In the multitude of articles and emails responding to the horrific murders of Jews in Israel that have taken place over the past few weeks, one struck out because it suggested a useful response for Diaspora Jews to express their solidarity.
The email came from Dr. Rafael Medoff. He is the founding director of The David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies.
Medoff wrote of an effort by one Brooklyn rabbi to respond to the horrors of the holocaust. He learned about this effort during an interview he conducted with the daughter of a rabbi of a Brownsville, Brooklyn congregation.
In 1942, when the initial reports about the mass murder of European Jewry was first confirmed, Rabbi Baruch David Weitzmann, imposed a condition on his congregation.
The condition was that “if somebody wanted to get married–and there were a lot of these situations, involving boys who were about to go into the army–they came to our house, there was a little chuppah, some cake and soda, nothing more. No celebrations, no dancing, just the chuppah. He explained to us that you cannot celebrate at a time when other Jews are dying.”
Rabbi Weitzmann’s daughter explained that her father “wanted us to feel the tsa’ar of the Jews who were being killed in Europe.”
Medoff points out what a departure such a condition was from the usual Jewish response to wild celebrations for marriages:
“Consider, for a moment, how drastically this deviated from normative Jewish practice. The mitzvah of making a bride and groom happy at their wedding is considered so important that it is one of the few commandments which supersede the obligation to study Torah. Normally stoic rabbis set aside their books to take part in wild dancing and assorted ribaldry to entertain the newlyweds.
“The Talmud (Tractate Brachot 6-b) declares that one who gladdens the hearts of the bride and groom at their wedding ‘merits to acquire the knowledge of the Torah.’ One Talmudic sage compares making newlyweds happy at their wedding to bringing a sacrifice in the Temple in ancient Jerusalem; another says it is the equivalent of rebuilding some of the ruins of Jerusalem.”
Medoff explained that Weitzmann believed it was imperative for Jews to feel the pain of other Jews. The Brooklyn rabbi wanted to raise Jewish awareness of the mass murder of European Jewry, and in doing so, galvanize his congregants to take action.
Medoff wisely reminds us that the
very existence of the American Jewish community, after all, is based on the premise that Jews should care about, connect with, and assist each other. We are not merely a haphazard mass of individuals who happen to practice similar religious rituals in our private lives. We join together–in prayer, in celebration, and in other activities of communal partnership. The classic United Jewish Appeal slogan, ‘We are one!,” resonated deeply precisely because it spoke to the essence of Jewish peoplehood.’
And then Medoff built upon Rabbi Weitzmann’s extraordinary injunction to call for a similar response by Diaspora Jewry to the ongoing brutal murders of our fellow Jews in Jerusalem. “Two rabbis stabbed and shot to death in the streets of Jerusalem. A young couple gunned down in front of their four children.”
Rabbi Haskel Lookstein, in his seminal book “Were We Our Brothers’ Keepers?,” confronted the painful fact that most American Jews in the 1940s failed to respond in meaningful ways – if at all – to the plight of Europe’s Jews.
Medoff recounted Lookstein’s observation that there were no signs “American Jews altered some aspect of their lifestyle to indicate their awareness of the plight of their European brothers [and] keep the matter at the forefront of their consciousness and to generate feelings of sympathy and solidarity….The Final Solution may have been unstoppable by American Jewry, but it should have been unbearable for them. And it wasn’t. This is important, not alone for our understanding of the past, but for our sense of responsibility in the future.”