One of my favorite Hebrew words might surprise you. It is not Shalom (peace or wholeness) or Ahava (love), but rather it is Zachor (remember). This powerful word helps us appreciate who we are today and connects us to our past, while at the same time instilling in us the importance of the people that came before us. It also forces us to pause from our regular activities that tend to take all of our focus.
I raise this to provide context for what I am about to share.
One of the most powerful experiences I have ever witnessed or participated in took place last year. The event was the Jewish Federation’s Every Person Has a Name. If you are not aware, this event provided our community the opportunity to pause, remember, and honor those people who were killed during the Holocaust. Rather than do it on Yom HaShoah, we decided to hold the event on January 26-27, on the UN International Holocaust Remembrance Day… thus providing our community another opportunity to remember. One of the aspects that made this event so memorable was the impact it had on those who attended, as well as those who volunteered.
For 24 hours, over 130 volunteers remembered and honored the memory of those who were murdered during the Holocaust; by reading the name, age, city of birth and death, and the date they were killed. Sitting in the entry way, underneath the iconic dome of Pasadena City Hall, listening to name after name being read and trying to fathom what they experienced was a surreal, and yet powerful experience.
The space was eerily and reverently silent, except for the volunteers reading the names. Volunteers arrived early to read. After they were done reading, they stayed to listen and seemed to linger because it was as if they did not want to leave what they were experiencing.
Volunteers commented how much they appreciated being able to read names and that they wished they had had a chance to practice reading the names prior to the event. They were concerned that by mispronouncing the names, they were disrespecting or offending the people whose names they were reading. One volunteer commented, “I so wanted to pronounce the names right because it is all we have.” While another shared, “It was hard not to cry.”
When a reader’s time was up…they left reluctantly… almost as if they wish they could read names longer, some even commenting that they could not believe their 30 minutes were up. With tears in their eyes and a shaking voice, a volunteer said, “Thank you for giving us the space and time. It was my honor to do this.”
And people kept coming throughout the 24 hours, sometimes more than once, quietly taking a seat and listening. They wanted to be a part of this very special program, and by being there, they were helping to keep the memory alive of those who were killed.
One volunteer commented to me, “I felt it was an honor to be able to participate in the reading of the names of those who perished. While their lives were cut short by the Nazis, by the very reading of their names, they are not forgotten. Please, please, please do this again next year. ”
Well… we are doing it again. This year’s Every Person Has a Name will take place in a couple of weeks on Saturday, January 25, beginning at 7:00 pm and running through Sunday, January 26 at 8:00 pm.
If you missed last year’s event, I encourage you… no… I implore you to make every effort to attend this year. Sign up to read names or plan to come sit, listen, and help us remember.
jason moss is executive director of the Jewish Federation of the GREATER san gabriel and pomona valleys.