Every year since 1953 the Knesset, Israeli parliament, spends Yom Hashoah reading through names of Jews who perished in the Holocaust. The reading of the names allows each victim to be personally remembered, fulfilling the existential Jewish imperative of zakhor—in ensuring that the memories of those who perished in the Holocaust are able to live on.
This was the inspiration for the “Every Person Has A Name” initiative run by the Jewish Federation of the Greater San Gabriel and Pomona Valley. Over the phone Kim Banaji, Jewish Federation’s Program and Community Outreach Coordinator, spoke to me about its origins:
“We realized a couple of years ago that there was no communal event for international Holocaust Remembrance Day—so we got together and planned one. We understood that reading the names would be powerful—both as an act of remembrance and for the people who did the reading. Finally, our Executive Director Jason Moss suggested that we have this event go for 24 hours so we tried it, and people really appreciated it!”
Over the past few years “Every Person Has A Name” continued to grow and desire to volunteer increased. For the past two years the event took place under the arches at the entrance to Pasadena City Hall, and even Pasadena’s Mayor and local elected officials have joined in on the program. A cohort of Jews and non-Jews, young and old, people who had a direct familial connection to the Holocaust and people who did not—everyone together for this 25-hour ceremony of remembering.
Knowledge and awareness of the Holocaust is on the decline. Polling data has shown that twenty-five percent of Americans have never heard of the Holocaust, and an upsetting two-thirds of Americans under the age of 35 have never heard of Auschwitz. Moreover, alongside decreased knowledge of the Holocaust is a nerve-racking uptick in anti-Semitism from a multiplicity of outlets. As the generation that lived through and survived the Holocaust is sadly and slowly leaving us, the need for education and awareness is both immediate and crucial.
This year, due to the COVID pandemic the 25-hour event will be taking place online. This new platform allows the scope and reach of the event to be widened as people can participate, both as active readers and observers, from their own homes. The event will begin on January 23 at 7:00 pm with a commemoration ceremony, immediately followed by the reading of the names.
Judaism stresses the importance of incorporating memory into our own contemporary lives. Unlike history, which is an academic discipline of learning about the past, Judaism invites us to consider how past events and the act of remembrance can affect us in the present. By inviting everyone to take part in the name reading ceremony— the Jewish Federation knows the profound impact “Every Person Has a Name” can have on each and every individual alongside the crucial importance of ensuring that those who lost their lives in the Holocaust will never be forgotten.
RABBI DANIEL LEVINE is the Senior Jewish Educator at Hillel and is a contributing writer to JLife Magazine.