American Orthodoxy

Modern Orthodox Jews Should Be Trailblazers in Holocaust Education

Taleskoten by Zinovii Tolkatchev (1944)
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Shay Pilnik


“Well, it’s about time!” was the typical reaction when I informed my friends, colleagues, and relatives about my new job as founding director of Yeshiva University’s Fish Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies. “Are you seriously telling me that YU does not have a Holocaust studies center?” “What took them so long?” was another reaction, somewhat less common, from those more direct. These reactions, coming from both observant and non-observant Jews, made me fairly quickly realize the relative lack of emphasis on Holocaust education and commemoration in the Orthodox community. A deeper historical perspective on this phenomenon highlights the challenges and unique potential for the next generation of students.

For the last thirty years, a plethora of Holocaust museums and centers have dotted the American landscape. Ever since the first official international gathering of Holocaust survivors in Israel in the early 1980s, led by Elie Wiesel, these institutions took a similar shape as products of a hard, creative, and inter-generational endeavor of survivors and their children. In their optimal form, they turned into communal education efforts, grassroots, primarily volunteer-propelled, and stemming from the same four-word raison d’être: “Never Forget” and “Never Again.”

It seems to me that such non-denominational efforts have dominated the discourse and largely outstripped the Orthodox community’s efforts in Holocaust education. To varying degrees, this omission has also applied to institutions and communities that identify as Modern Orthodox. My observation is impressionistic, rooted in my sense of the community and its values, rather than concrete data. I am not aware of studies on the matter, which warrants further sociological research. Of course, many may rightfully object, pointing to some notable examples: the life-long dedication of Dr. Yaffa Eliach to the subject, the literature on Jewish Responsa to the Holocaust, the YU high schools’ Names, Not Numbers project, or Azrieli’s Holocaust Education Journal Prism. However, in my experience as a Holocaust educator in the Midwest, I sensed a passive attitude toward Holocaust education and commemoration; Orthodox Jews tended to avoid the subject or channel their educational energies elsewhere, both in their own synagogues and inter-denominational, Jewish Community Center, or Federation settings.

This lack of involvement is particularly puzzling and deserves further reflection. For we know that less involvement does not reflect less care about the Holocaust. It is inconceivable that Orthodox Jews are less passionate than their non-observant co-religionists about commemorating the six million Jews who perished in the Nazi ghettos, labor camps, and extermination facilities. On the contrary, in my interaction with Orthodox Jews of all variations, I always sensed that the very foundation of their commitment to Torah, Jewish continuity, and the building of a thriving life both in Israel and the world over, emanated from a profound commitment to the undoing of the Final Solution. The Orthodox Jewish cultural renaissance is the most enduring response to Hitler’s plan.

While the Orthodox response to the Holocaust, viewed from this angle, emerges as longstanding and consistent, it is also noteworthy that the Orthodox voice was the first to appear in the American Jewish arena. Rabbi Eliezer Silver, the head of the Vaad Hatzalah (the Orthodox Union’s body whose task was to rescue rabbis and yeshiva students trapped in Nazi-occupied Europe), was one of the first responders to unfolding events in Europe. According to Prof. Gershon Greenberg, Rabbi Silver began using the term Holocaust as early as 1942 in reaction to the news about the mass slaughter of Jews coming from Nazi-occupied Europe.[1] Greenberg notes that by stark contrast, Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, the Lithuanian-born founding father of Reconstructionist Judaism, systematically refrained from making any references to the destruction of Europe’s Jews in his writings from the war years and immediate post-war period. The subsequent denominational reversal demands explanation: how come the Jews from whose ranks the term “Holocaust” came have been more passive in recent decades about Holocaust commemorative and educational activities?

The answer to this difficult question is encapsulated in a two-word Latin term that any student of Holocaust Studies must be familiar with: sui generis, constituting a class of its own, the dominant approach to Holocaust Education in the post-Schindler’s List era. In this view, the Holocaust takes place on “Planet Auschwitz,” or as the French philosopher Jean Francois Lyotard put it, it is an “earthquake which destroys not merely lives, buildings and objects, but also the instruments used to measure directly or indirectly, making the event impossible to quantify.” In contrast, however, Orthodox Jews tend to crystallize the memory of the Holocaust not as a separate category, but rather as seamlessly connected with the grander scheme of Jewish history and destiny. Hence the attempt, while not boycotting communal Yom HaShoah commemorations, to seek alternatives to it, like featuring Holocaust programs on Tish’a Be-Av or Asara Be-Tevet.[2] Hence the commitment to the Jewish day school movement and to the rebuilding of the annihilated world of the predominantly traditional dead Jews of Europe. Usage of the term Hurban (“destruction”) or its Yiddish inflection churben instead of Holocaust or Shoah (“darkness”) creates a thematic link to the ancient destructions of the First and Second Temples, thereby implicitly rejecting a founding principle of Holocaust Studies. The desire to conceive of the Holocaust in Jewish holistic terms and as continuous with the Jewish past and future, while sometimes misunderstood by outsiders, has characterized the uniqueness of the Orthodox response to the Holocaust.

The reason for taking this posture was twofold: the view of Jewish life as a response to the Holocaust that we touched upon earlier, and the concern about the sui generis approach of Holocaust education over the last decade as shaped by predominantly non-observant Jews. To put it another way, the forces operating here were a pull – the gravitation toward Jewish continuity and Torah – and a push, the gravitation away from a commemorative, educational enterprise that appears to be increasingly severed from Jews, Judaism, or Jewish history, rather highlighting foreign concerns: genocide, immigration, bullying, religious tolerance, human rights, anti-bullying (to name only a few).

However, while we need to confront genocide and other universal concerns, the Shoah cannot merely be the “gold standard” by which to evaluate these important subjects.[3] Modern Orthodox Jews have a unique potential and pressing obligation to endow the Holocaust with a sense of sacred, intrinsic Jewish content, intervening in an inter-denominational discourse that would otherwise continue to drift away from its original Jewish context. The tension between sui generis and Hurban is perhaps emblematic of the larger aims of Modern Orthodoxy. In essence, recognizing the need to be active players in the secular arena of the Holocaust echoes Rabbi Josef Dov Soloveitchik’s call in his masterful sermon Kol Dodi Dofek to support the secular state of Israel.

It is this Modern Orthodox voice, committed both to Torah and Mada, to engaging both the realms of the sacred and profane, that the fields of Holocaust remembrance and education need precisely at this present moment. With public interest declining, with antisemitism on the rise, and with no survivors, Modern Orthodox Jews must do what they have, perhaps rightfully, avoided for decades: to roll up their sleeves and further engage in the Holocaust education activities, not only in the confines of their own communities, but particularly in the sui generis ones, the ones partaken by Jews of all denominations and the non-Jewish world. Doing so would help ensure that the Holocaust will continue to loom large as a subject of interest, a lesson, and a warning.

[1] See the forthcoming lecture by Gershon Greenberg, “Jewish Religious Thought during The Holocaust.”

[2] Jacob J. Schacter, “Holocaust Commemoration and Tish’a Be-Av: The Debate Over ‘Yom Ha-Shoah,’” Tradition 41, no. 2 (2008): 164-197.

[3] See my Tablet article on the dilution of the Holocaust and its impact on the field.

Shay Pilnik is the director of the Emil A. and Jenny Fish Holocaust and Genocide Studies Center at Yeshiva University. Beforehand, he served as executive director of the Nathan and Esther Pelz Holocaust Education Resource Center in Milwaukee from 2014-2020. He earned his BA in Comparative Literature and Jewish Thought from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem; an MA in Jewish Studies from McGill University; and a PhD in Modern Jewish Studies from the Jewish Theological Seminary in 2013. His dissertation dealt with commemoration of the Babi Yar Massacre in Soviet Russian and Yiddish Literature. From 2008-2014, he taught courses at the Universities of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and Oshkosh on the Holocaust, modern Jewish history and culture, Judaism, Hebrew Bible, and world religions.