By Harriet P. Gross
Following Havdallah, it started: All that could be heard in Congregation Beth Torah’s quiet sanctuary was a single voice, reading single names. Over and over, every 15 minutes, they stepped up on the bimah — individuals, couples, families — to say aloud the names of those lost in the Holocaust.
This was the bar mitzvah year for “Unto Every Person There Is a Name,” an annual 24-hour vigil pioneered by the shul’s Men’s Club. So this year paid special honor to the memories of all the children who never lived to Jewish adulthood. On Shabbat morning, Beth Torah’s Learning Center students led a “Celebration of Life” service; the next morning, they read aloud brief bios of 20 children born between 1928 and 1933 in 11 different countries, to “Celebrate the B’nai Mitzvah of Those Who Could Not.”
The sanctuary itself was dark, lit only by the flicker of memorial candles and the Ner Tamid. And then — something different: At 12:45 a.m., a screen on the front wall came to life with a far-away face, a far-away voice. For the next two hours, the names were read aloud in Israel, transmitted to Richardson, Texas, in real time through the modern miracle of Skype.
Magdi Olah, chair of Beth Torah’s newly established Israel Action Committee, had asked the Jewish Federation of Greater Dallas to help find a Conservative synagogue in the Western Galilee, JFGD’s “sister” area of Israel that would like to forge a connection. This name-reading was the first joint project of our local shul and its counterpart, HaMinyan HaMishpachti HaMasorti, in the village of Kfar Vradim. The Men’s Club’s Jeff Markowitz is the tech guru who made it happen. The distant faces and voices belonged to Rabbi Avi Novis Deutsch and seven of his congregants.
The Beth Torah Men’s Club received special commendation from the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism soon after it initiated the Reading of the Names back in 2002. That first year, only congregants were involved. But in the years since, other synagogues have picked up this project, and many from outside our shul now join annually in remembering that every one of those lost souls was a real person with a real identity. The name, age and birthplace of each, read aloud, recognize one individual life. During those 24 hours of continuous reading, an average of 6,000 men, women and children are recalled, assuring that although they were lost, they are not forgotten.
This year, there was a brief post-Havdalah program before the reading began. During it, 11 candles were lit, one each for the six million of our people, five more for the additional millions who were victims of Nazi cruelty: Gypsies, homosexuals, political dissidents, the mentally challenged, the physically handicapped. Clergy and faculty from local churches and educational institutions were part of the ceremony that began with a Chanukah-like shammos that would kindle the others; this first flame, lit by local Jewish war veterans, honored all those who fought to keep the light of humanity alive during the Shoah. The congregational chorus as each candle leaped to life was “We shall not forget.”
The word “shall” makes its point. Back when English grammar was scrupulously studied, “shall” had a separate life from today’s all-purpose “will.” When used with the first-person “I” or “we,” as it was here, it was not a declaration of future intent, but a simple statement of fact: this WILL be remembered always: today, tomorrow, forever. And so it should be. As the actual Holocaust recedes into history, we must double and redouble our remembering.
At this year’s Dallas community commemoration of the Shoah, the procession of survivors still able to make that long walk down Temple Shalom’s center sanctuary aisle numbered barely over a dozen, when in past years it had honored a doubling and redoubling of that number. Today, tomorrow, forever: all of us SHALL remember all of them, and remember for them.