Adventures of a Chief Rabbi: Uruguayan Kippah

April 15, 2015

Uruguayan Kippah

Apropos Yom Hashoa (Holocaust Remembrance Day) I recall a chilling story of a young Jewish boy forced to walk through a corridorkippah of baton-wielding soldiers who hit him as he passed. As he gets to the end of the line, battered, bloody and bruised, he realizes that his Kippah (skullcap) fell. Instead of walking to safety and freedom from the ordeal, he goes back into the human tunnel of death to retrieve his fallen Kippah. The soldiers mercilessly continue to hit him as he walks back. As he touches the fallen Kippah a final blow hits him and he falls to the ground, dead.

As we recall the recent effort to exterminate the Jewish people, it also gives the opportunity to reflect upon its future. While there is the growing nuclear threat from Iran, I am more concerned about assimilation.

There are times when I truly despair for the future of the Jewish community. There are days when I can’t imagine continuity. The levels of intermarriage, assimilation and general indifference to Judaism is frightening and I believe below sustainable levels. The number of Jews who have elected to remove themselves from the Jewish people is staggering and every day it seems like more will follow.

There are two movements within modern Judaism that I am both highly supportive of, but at the same time wary of the exclusive embrace that some people give it. I am talking specifically about support of the State of Israel and remembrance of the Holocaust. These are two important components of modern Judaism with which I have deep connections, identification and investment.

However, I have always been concerned with the exclusive embrace of either of these movements as the sole aspect of Jewish identity. We were Jews before the State of Israel and the Holocaust. While these are important and historic milestones in our long history, what I have noted is that often in families that exclusively make either or both of these movements central to their identity – the following generations are less likely to stay within the fold of Judaism.

When I say exclusive, I don’t only mean that they do not observe the Sabbath or Kosher food laws. I mean that they don’t come to the synagogue even on Yom Kippur. I mean that they don’t have a Pesach Seder. I mean that they don’t perform a Brit Mila (circumcision) for their sons. However, they may be highly committed to remembering the Holocaust. They are ardent supporters of the State of Israel. I am friends with some of these people. They are sterling human beings and I love them dearly. My concern is what happens next?

There is a fundamental problem with the very concept of Jewish “identity”. Judaism contains multiple elements, but a key one throughout millennia has been one of practice. Of actively doing, following, performing, living Jewish life as was handed down from father to son through millennia. Somewhere along the line we lost that connection and have replaced it with “feeling” Jewish, with “identifying” with Jewish causes – and the key experiential component of Judaism went out the window.

“Feeling” and “Identity” is not nearly enough to take us further. Judaism and whatever it means is becoming so watered down, so amorphous, that soon the term “Jewish” will have little meaning – and then we’ll really have problems – but that’s an article for another day.

On the flip side, “feeling” and “identity” can be a powerful start on the road back to authentic Jewish life. I witnessed a glimmer of that tonight. Tonight the Uruguayan Jewish community commemorated Yom Hashoa (Holocaust Remembrance Day). It was an event that the organizers have been preparing for months. The community attended in force, filling the synagogue to standing-room only capacity, easily over one thousand people. The Vice-President of Uruguay was present along with distinguished guests from the government and diplomatic corps.

The evening was extremely moving. Professional videos including old footage, interviews with local survivors and the youth movements, on a backdrop of stone-block walls evocative of the Holocaust memorial on the beach of Montevideo, were the main feature. Candle lightings by survivors with a descendant and community leaders and special guests. A moving introduction by the new Israeli Ambassador named for a great-aunt who perished in the Holocaust. Heart-breaking songs by a young and talented singer. I was called upon to read Yizkor, El Male Rachamim and Kaddish, and it was hard to keep the emotion out of my voice.

The finale was members of the youth movements coming to the front. Then a recording was played from 1945. It was of Jewish survivors who upon liberation from the death camp started singing Hatikva, which was to become the anthem of the State of Israel. The audience, without instruction, stood up and joined in a tearful rendition of Hatikva. This was all extremely moving, and I at least was crying.

However, the point that gives me hope upon the despair of a shrinking community, the little detail that makes me think that all is not lost, that embers can be saved from a community that is not threatened with violent extinction, but rather by quiet yet rampant assimilation, was the fact that a number of the boys wore a Kippah.

Clearly they did so out of respect for the place and the occasion. For some of these boys, besides for their involvement with a secular Zionist youth organization, there may be little else of Jewish substance or connection in their lives. Yet they put a Kippah on their heads. You may think it’s not a big deal. But they didn’t have to do so. There were plenty of other boys and most of the men without a Kippah on their head in the synagogue.

For these boys to have the sensitivity, the respect for this simple religious act gives me hope. It gives me hope that from “feelings” and “identity”, that from Zionism and Holocaust remembrance, as secularized as they may be, there is a path back to Jewish practice. That there is a road that leads back to Jewish life, Jewish practice, Jewish tradition and Jewish continuity.

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