May 15, 2024
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May 15, 2024
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I was literally just leaving the Pinelands cemetery in Cape Town, South Africa from yet another incredibly moving Yom HaSho­ah ceremony in May, when the annual lament of “Where are the young adults?” began. And it is a fact: despite over 1200 members of the Cape Town Jewish community turning up on a public holiday to commemorate the Shoah, the demographic of age 20–40 were conspic­uous by their absence. That got me thinking as to “why”?

In my Jewish memory, the distinction be­tween “being Jewish” and the Holocaust is very fuzzy. I am not sure what I learned first: the Exodus from Egypt or the death march to the gas chambers. Stories like Leon Uris’s Mila 18, the poetry of Chana Senesh, short films like “The Ambulance” and songs like “Donna Donna” and “Eli Eli” were the mother’s milk to my Jewish soul. Being Jewish meant remem­bering the Holocaust and remembering the Holocaust meant being Jewish. This apho­rism was emotionally and inextricably woven into the fabric of my Jewish narrative via eve­ry interaction I had with my Jewishness, from my teachers at the Cheder to my grandmoth­ers at the Seder.

I have no Holocaust survivors in my family, yet I understood from a very early age how the shadow of the Shoah loomed large over the Jewish people. Not only was it a horror story of unimagined proportions, but it had personally, physically, and horribly touched the lives of so many people I knew. But perhaps even more powerful was my intuitive un­derstanding that I could not truly com­prehend what it meant to be connected to the Jewish people, if I did not share this collective pain. The Shoah was a near-fatal injury that was perpetrated against the Jewish people and not just against the individual Jewish lives that were destroyed in flames. That was my Jewish upbringing and I was born decades after the Holocaust.

The reality for the generation beneath me is vastly different. To them the Holocaust is more history than memory. This is perhaps reflective of a general trend of the millennial generation—they are a highly individualized generation and do not easily attach them­selves to constructed groupings, particular­ly if these groupings are imposed upon them by the preceding generation. For this rea­son, many younger Jews tend to feel less at­tached to the story of Zionism, the story of the creation of the State of Israel, or the story of the campaign to free Soviet Jewry.

Of course, Judaism in its infinite, om­nipotent wisdom has always been aware of this potential very human pitfall. Our sages understood that if future genera­tions of Jews were not able to internalize the Jewish story as being “theirs,” as if it is “they who were personally taken out of Egypt,” then the Jewish story would sim­ply remain in the realm of history and would never transform into the human power that is memory. For thousands of years, we have managed as a people to create this phenomenon of transforming history into memory; it is arguably this psychological miracle that has allowed us to survive. You can easily and cognitive­ly reject history. But if you reject memo­ry, you excise a living part of your emo­tional self.

We, as leaders, as elders, as educator and as parents, have to find a way to re-create these living, collective memories. This may require re-thinking the way we teach all re­cent (and not so recent) Jewish history, in­cluding the dark chapter of the Shoah.

Do young people see the Holocaust as a burden as opposed to a memory? Or is there an apathy related to young people being able to connect to the collective? To many young Jewish adults, the Holo­caust, with all its horror, is really just an­other item in the long history of the Jew­ish people. It has not been internalized into their collective memory. They say: “It is not my story. It is his-story.” Until we change this paradigm, we should not expect the demographic of the audience at the Yom HaShoah ceremony to change either.

David Jacobson is the executive director of the Cape SA Jewish Board of Deputies.

By David Jacobson, www.ejewishphilanthropy.com

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