“Everyone Has a Name” – Yom Hashoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day)

On Yom Hashoah we keep those who perished in the Holocaust alive by giving meaning and significance to their names.

From the time I was 12 years old, I wore two, and then three different stainless steel bracelets on my wrist – for over 37 years: a Vietnam Prisoner of War bracelet for an American Soldier who went missing in action on June 18, 1968, a Soviet Jewry Prisoner of Conscience bracelet , and then later an AIDS bracelet. My arm would clang wherever I would go. People would ask me about the bracelets and it would provide an opportunity to educate and speak about the different causes. I have always been a social activist, and the bracelets on my arm were just one vehicle for educating about causes that were important to me.

People would say: “The US got out of Vietnam in 1972 – why don’t you take the bracelet off?” I would reply, “This is my way of remembering this person – Sgt. James Ravencraft – who was taken prisoner and then killed.” I have a pencil-rubbing of his name from the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, DC.

I was able to meet one of the families who was on one of my Soviet “Prisoner of Conscience” bracelets. In fact, I helped make a connection between a young cancer patient at whose Bar Mitzvah I officiated while I was doing an Internship in Hospital Chaplaincy at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Hospital. He was twinned with a young family I visited while I went to the Former Soviet Union in 1989. I facilitated the Bar Mitzvah “twinning” with these two families. What a powerful and moving moment! I was also able to assist with the Russian family’s relocation to Washington, DC.

I now keep these bracelets in a special box in my home as a remembrance. They symbolize something very important and special for me that is critical for us to consider as a community, especially as we approach Yom Hashoah – Holocaust Remembrance Day which began last evening.

For me, my bracelets symbolize not just my deep and abiding connection to social justice and social action. They also symbolize the importance of the power and importance of memory and the importance of the name.

As a people, our Jewish community places great emphasis on the power of the name. In fact we make lists and lists of names. The Torah records lists of names, we compile our own lists of names every Yom Kippur on Yizkor, we list names of donors and benefactors. Why do we find names so significant and powerful?

Perhaps these questions can be answered if we think of other long lists of names and their significance: on Yom Hashoah we reflect on all those who were killed in the Holocaust. In some communities, we read aloud the names of those family members from that particular community who perished during the Nazi regime.

List of names on a Holocaust Memorial
List of names on a Holocaust Memorial

Some might ask – why read all of those names? The name is so powerful because it survives. We don’t necessarily know the people whose names are listed in the long lists in the Torah, or on the Vietnam Wall in Washington, or on the walls of the many Holocaust memorials or any of the hundreds of places where other such lists exist. We don’t know these people but we do know their names. A name which gives them a place in history, a name which gives them an enduring legacy.

The events of the Holocaust are given meaning only by remembering the individuals who died during that time. We gather as a community, we remember the names of those who died and we affirm their lives by how we choose to lead our lives. So, names, indeed, are very powerful.

A midrash tells us about the significance of our names: “All people have 3 names,” the midrash says, “one which their parents give to them, one that others call them, and one which they acquire themselves. And the one they acquire themselves in most important of all.”

The name our parents give us is our special connection to the past, it takes an empty space and fills it with life, life that has been handed to us by those who came before. The name our parents give us tells us that we were not born into a vacuum, but are part of a rich chain of tradition.

So how do we honour those who came before us and those who perished during the Holocaust? By giving our names – and their names meaning through our actions and aspirations and the way we fulfill them. By the deeds we perform, by the way we live our lives and by our connection to God.

Everyone Has a Name: a Poem for Holocaust Martyrs’ and Heroes’ Remembrance Day

“Everyone has a name”

Poem by the Israeli poet Zelda
[translated from Hebrew]

Everyone has a name
given to him by God
and given to him by his parents.
Everyone has a name
given to him by his stature
and the way he smiles.
and given to him by his clothing
Everyone has a name
given to him by the mountains
and given to him by the walls.
Everyone has a name
given to him by the stars
and given to him by his neighbors.
Everyone has a name
given to him by his sins
and given to him by his longing.
Everyone has a name
given to him by his enemies
and given to him by his love.
Everyone has a name
given to him by his holidays
and given to him by his work.
Everyone has a name
given to him by the seasons
and given to him by his blindness.
Everyone has a name
given to him by the sea and
given to him
by his death.


Food for Body, Mind and Spirit

Welcome to my first blog post!

When I was one, my father began his rabbinical studies at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. (He was ordained from HUC-JIR, NY in 1966). My late mother told me that one of my favorite activities was to play: “Don’t bother me, I’m writing a sermon!”

Me at age 2, playing "rabbi" with my baby brother.
Me at age 2, playing “rabbi” with my baby brother.

I grew up with the synagogue as my second home, feeling just as comfortable running around on the bima, as I felt running around my own house.

I loved being involved in my father’s Temple. It touched something deep inside of me. I was president of my youth group, I started our congregation’s Soviet Jewry Committee, I went to Israel for the first time the summer after I became Bat Mitzvah.

My parents instilled within us the values of Tikkun Olam – Social Justice. They took us marching in rallies for Soviet Jewry, Viet Nam and Israel in New York City and Washington, DC. They taught us the Talmudic teaching: “once the eye has seen and the ear has heard, you can no longer pretend to be uninvolved or unaffected.” And they taught us to use our voices to speak up for those who could not speak for themselves.

My parents and grandparents also taught us the value of “audacious welcoming and hospitality”. My paternal grandmother was a gourmet chef who was renowned for everything that came out of her kitchen.

My mother taught us early in life how to bake challah and other kinds of homemade bread (although when we were growing up, we did not appreciate bringing our lunches to school on thickly-sliced homemade whole grain bread. Why couldn’t we have WonderBread like the other kids?!).

As the oldest of six children, (I have four younger brothers and a younger sister), I quickly learned how to take care of things in the kitchen. I also learned how to experiment with my cooking and baking.

And I learned that I could combine my love of Judaism and my “audacious hospitality” to create community and strong relationships.

Dr. Ron Wolfson, in his new book, Relational Judaism, writes: “What really matters is that we care about the people we seek to engage. When we genuinely care about people, we will not only welcome them, we listen to their stories, we will share ours, and we will join together to build a Jewish community that enriches our lives.”

Throughout my 25 years in the rabbinate, I have created strong and vibrant relationships wherever I have been. I have nurtured and sustained those relationships through teaching, listening, sharing, healing…by doing all those things that rabbis do. But I also enhance those relationships by welcoming people into my home. By sharing myself and my love of cooking and food with my friends and guests, I hope to transform my relationships into something stronger and deeper.

I do agree with Dr. Ron Wolfson that Judaism is all about creating relationships, nurturing those relationships and strengthening them. Shabbat Shalom!

This blog will sometimes share my Jewish views, sometimes my recipes and thoughts on “audacious hospitality” and sometimes, this blog will combine the two. You will find sections for my sermons and divrei Torah (“sermonettes”) and sections for my recipes. I welcome all comments and will try to respond as I am able.

I want to thank Jennifer Lask for all her help in setting this up for me. Jen – you are terrific and I so appreciate your help! The “appearance” is still “in process” so please be patient as we get it going.