isaac and Rebecca. They are so annoyed that they don’t object to Jacob taking the blessings intended for Esau and send Jacob to Paddan Aram to find a proper wife.  Jacob’s sons were the Twelve Tribes of Israel and the foundation of Jewish people, while Esau’s legacy is hatred and violence.  Our rabbis say that originally Leah had been intended to be Esau’s wife, in the hopes that she would be a positive influence on him, but he proved too evil for the family to want to take that chance.  Who you marry and where you live indicates what you consider important, and for far too many Jews, being connected to a Jewish community doesn’t rank very high on that list.

I’m not saying that there aren’t people fighting this trend.  The Ba’al Teshuva movement is growing more than ever before.  I feel very privileged to have spent the past couple years studying in Jerusalem alongside other young Jews who are taking their Jewish identity seriously and are making huge progress to come close to Hashem and make Torah part of their everyday lives, and whose dedication is very amazing and inspiring.  Before then, I was active with Manhattan Jewish Experience, a wonderful organization which helps many Jewish professionals find their paths in living meaningful lives through discovering their Jewish identity. I have made truly great friends in both places, people that I am very thankful to know and cross paths with, so I know that all hope is not lost.  But it’s an uphill battle.  It takes a lot to change your previous mindsets, and you can face a lot of opposition, even from your own family who might not understand what’s so important about religion.  In a sense, this is the family members’ way of justifying their own way of life, since nearly everyone who I have met the past few years has a sibling, parent, or aunt/uncle married to a non-Jewish person.

We need to reclaim the declamation “Never Forget!” that often serves as a slogan for Holocaust education and repurpose it to focus on the Jewish community right now to say, “Never Forget That You are Jewish”.  Never forget who you are, and where you come from. Never forget your Jewish identity, covered with the blood of our ancestors who have fought long and hard to win even small victories and ensure continuity of their Jewish communities.  The proper response to anti-Semitism is first to support communities affected, and second to become even MORE Jewish, and display your Jewish identity even more proudly. Perform an additional mitzvah, give more tzedakah, go to shul more often, think about your relationship with Hashem.  Do not think of your Jewish identity as something that belongs in the past.  If we are embarrassed to be Jewish, then the anti-Semites are winning the battle because we are letting them into our heads and making us doubt ourselves.

What can we do to make this be the conversation about the lessons learned from the Holocaust? The Holocaust is used to describe many situations in the world, sometimes by Jews and sometimes by non-Jews, where those contemporary situations are not necessarily applicable.  We shouldn’t talk about Syrian refugees or treatment of immigrants until we have spent more time working on our own lives and getting priorities straight.  Tzedekah begins at home.  If we champion social justice and Tikkun Olam, but we are leaving Hashem out of the equation, forgetting the Source of Creation, or championing causes contrary to religious values, then we are forgetting our Jewish identity.  We are supposed to be a light onto the nations, but that means we need to first build our model society ourselves, and only then we can share it and export it to other people.

Judaism is not just a belief system or legal code, it’s our birthright. Unlike Esau did in this week’s parsha, it’s not something that you can choose or opt out of, no matter how hard you try. One of the depressing ramifications of the Squirrel Hill shooting is that it reminded many people who hadn’t given much thought to their identity otherwise that they were Jewish, preferring to think of themselves as American first, and Jewish second, or perhaps even third, behind their profession or another affiliation.  Anti-Semites don’t care how religious you are, and they also don’t care how assimilated and how acculturated you are either.  Given the opportunity, they will attack Jews eating cheeseburgers at the country club on a Saturday morning as they will attack Jews davening in shul, or even simply walking down the street, as has happened in other recent incidents.

If you are Jewish, or you have a Jewish parent, it means that every single one of your ancestors was Jewish through 5779 years of human history leading up to you.  They were religious and practicing Jews, otherwise you wouldn’t have a Jewish identity now, and wouldn’t even know that you were Jewish.  Who are you to become the weak link that breaks the chain and casts your family legacy aside? Do you think you know better than your ancestors what is best for you?

Being Jewish means that you have a specific mission and purpose in this world, performing mitzvahs and carrying out Hashem’s will. It means that you are the voice of ethics and morality, the consciousness of the world, (another reason why Jews are hated- we remind the rest of the world where they went wrong) and that means striving to live a moral and ethical life and passing down strong values and universal truths to your children.  Hashem promised Noach that He would never destroy the world again, but He never promised that we wouldn’t destroy it ourselves, which is what we are doing when we neglect our true purpose in favor of assimilation and intermarriage. Judaism will continue to survive no matter what, we have been assured of this in various prophecies, but will we be saved along with it?  In the Megillah, Mordechai tells Queen Esther, “Do not think that you are exempt from this evil decree because of your exalted position.  Why do you think you were given this position if not for this reason? If you do not attempt salvation, salvation will come to the Jewish people through a different avenue, but do not think you will be saved as well.”

The world might not realize it, and we may not fully realize it ourselves, but the world needs Judaism, and it needs us to be as strong as possible. As Hashem tells Abraham, and as world history has shown, the other nations of the world are blessed through us, and because of us.  So I am asking you to join me in this holy mission of using the blessings that we have been given for a greater purpose, a purpose that helps other people, but a purpose that connects back to Hashem, never forgetting that He is the one controlling the world and guiding our actions.  Thanks to organizations like Chabad and the Orthodox Union and ArtScroll publications, it’s never been easier to practice Judaism and gain a Jewish education. There are so many more resources than ever before, so many people happy to teach you, the access to information is much easier, and the barriers of entry are much lower.  All of us have our individual skills and talents, and only by working in harmony with a shared mission and purpose, our original purpose, can we fully achieve our potential. We’ve been given an incredible gift filled with many blessings, and we have to use it wisely and not squander it. Am Yisrael Chai!

About the Author
Born in raised in a Modern Orthodox/Conservadox home in Miami, FL, Yosef Merves started to increase his Jewish knowledge first at Boston University and then lived on Manhattan's Upper West Side for several years and spent the last two years studying full-time in Har Nof, Jerusalem. He always had a strong Jewish identity and wants to encourage others to build and strengthen theirs as well.
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