Yizkor, Remember: A Message From Our President & CEO

Yizkor... Remember...

This High Holiday season has been especially poignant for me as it also coincided with the 20th anniversary of 9/11. I remember I was teaching an international group of consultants in Paris, France, when information and photos of the first tower being struck by an airliner came across the news. I, along with everyone else who watched, was shocked and horrified by the sight. We all quickly got on our phones and called those we knew in New York to check on their wellbeing.

As the horror unfolded, our emotions unraveled. Questions and disbelief abounded as we were all mesmerized by what we saw. The silence was palpable; the fear was overwhelming.

For some reason, the 20th-anniversary ceremonies and videos brought a new sense of fear and trepidation. I listened to the personal stories of firefighters, voice recordings of final words from those who perished, and watched live footage, up close and personal, of the unfolding devastation in New York, Pennsylvania, and Washington, DC. It was scary, raw, emotional, and yes, in many ways, uplifting and healing.

I am convinced that Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur happening at the same time made this time even more impactful for me. During this time of year, I am especially reflective. I ask questions: Am I becoming the person I want to be? Am I doing the work I want to do? Am I making a difference in a meaningful way? I ask for forgiveness from others I may have wronged. I think about my future.

We as Jews are lucky. “Our Jewish past is not merely remembered, but continuously re-enacted," wrote Avinoam Patt in an article titled Zachor: Why Jewish Memory Matters. He talks about Judaism as a religion built on a foundation of memory and notes that zachor is repeated nearly 200 times in the Hebrew Bible.

Yizkor means “may {God} remember,” from the Hebrew root zachor. It is recited four times a year in the synagogue – on Yom Kippur, Shemini Atzeret, the eighth day of Passover, and the second day of Shavuot. Ron Wolfman mentions that originally it was recited only on Yom Kippur with the primary purpose of honoring the deceased by committing to give tzedakah in their memory, as good deeds of the survivors elevate the souls of the departed. It also enhances the chances for personal atonement by doing a deed of loving kindness. Yizkor was added to the services on the last days of the pilgrimage festivals because the Torah readings on those days also mention donations.

Patt also discussed that remembrance has taken on new implications in the aftermath of the Holocaust. For example, the commandments to remember and bear witness has also been integrated into modern Jewish observances through holidays like Yom Hashoah and Yom Hazikaron.

“Zachor reinforces the importance of the victim’s voice and the role of the persecuted in recording their history both during and after the collective trauma. This act of remembrance has not only historical and ethical value, but is of great psychological importance, too," contends Patt.

I believe we as Jews are blessed with this practice and commandment to remember. I think it has been central to the survival of the Jews during the thousands of years of persecution, destruction, migration, and renewal. How else can the continuity of the Jewish people be explained?

I feel privileged to be a part of a religion that so strongly emphasizes remembering the past. I think it is very much linked to our Jewish identity, as was shown in the 2013 Pew Research survey as it related to remembering the Holocaust. I believe it would serve us well as Americans to incorporate remembering more in our commemorations like 9/11. For example, why is this not a national holiday?

Maybe it would bring us more together as a united society. Seems like an impossibility in these days of severe political divide where there is so much disdain and hatred. We need to remember what is important, like the passengers on Flight 93 who came together and made a decision to try to regain control of the plane from the hijackers. They made this decision as Americans. They were not only brave but committed to the wellbeing of others. They are remembered as heroes who gave their lives to save others.

I hope this holiday was one of meaning, remembrance, and reflection. May each of us learn to embrace the strengths and imperfections of those we lost by continuing to foster our strengths and improve upon our shortcomings.