Yesterday, at our religious school prayer service for 4th, 5th and 6th graders, I had planned a short service around a selection of poems and biographical extracts from witnesses and survivors of the Holocaust, in remembrance for Yom HaShoah - Holocaust Memorial Day, which we commemorate this Sunday. I quickly changed direction after the first few minutes. After we had lit six candles, as many Jewish communities do, to remember the approximately 6 million Jews who were murdered in the Holocaust, a teacher asked to add a thought and, rightly so, brought our attention to the further 3-4 million who were not Jews, but were also murdered in the Holocaust, because of their political beliefs, or because they were gypsies or homosexuals. It was more than just bringing awareness to the suffering of others - to show that hate has many targets. I could tell that it was personal and, being so, there was a passion behind the teacher's sharing.
Suddenly it became clear that there were likely to be others in the room who had a personal, family story that emerged from the terrors and tragedies of the Holocaust, and that to uncover some of this was likely to be far more meaningful and powerful than even the best selection of written reflections read from a prayer book. But when I asked who had a personal, family story that they knew of, I was quite unprepared for the number of hands that went up. In addition to most of our teachers, I think that almost half of the hands of our 4th, 5th and 6th graders went up. I put aside the prayer book and, instead, about 8 people, some adults and some children shared what they knew of their parent's, grandparent's, great-aunt or uncle's experiences, those who survived and those who did not. There were amazing stories of escape, deeply sad stories of those who lost entire families, camp experiences, and much more.
When we stood for the El Male Rachamim prayer at the end, remembering these souls, that they be bound up and united with the Divine Source of All and be at peace, the deeply prayerful energy in the room was palpable.
The Holocaust deeply engages us at an emotional level in so many ways. But yesterday, in addition to the remembrance of the horrors of the Shoah, the incredible stories of survival, the terrible tragedy of lives ended, and the remembrance of the power of hate to strip us of our humanity and cause incredible harm and destruction to others, I was also reminded of something else. While we have such a rich tapestry of written prayer in Jewish tradition to dip into, our ultimate Source for connecting to the power of prayer, the power of community, and our yearning for a sense of the Divine Presence that accompanies us and bears witness to our lives, is our own experiences. So often when I speak with youth about different ideas of God that we find in our tradition, again and again I come back to encouraging them to trust their own experience. If they have experienced good people suffer, then it makes little sense to declare faith in a God that punishes with suffering. If they have experienced love and support during difficult times in their lives, perhaps it makes sense to believe in a Presence that can add to those feelings of love and support when we need them the most.
And when we want to pray for a world where there is no place for hate, where swords are turned into ploughshares, and where each of us sees ourselves as the hands of a God that will help to make our world a better place for all people, we need to create space in our prayer rituals to get in touch with our own experiences, to draw on family history and heritage, and remember the feelings and emotions of those experiences. Because then our prayers will be real, and meaningful, and heart-felt. And then our prayers are truly powerful and truly have the potential to be transformative.