For some in Great Neck, Yom HaShoah events carry extra weight

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Rabbi Daniel Schweber of Temple Israel lights candles to honor the 11 people killed in the Tree of Life Congregation shooting. (Photo by Janelle Clausen)
Rabbi Daniel Schweber of Temple Israel lights candles to honor the 11 people killed in the Tree of Life Congregation shooting. (Photo by Janelle Clausen)

Great Neck residents honored Holocaust survivors and commemorated victims in various ceremonies for Yom HaShoah, or Holocaust Remembrance Day, last week, from survivors speaking to temples to the Nassau County Legislature’s solemn observance.

This year’s remembrances may have carried extra weight however, some residents said, as they come in an era where anti-Semitism appears to be on the rise and almost normalized.

Steve Markowitz, a Great Neck resident and chairman of the Holocaust Memorial and Tolerance Center of Nassau County, said Yom HaShoah is normally a “very somber time.” But it’s particularly somber this year, he said, because people were honoring both the six million victims of the Holocaust and people who were killed in recent months “because they were Jewish.”

“I think I could say without any reservation, and not happily, that right now we are in the most dangerous time for the Jewish people since the Holocaust,” Markowitz said on Tuesday.

In 2017 at a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, marchers chanted racist and anti-Semitic slogans.

Within a year, the Jewish community has also faced two shootings in houses of worship in the United States.

One woman was killed and three other people injured in a shooting at a Chabad synagogue in Poway, California, six months after the Tree of Life Synagogue mass shooting in Pittsburgh, where 11 people were killed in the deadliest attack on American Jews in U.S. history.

“No Jew, no person of any faith, should have to live in fear of being in their house of worship,” Jonathan Greenblatt, the head of the Anti-Defamation League, wrote in a post reflecting on Yom HaShoah. “This is the ultimate lesson of the Holocaust, and why we honor the victims each year on Holocaust Remembrance Day.”

The ADL’s report on anti-Semitic incidents in 2018 recorded 1,879 attacks – 39 assaults, 1,066 instances of harassment, and 774 incidents of anti-Semitic vandalism – against Jews and Jewish institutions, the third highest the group has recorded since it began tracking such data in the 1970s.

While overall it is 5 percent lower than the 1,986 recorded in 2017, it is still 48 percent higher than the total for 2016 and nearly twice as high as in 2015.

FBI data also suggests an increase, with a report released last year showing incidents against Jews rising from 684 in 2016 to 938 in 2017, a 37 percent increase that drove anti-religious crimes up overall from 1,273 to 1,564.

There have also been allegations of anti-Semitism in the BDS, or Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions, movement, which calls for a boycott against Israel over its treatment of Palestinians, and perceptions of increased anti-Israel sentiment overall.

U.S. Rep. Tom Suozzi (D-Glen Cove), whose district spans the North Shore and who attended a congressional remembrance ceremony for Yom HaShoah, said that “the stain of anti-Semitism still lingers.”

“Today must be not only a day for remembrance but, also a call to action,” Suozzi posted on Twitter. “We must recommit ourselves to condemn and combat anti-Semitism and hatred each and every time it rears its ugly head. May we never forget.”

Rabbi Michael Klayman, the president of the Great Neck Clergy Association and a rabbi at Lake Success Jewish center, said that anti-Semitism is still a major issue even decades after the Holocaust.

“Probably, in the back of my mind more, there is some of that thinking of, here we are in 2019 commemorating one of the most barbaric epochs in history, and we’re still facing anti-Semitism,” Klayman said.

But more alarming to him is how there are fewer and fewer Holocaust survivors alive to tell their stories, because it runs the risk of “raising generations” who have not communicated with them, he said.

As of 2018 there were an estimated 400,000 living Holocaust survivors worldwide, according to the Claims Conference. Many of them are well into their 80s and 90s.

“For me, this particular year, being another year with fewer and fewer survivors to provide eyewitness [accounts], I think to me that’s an even greater issue,” Klayman said.

For Great Neck Deputy Mayor Bart Sobel, whose father was a Holocaust survivor and died last year, this year’s Yom HaShoah commemorations had a deeper meaning to him in light of the attacks and rising anti-Semitism.

Sobel said that his father – and most others – probably would not believe the country is “approaching what he faced” or “heading towards national acceptance of anti-Semitism.”

Still though, Sobel said it has been “very depressing” walking into shul – or synagogue – and seeing armed guards having to patrol. The shootings in Pittsburgh and California were also unbelievable, he said.

“The uptick in anti-Semitism is obviously very notable because of the last two shootings that occurred,” Sobel said, “and it’s just not something we believed could occur in our country in our lifetime.”

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