Every year the same fight happens. Many people turn out to observe Yom HaShoah and notice that most of their frum friends either aren't at the ceremony or leave early. This year, while talking with some non-religious friends, the subject once again came up. Why can't the Orthodox rabbi stay for the entire ceremony, they wanted to know. He always speaks first and then runs out. Why don't Orthodoxy people observe Yom HaShoah? Don't they know how disrespectful they're being? Don't they care about "the six million"?
Every year we try the same tired answers. We talk about Tisha B'Av, we talk about how remembering the Holocaust on that day puts it into a historical context with our other sufferings and gives us something to learn about it and we assure people we don't disrespect the martyrs of Churban Europa.
And this year I got tired of doing that. I don't like being on the defensive, especially when I'm sure I'm in the right. As a result, when the subject came up I tried a different tactic.
I started by pointing out, much to the shock of the non-religious folks in the room, that I thought observing Yom HaShoah was disrespectful to the victims of the Holocaust and that I was avoiding the community ceremony as a way of honouring them.
And then after the shouting quieted down I explained what I meant. What kind of commemoration is the contemporary Yom HaShoah service? I mean, when you really think about it, exactly how seriously should one who defends it be taken?
(I will note at this point that I am referring to diaspora services, not those in Israel)
Think about it. Yom HaShoah may mean "Holocaust Day" but other than for the planning committee of the program, it's really "Holocaust Hour". The programs generally start in the evenings after dinner. They last 1-2 hours and consist of speeches from community leaders and local municipal and provincial officials. We hear over and over about how valued we are as a community and, of course, "never again". Cambodians, Rwandans, Tibetans and South Sudanese are never invited to point out that "never again" has happened again and again. Then a children's choir sings "Ani maamin", a couple of survivors are trotted out (as a child I recall one year no survivors could be recruited so a woman who had been born in Canada but could speak fluent Yiddish gave the speech because she sounded like a survivor and knew lots of them) and their stories are told. Someone plays the violin and then Kaddish is recited en masse. Finally there is Hatikvah and O Canada (the latter may or may not get sung in the US) and everyone goes on. In a good year, there are snacks on the way out.
That's it. That's the commemoration for the Six Million. It's timed so as not to require any actual personal sacrifice on the part of the participants, not even to miss dinner. It's done with a minimum of prayer and a maximum of platitudes and empty rhetoric.
Now let's contrast this with Tisha B'Av, a day which also recalls events in which large proportions of the Jewish people were slaughtered by our enemies. After an introductory fast day we prep for the main event by restraining our diet and directing our thoughts for three weeks. Tisha B'av itself is a 25 hour event with a specific schedule to ensure all the appropriate topics have been covered. We fast and restrict ourselves in a way that is sometimes stricter than Yom Kippur. We recite a book of the Bible, Eichah, and what seems like an endless procession of Kinnos. We struggle to understand the enormity of what happened and our role in it as well as why the final redemption has not yet occurred.
Is there any comparison? Is it any wonder why so many frum Jews don't take Yom HaShoah seriously?
Perhaps if the people who invented the holiday had picked a different day to show their awareness of Sefirah and its limitations, perhaps if they had declared it as a fast day incumbent on all Jews and developed a liturgy to fill the day with prayer, contemplation and memorials for the Six Millions, perhaps then we would have had more enthusiasm in adopting it. But a one-two hour social event? Please. That's not the way to remember what happened and honour those who were involved.