Yom HaShoah 2024 Ceremony In Rockland Marks Holocaust Remembrance Day Amid Middle East War & Political Upheaval At Home

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Ceremony Features A High School Sophomore’s Hope For The Future And Words Of Warning from Keynotes and Seasoned Legal Minds

By Tina Traster

This year’s Yom HaShoah 2024 ceremony, which marks Holocaust Remembrance Day, was especially somber and foreboding due to the ongoing Middle East conflict, a staggering rise in antisemitism worldwide, and roiling college campuses where demonstrations and encampments have brought the Israel-Hamas War into stark relief.

Amid the worried and fraught messages delivered by mature and seasoned Jews in the Jurors’ Room on the second floor of the Rockland County Courthouse on Tuesday, there was a truly bright spot: her name is Talia Pierson, a Yorktown Heights high school sophomore who heads up the Justice Brandeis Law Society Junior Board. Pierson, still wearing braces on her teeth, symbolized a beacon of youthful hope and possibility in a room filled with 250 people, many who feel worn down and frayed by fears that a second Holocaust is possible, or in fact has occurred, given the slaughter of 1,200 Jews on Israeli land on Oct. 7th.

Pierson, the granddaughter of retired Honorable Jeffrey A. Cohen of the New York State Supreme Court, Appellate Division and President of the New York State Jewish Bar Alliance, read from a prepared statement: “Today we must choose how we will respond to the past: will we forget it or will we make meaningful action from our memory?”

Then, in her own stunning words, with her grandfather present among a phalanx of robed judges looking on, said, “to be a Jew today can be isolating and scary; it can be a fight to exist. We are not safe from the horrors of the past.” It is imperative, she added, for today’s Jewish youth, to stand “strong, proud, and united.”

Every year, Paul Adler, who is a member of the Executive Board of the Justice Brandeis Law Society, and a prominent member of the local Jewish community, organizes the event along with the Society and the Holocaust Museum & Center for Tolerance and Education, which is located on the Rockland Community College campus. Yom HaShoah, translated from Hebrew as “Holocaust Remembrance Day,” is an internationally recognized date that marks the anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising in 1943.

The two-hour event, which required stepped up security measures, was billed as “Cornerstones of Democracy: Civics, Civility, and the Legal Community.” Broad as this title was, the ceremony felt very specific to the times, with members of the judiciary and educational institutions delivering words of urgency and warning.

“There is a cloud hanging over us; more than in years past,” said Adler. “Jews always worry and sometimes needlessly. Now we worry with all the need to worry.”

Adler alluded to overt antisemitism worldwide, unrest on college campuses. He said: “we are fraying at the edges.”

Holocaust Remembrance Day was marked while Israeli military tanks entered Rafah in Southern Gaza and seized control of the city’s critical border crossing with Egypt in what’s being called a limited operation to eliminate Hamas’ fighters and infrastructure. The Hamas attack on Oct. 7 killed 1,200 people in Israel, which has led to a war that has killed an estimated 34,000 people in Gaza. As of today, Hamas said it had accepted the terms of a cease-fire proposed by Arab mediators, but Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said it was “very far from Israel’s core demands.”

The keynote speaker, the Honorable Joan B. Lefkowitz, opened with somber words.

“I am sad and troubled that after the Holocaust, we believed in and promised ourselves ‘never again,’” she said. “Yet, a Holocaust against the Jewish people occurred again in Israel on Oct. 7. We are left at this time essentially alone among the nations of the world, to fight and defend ourselves.”

In recalling a trip to the post-Nazi gas chambers in Auschwitz, Lefkowitz said “one can see mounds of children’s toys, eyeglasses, shoes, and hair taken from the victims before they were killed. I believed then that anyone who sees this evidence of the atrocities would prevent it from ever happening again.”

The Judge recently visited Kibbutz Berri, one of the kibbutzim attacked by Hamas.

“I could see the indescribable destruction,” she said viscerally angry, adding the visit made her think back on walking through the concentration camps in Poland.

“It was motivated by the same genocidal hatred as the Nazis.”

Jews of Lefkowitz’s generation have long harbored a sense of safety and stability. Though political rhetoric and rising nationalist movements have brought antisemitism back to the fore, Jews generally believed that they were safe, and Israel would remain undaunted. But the Israel attacks, followed by the war with Hamas, and uprisings calling for the destruction of Israel with slogans like “from the river to the sea” have upended decades of beliefs and presumptions.

In receiving the Cornerstone of Democracy Award at the event, Barry Kantrowitz, of Kantrowitz, Goldhamer & Graifman P.C., also spoke morosely over the state of the Jewish people and their plight.

Kantrowitz said his mother, who was born in Berlin in 1934, fled Nazi Germany when she was four. Those who fled were lucky; others who remained perished.

“I remember sitting at Passover tables as a child and hearing my grandmother’s and great grandmother’s friends – some of them survivors – tell truthful stories about their experience in Nazi Germany.”

He said the collapse of Germany in the 1930s was possible because lawyers and judges failed.

“The judiciary lost its independence,” he said. “Public servants were replaced with Nazi supporters and the fundamental legal principle became ‘Whatever is good for the Nazis is legal.’”

Then Kantrowitz turned his concern to what is happening on college campuses.

“What is happening on college campuses is just awful,” he said. “It’s not peaceful, it’s not grassroots and it’s not truthful. There is no truthful or peaceful or grassroots defense of Hamas. These are not freedom fighters.”

The Acheinu prayer (a prayer for freeing captives) was led by Cantor Anna Zhar of Temple Beth Sholom, and a poster of the Israeli hostages was held aloft. The Remembrance ceremony concluded with the lighting of eight candles. Lisa Zeiderman, the President Justice Brandeis Law Society 9th JD, lit the first “flame.” Public officials, judges, Andrea Myer-Winograd and Virginia Norfleet, who work together educating school children through a program called Better Together, took turns reading passages and lighting candles.

When lighting her candle, the young but hopeful Pierson reminded the rapt room filled with seasoned people, about the importance of the cornerstones of our unique Democracy.

“If we choose not to value and protect these practices, we know where the road leads because the history of the Holocaust has taught us,” she said.