Essay: Little Jerusalems, Holocaust and Pesach

Essay: Little Jerusalems, Holocaust and Pesach

When a Jew names his diaspora community “Little Jerusalem” it has always signaled the beginning of the end.

It has been many years since I’ve given blanket calls for Jews to return to their homeland. I find such efforts to be mostly ineffective. Most Jews in the Diaspora are staying in the Diaspora. They are comfortable with their situation and have little motivation to change it. In turn, those few in whom the idea of emigrating to Israel has taken hold, need little further prompting. The exercise then turns into either talking to the deaf or preaching to the choir.

However, a recent visit to the island of Rhodes prompted me to revisit the subject again. Perhaps some reader is sitting on the fence. Perhaps some Jew someplace needs just a little push, a little incentive to make the fateful decision. Perhaps a revisiting of history, together with a few words of warning, will be enough to bring one soul to relocate to Israel. Even the possibility of such an outcome is worth the effort.

The currently Greek island of Rhodes was once a strong and vibrant Jewish community, that may have been there since the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem and that initial Jewish diaspora. In more modern times, the community sported five synagogues, several Jewish banks and many successful Jewish businesses, traders and entrepreneurs. The Jewish community was estimated to number between 2,000 to 4,000 Jews before World War Two. That war would prove the undoing of this ancient community, as it was for so many in Europe. In the years leading up to the Holocaust, many Jewish Rhodesian families fled the island for safer shores. The Nazis wiped out the remainder of the community, shipping most of them to extermination camps on the European mainland, including to Auschwitz in far off Poland.

Today, in 2019, the community numbers twenty affiliated Jews. Jewish life centers around the old synagogue which serves as a Jewish Museum and tourist attraction, open only during the summer months. During my visit, I had the opportunity to speak to the museum director to get an update about the community. There are no services in the synagogue. There is no Rabbi. Sometimes they will conduct the ceremony of a Bar-Mitzvah or a wedding in the synagogue. They ship in a Rabbi from Israel to conduct services for the miniscule community for the High Holidays. They will ship in Matza from Athens for the upcoming Pesach Seder.

This situation is not unique. Many depleted and devastated Jewish communities around the world have the same story, if they have any activity at all. Some communities are even seeing a resurgence of Jewish life, especially if Chabad emissaries are in the game. However, there was one chilling fact, one very disturbing nugget of information, one phrase that rang all the old alarm bells.

What I found distressing is that at the height of Jewish comfort in Rhodes, the Jewish community called itself “Little Jerusalem.” Now, that may not bother others. Ethnic communities set up “Little Italy” or “Chinatown” or “Little Odessa” wherever they have a strong concentration.

However, when a Jew names his diaspora community “Little Jerusalem” it has always signaled the beginning of the end.

It is a sign, that the phrase we proclaim loudly at the end of the Seder and at the end of Yom Kipur “Next year in Jerusalem” has become meaningless and irrelevant. Who needs to dream of Jerusalem when they are already living in the convenient local version? When German Jews called Berlin “Little Jerusalem” in the 1930s, did they imagine it would be the center of the vilest evil to hunt and kill our people? As a rule, history has consistently proven that whenever Jews get comfortable in their host society, whenever they feel most powerful, most secure, that’s exactly when the trouble begins.

The Rhodesian experience got me thinking about a model of the different phases, and different consequences that Jews in such diaspora communities typically experience. I’ve identified and generalized seven different stages. These are somewhat fluid, sometimes continuous and almost always unpleasant or even fatal, as you will see:

  1. Early signs

There are some people, who have very sensitive antennas. When the entire world is not worried, they realize that a storm is brewing. They see and decipher the signs. They swiftly and efficiently get out of the community before anyone else even thinks of it. They relocate to safer shores, with their health, wealth and family intact. These are successful Jewish families who live to see and raise future generations. I am always amazed when I encounter such families and hear their stories.

  1. Second warning

Kristallnacht was a powerful, traumatic wakeup call for European Jews. My wife often tells the story how her grandmother, in the German town of Karlsruhe, saw the Germans push the family piano out the window of their second story apartment. That night, her mother sent her to Palestine. She survived. Her parents did not. Kristallnacht was a second warning that too few Jews heeded. Too few.

  1. Serious trouble

Finally, European Jews understood that the Nazis were serious and that they needed to get out. But it was too late. The borders were closed. The Ghettos were set up. Only by heroic efforts did people manage to escape, many just with the shirts on their back. For most it was too late.

  1. Devastation

The Nazis had sprung their trap and turned on the incinerators. The mass slaughter of Jews began at a level and pace unprecedented in human history. Families, clans and communities were obliterated. The idea that one could have called their community “Little Jerusalem” is painfully ironic.

  1. Survivors

Each story of a survivor is a story of a miracle, of divine intervention, of a split-second difference between life and death. The fact that the Nazis didn’t kill all the Jews under their control wasn’t from lack of effort. I am only here because both of my father’s parents were beneficiaries of that good fortune.

  1. Rebuilders

In some cases, as was the case of Rhodes, as well as many other European communities, the survivors returned to the only home they knew. With hardship, resistance and against most odds, they insisted on rebuilding their communities. Of those who attempted, most communities are a mere shadow of what they once were. Nonetheless, they persevere, perhaps hoping one day to rebuild their “Little Jerusalem.”

  1. Continued diaspora

Most survivors went to other shores, predominantly to the United States and Israel. The US has been a gracious host, though we are seeing the phenomena of “Little Jerusalem” being established there as well. The return of Diaspora Jews to Israel, however, is part of the process of the establishment of the renewed State of Israel, the ingathering of the Exiles and the phenomenal development of our homeland and of Jerusalem itself. The Jerusalem. Not some Little Jerusalem that might seek to supplant the original one in the hearts of comfortable Jews.

It is painful for me to write or dwell on the Holocaust narrative. I hate to use it as a scare tactic. However, to me, it is unavoidable. I don’t expect a fascist regime to rise in a Western democracy, round up Jews and kill them. But I am troubled by the growing anti-Semitism that we are seeing worldwide. I’m concerned how it has become fashionable to publicly hate a Jew again. I am distressed by how cheap our blood has become. How far away are we from modern-day pogroms? How safe are our children in hate-infested universities? How in the heart of Europe, in France, with the second largest Jewish diaspora community in the world, in a liberal democracy, does the Chief Rabbi instruct Jews to not walk around as identifiably Jewish?

We are past the “Early signs” and well into the “Second warnings.” Every time a publicly elected official makes a blatantly anti-Semitic statement (and is defended), it is another warning. Every time a Jew is beaten up, every time a Jew is killed for being a Jew, it is a warning. The next stage in the progression is “Serious Trouble.” I don’t know when it will happen or what form it will take. But I know this. When it strikes, it will be too late for many.

This Friday night, at the Pesach Seder, Jews around the world will read the Hagadda. The Hagadda tells the story of our Exodus from Egypt, of our deliverance from oppression and slavery to freedom and redemption. However, the centerpiece of the Hagadda narrative is often missed. It is the retelling of the Exodus narrative taken from the ritual of the first fruits that every Jewish farmer (every Jew was a farmer in ancient days) brought to the Temple in Jerusalem. That ritual is the final act in the promise of the Exodus from Egypt. Freedom from Egyptian slavery is not complete until we come into our homeland in Israel. While on Pesach we may focus on the Matza and the miracles, Jerusalem is the centerpiece and the capstone of the Seder.

My request is the following. At the end of the Seder after the Matza, after the four cups of wine, after telling and reliving the Exodus, I ask for one more thing. When we say, “Next year in Jerusalem,” let’s say it in earnest. Let’s believe there is importance and value to the words we’re saying. Let’s think of realistic, rational ways to make it happen. If you’ve never visited Israel, make it a point to book a flight within the next twelve months. If you were planning to come once this year, plan two trips. Make your visits longer. If you’re already coming on a regular basis, consider getting some property here. And if you already have property in Israel – use it more frequently.

Let’s come home. Let’s come home to Jerusalem. Not in some distant hazy future. Not with the angel of death knocking on our door. Let us come proudly; not with our tail between our legs. Let us come with our health, wealth and family intact. Let us come from a sense of mission, purpose and belonging. Let us come with joy and gratitude. Let us be next year in Jerusalem. Next year starts now.

Chag Kasher Ve’sameach,

Ben-Tzion

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