It is my profound privilege to stand before this community for the opening ceremony of the 37th Holocaust Remembrance Conference. It is an honor that this important conference open here at our temple, a center of Jewish spiritual and educational life, and as the rabbi of Temple Israel, I say, welcome. Temple Israel strives to be a vision of Abraham’s tent, one open on all sides, wherein all from every denomination, religion, race, gender, and sexual orientation are greeted with audacious hospitality.
On an evening as important as this, one struggles with words, let alone prayer. And as I stand here to offer words of welcome and invocation, I so wish it were in celebration of peace at last, of the end of genocide; that in the 73 years since the liberation of the camps and the end of the war, the world had honored our cry of “never again;” that discrimination, oppression, and genocide were things of the past—a distant memory, that we could hardly imagine or recognize.
Instead, the sad reality is that this is not so. After the Holocaust came Cambodia, Rwanda, Darfur, and Bosnia. In recent years, we have read too often the words “ethnic cleansing” in the news from Iraq, Syria, Myanmar. Around the world, we see the desecration of holy sites, synagogues, churches, and mosques. Even within our own borders, we see an exponential rise in Holocaust denial and antisemitism.
As we sit here prepared to reflect on how far we have come in the last seventy-three years and, perhaps more importantly, how far we have to go, I am reminded of a letter President George Washington sent to the Hebrew Congregation of Newport, now known as the Touro Synagogue. The letter was dated August 18, 1790, and was sent after Washington visited Rhode Island. Washington, among many words of hope for the diversity of the United States, wrote in his letter:
It is now no more that toleration is spoken of as if it were the indulgence of one class of people that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights, for, happily, the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.
In his letter, Washington also quotes the words of our prophet, Micah, translated from the Hebrew,
וְיָשְׁב֗וּ אִ֣ישׁ תַּ֧חַת גַּפְנ֛וֹ וְתַ֥חַת תְּאֵנָת֖וֹ וְאֵ֣ין מַחֲרִ֑יד
“Every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree and there shall be none to make him afraid.”
In the centuries since Micah spoke those words to the Israelites, and even still since Washington quoted them, this continues to be a prayer we keep. It is still a wish, still a hope for this world and for our country. Today, as we commemorate the 73 years since the Holocaust, as we honored Yom Hashoah this past week, and as we begin another conference of educational opportunities in the Greater Lafayette area, we few, we mighty few that stretch among different religions and backgrounds, stand in the face of so much more to do. Our task is far from finished. May God grant us the strength and resolve to continue to fight for that which is morally right in this world. May God, as well as the souls of those lost to hatred, march with us so that we do not march alone. And as George Washington wrote those many years ago, “may the father of all mercies scatter light, and not darkness, upon our paths.”
To the lessons learned behind us, and the opportunities ahead of us, friends, let us acknowledge our resolve to continue on, and let us say together, Amen.