Reflections on Yom Ha-shoah and Yom Ha-atzmaut
That evening I attended the Yom Ha-shoah commemoration at my alma mater, Yeshivah of Flatbush, as I do every year. We heard from Deborah Steiner-Van Rooyen, author of Dove on a Barbed Wire, about her search for and discovery of her cousin and lost family. And the following Monday evening I attended the Yom Ha'atzma'ut celebration at Yeshivah of Flatbush. These gatherings never lost their power to touch my heart and soul, but I'm noticing an unsettling phenomenon as the years go by. These gatherings used to be held in the high school auditorium, which was packed to the rafters. Standing room only. They had to open up the Bet Midrash across the hall and set up a sound system to accommodate the overflow. Now there are plenty of empty seats in the high school auditorium on Yom Ha-shoah, while the Yom Ha-atzma'ut celebration is held in the much smaller Bet Midrash in the elementary school building, and still there are empty seats. It seems to confirm what recent studies purportedly show, that young Jewish people today feel unconnected to Israel and Judaism. Not disconnected, not critical, but unconnected. They just don't care. Israel has no significance for them, good or bad. Judaism is something they can take or leave, and many are leaving. Perhaps this is just a function of Brooklyn becoming thoroughly ferkhnyocked and the khnyocks both here and in Israel being divorced from anything having to do with the state, its symbols (you seldom see the blue-and-white flag in haredi neighborhoods) and its commemmorations. As we read in the Passover Haggada, ilu haya sham, lo haya nig'al. They were there, they witnessed what we witnessed, but they are not affected by it, one way or the other. But my peregrinations on the planet convince me otherwise. As a teacher in New York City's public schools, I remember when every high school in a Jewish area offered Hebrew, culminating in a Regents examination that satisfied the foreign language requirement. Jewish students in the public high schools may not have been particularly religiously observant (though prior to the 1960s many were) but they felt a cultural connection to the Jewish people and wanted to learn its language. No more. Hebrew in the public schools is now a rarity, and the Regents exams are not posted online as other exams are, so that the questions can be reused. The Histadrut Ivrith of America was once a vibrant organization promoting Hebrew culture through the newspaper Hadoar and the monthly magazine Lamishpaha, where I had several items published. Early this decade both publications folded and the Histadrut Ivrith itself ceased to exist. The people who benefited from it - mostly students and growing families on budgets - lacked the financial resources to keep it afloat and the people with the money couldn't care less. The Birnbaum Siddur and Mahzorim, edited to conform to modern Hebrew grammar and with mistakes in "traditional" siddurim corrected, is difficult if not impossible to obtain, and its publisher, Hebrew Publishing Company, seems to have disappeared.
I wish I could end on a more cheerful note, but I just don't see where this is going to end in anything but disaster for Jewish life in America.