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Honouring the Memory of Millions: Understanding What It Means to Be Jewish

by Ram ben Ze'ev (Conservative Values)

Honouring the Memory of Millions: Understanding What It Means to Be Jewish
Honouring the Memory of Millions: Understanding What It Means to Be Jewish

In the annals of human history, few tragedies rival the magnitude of the Holocaust. The systematic genocide of millions of Jews during World War II stands as a harrowing testament to humanity's capacity for cruelty and prejudice. Yet, the persecution of Jews stretches far beyond the horrors of the Holocaust, spanning millennia and continents. From ancient times to modernity, we have faced and continue to face, discrimination, violence, and expulsion solely because of our faith and heritage. Throughout history, the Jewish people have endured persecution and violence, long before the atrocities of the Holocaust. From the pogroms of Eastern Europe to the Spanish Inquisition, we have faced expulsion, discrimination, and massacres for centuries. These dark chapters in human and Jewish history serve as a stark reminder of the enduring nature of Jew hatred and the fragility of Jewish existence.

Despite the relentless onslaught of hatred and intolerance, collectively, Jews have persisted, drawing strength from our faith, resilience, and collective memory. The legacy of persecution underscores the urgency of understanding and preserving Jewish identity, ensuring that the voices of the past are heard and the lessons of history are never forgotten.

In the face of such profound loss and injustice, As we approach Pesach, the Jewish Community comes together to commemorate a pivotal moment in our history—the exodus from Egypt. Pesach is not only a time of celebration and feasting but also a solemn reminder of the suffering and oppression endured by our ancestors. It is a time to reflect on the enduring themes of liberation, redemption, and the promise of freedom. Through the rituals of the Seder meal and the retelling of the Exodus story, we reaffirm our connection to G-D and to our heritage and re-establish the enduring covenant between G-D and the Jewish people. Pesach serves as a poignant reminder of the power of our trust and faith in G-D, our resilience, and our collective memory to transcend even the darkest moments of our history.

As we reflect throughout a history marked by both persecution and triumph, a resounding question persists: What does it mean to be Jewish?

To comprehend the significance of this question, one must first grasp the depth of Jewish history and identity. Judaism is more than a religion; it is a tapestry woven with threads of tradition, culture, and resilience. For Jews, our identity is intrinsically linked to a collective memory of struggle and survival. From the exodus from Egypt to the diaspora spread across the globe, Jewish history is marked by adversity and endurance.

Central to Jewish identity is G-D's Covenant—a sacred bond between the Jewish people and HaShem. This covenant, established with Abraham and reaffirmed at Mount Sinai, forms the cornerstone of Jewish faith. It encompasses not only religious obligations but also a sense of shared destiny and responsibility. To be Jewish is to be part of a Covenantal Community, bound by a common heritage and a shared commitment to ethical living.

At its core, being Jewish entails adherence to religious practices, beliefs and Mitzvot. Observance of Shabbat, adherence to dietary laws, and participation in rituals such Brit Milah (for boys) and bar/bat mitzvahs are integral aspects of Jewish life. However, Judaism is not merely a set of rituals; it is a way of life guided by ethical principles and moral teachings.

The concept of Tikkun Olam, not so much repairing the world, but contributing individually in a positive way to the world, lies at the heart of Jewish ethics. It calls upon individuals to actively engage in acts of justice (charity), compassion, and kindness to heal the brokenness of the world. From championing social justice causes to promoting environmental stewardship, we are called to be agents of positive change in society as a whole.

Beyond religious observance and ethical living, being Jewish encompasses a sense of belonging to a vibrant and diverse Community. Jewish identity is shaped by cultural traditions, Hebrew language, literature, and art that have evolved over centuries of migration and interaction with other cultures. Whether celebrating holidays like Hanukkah and Pesach or partaking in our cultural practices we find unity and connection through shared experiences and traditions.

Yet, being Jewish also entails grappling with questions of identity and belonging in an ever-changing world. As we navigate the complexities of modernity, globalisation, and for some, assimilation, we are confronted with the challenge of preserving our heritage while embracing the diversity of contemporary society.

For those born into Jewish families, honouring the memory of the millions who perished in the Holocaust and throughout history carries profound significance. It is a solemn duty to preserve and perpetuate the legacy of those who came before, ensuring that their stories are never forgotten. However, this obligation extends beyond mere remembrance; it requires a deep engagement with Jewish identity and values.

To honour the memory of the millions who were murdered simply because they were Jewish, one must "be Jewish" in both deed and spirit. This entails embracing the richness of Jewish heritage, embodying its values, and actively participating in the life of the Jewish community. It means standing up against injustice and prejudice, and striving to build a world where the dignity and rights of all people are protected.

For those who may be unsure of what it means to be Jewish, the journey begins with curiosity and exploration. It involves delving into Jewish history, studying Torah and other sacred texts, and engaging with Jewish traditions and Mitzvot. It means seeking out mentors and community members who can offer guidance and support along the path of discovery.

Ultimately, being Jewish is a deeply personal and multifaceted experience—one that defies easy definition yet encompasses a rich tapestry of trust and faith in G-D, culture, and heritage. In a world marked by division and strife, the values and teachings of Judaism offer a beacon of hope and resilience. By embracing and embodying these principles, Jews honour the memory of the past while shaping the future for generations to come.


Bill White (Ram ben Ze'ev) is CEO of WireNews and Executive Director of Hebrew Synagogue


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