This reflection was written by Yeshi Mengistu, who serves as a Jewish Agency for Israel Fellow at Northeastern University Hillel.
A major focus of my work as the Jewish Agency Israel Fellow at Northeastern University Hillel is building, preserving and strengthening our community.
How do we maintain community in this new reality?
Last week, was Holocaust Remembrance Day, or Yom HaShoah in Hebrew. Like Hillels across the country, my Hillel was confronted with the challenge of how to commemorate this day during a pandemic.
In Judaism, community is of central importance. Jewish heritage is built on belonging and seeking meaning. Knowing that we are part of something bigger is meaningful.
Honoring, celebrating holidays and marking memorial days are the types of activities that keep us together. While our community is now virtual, we continue to think creatively about which events will resonate with our special community and channel the strength of our unity.
An example of this is the intimate event our Hillel held last week on Zoom in honor of Holocaust Remembrance Day. Students shared their families’ stories during the Holocaust.
And for a moment, thanks to Zoom, our virtual community included not only students but their families. Parents were invited to share their experiences growing up as children of Holocaust survivors and why their children need to continue to be part of the Jewish community.
Student Shayna Mandelbaum shared that her grandmother and grandfather were forced into the Krakow Ghetto. Eventually, her grandmother was sent to Auschwitz and her grandfather was sent to the death camp Mauthausen.
During a death march toward the end of the war, her grandmother managed to escape by hiding out in nearby hills.
When the Americans took over the area, they gave her food, shelter, clothing and a train pass to find family members in Poland. Her grandmother went from village to village, searching for her husband. She eventually found him and nursed him back to health, as he was only weighing 70 pounds by that time.They stayed in a displaced persons camp for three years before getting a visa to come to America.
Another student, Randy Evers, also shared his family’s story. He said having the opportunity to include his family on the call was meaningful.
“Yom Hashoah is a time to remember the tragedies of the past and how we as a society can learn from them,” Evers said. “As a grandchild of Holocaust survivors, I feel it is important to share my story as one piece of the puzzle, and having my dad participate as the child of Holocaust survivors was a great way for my share some of myself with others.”
What struck me was seeing a community of students come together on Holocaust Rememberance Day. They led discussions and included their families in ways that we could never have done on campus.
Our community understands that this is the way to ensure that Holocaust horrors do not remain on the history pages.
Despite so many survivors not being with us anymore, and despite not being able to come together ourselves, we have been able to both share their stories and connect with each other. We continue to hold national and individual events so that we do not forget that we are am ahad, meaning one people in Hebrew.
We have each other, even on the most difficult days. Each of us is light, and together, we are an everlasting light of hope and optimism.
This essay was written by Rabbi Nick Renner, who serves as a senior Jewish educator at University of Delaware Hillel.
In reflecting on what Jewish living means right now, I’m struck by the idea of Jewish memory. In so many ways, for us to live forward into the future means taking our past with us, staying rooted in our tradition. And so we remember, in terms of Torah, our ancestors, and our ancient stories.
And just as we remember our ancient beginnings as a Jewish people, we remember our recent relatives in the generations that preceded us, helping us to arrive where we are today. And while collective memory is something that we would traditionally hold in sacred communal gatherings, in prayer and in story, our own time opens strange questions about remembering together in the era of social distancing.
I’m struck by how all of this unfolded around the question of Holocaust remembrance for Yom Hashoah this year. Last year, and in years prior, University of Delaware Hillel has embraced a week of Holocaust education, together with a public name reading on the Green on campus. This year, it was far from obvious how we would go about creating memorial, bringing people together, and remaining distant.
Ultimately, our gathering didn’t happen around physical space, and it wasn’t something that remained solely in Delaware either. Our Holocaust Education intern, UD senior Remy Fields, connected with friends of hers on other campuses to see what we might accomplish together. And once they decided to create some kind of memorial outside of campus and state boundaries, they created something remarkable.
Seventy-two students gathered online for a six hour name-reading to honor the six million who perished. They gathered from ten different universities, and called in to read names from all over the United States and from as far away as England.
My fear with the entire gathering was that the online part of it would strip away some of the humanity of collective memory–of remembering together. But instead I found that the human quality of the gathering radiated differently that I could have imagined, and in ways that were totally unexpected.
For one, it was the fact that few of these students knew one another. They had heard from a friend, or a friend of a friend, or saw a few minutes of someone at their school, but rotating from school to school, what shone through was the idea of coming together as a family of Jewish students and Hillel staff, and what bound us was more powerful than whether or not it was a friend or a stranger reading in the Zoom window.
Perhaps one of the most incredible coincidences was a student taking part from Georgia who read a list of names, and then exited the call as the next reader came up. She reached back out to us about 10 minutes later to say that one of the names on her list had caught her eye. Apparently of the lists of names we had distributed, she got a list that had contained a relative who had died in the Shoah. She reached back out to let us know when she realized. And in that moment, it changed from being an act of collective memory for the Jewish people, to an act of remembering for her own family.
I think against the anonymity of this gathering, with 72 students who didn’t know one another reading for a live Zoom event that would reach over 4,000 people on Facebook, the humanity and the essence of Jewish peoplehood is what came through. No matter how inconvenient the technology, no matter the distance in time from those who died, no matter the distance from each successive student, our student leaders brought Jews together from across Hillel, the country, and the world.
Jewish life looks weird right now. As does a lot of the fabric of our society. But the way in which we gather to hold memory speaks to our connections as a people. We’re doing what we can, with the tools we have, to find a new ways of Jewish living. And a part of that is forging new ways of uplifting Jewish memory.