If you go
What: We Remember, We Survived, We Flourish, the Yom Hashoa commemoration of the Jewish Federation of Greater Middlesex County
Where: East Brunswick Jewish Center
When: Tuesday, April 21, 7:30 p.m.; doors open at 6:30 for viewing an exhibit of family memorabilia and photos.
The community is invited to participate in all aspects of the free program, including a memorial candlelighting procession.
Contact: 732-432-7711 or visit www.jewishmiddlesex.org
April 14, 2009
In a Yom Hashoa commemoration that will feature family memorabilia, photos, a guest speaker, and a candle-lighting ceremony, the Jewish Federation of Greater Middlesex County will spotlight the devastating scope of the Shoa in Jewish communities from North Africa to Poland.
We Remember, We Survived, We Flourish — the April 21 program at the East Brunswick Jewish Center — is being offered in cooperation with area synagogues. It will include the lesser known plight of the Sephardi and Mizrahi communities in the Mediterranean region and North Africa.
“Most people don’t realize there was a Sephardi element to the Shoa,” said Nat Reiss, a member of the program planning committee and president of the Jewish Historical Society of Central Jersey. “While the Shoa was overwhelmingly an Ashkenazi catastrophe in terms of the number killed, the Sephardim were also affected.”
The program’s guest speaker, Rabbi Dr. Mitchell Serels, is an author and scholar of Sephardi culture and the Holocaust.
Serels, who has served as religious leader of Magen David Sephardic Congregation of New Rochelle-Scarsdale since 1983, is assistant professor of psychology and world civilization at Berkeley College in White Plains.
He previously was associate director and director of the Jacob E. Safra Institute of Sephardic Community Programs at Yeshiva University, a position he held for 26 years.
Serels is the author or editor of five books on Sephardi culture, including The Jews of Cape Verde: A Brief History.
Gabriela Sadote Sleppin, director of the federation’s Jewish Community Relations Council, called this year’s Yom Hashoa program “particularly illuminating,” adding that the “dedicated and active” committee had broad representation from community synagogues.
“This is a different approach directed to bridge these very diverse experiences and to emphasize that as a people, as different as we may be, we are a culturally rich and dynamic kehilla [community] with commonalities and overlapping paths,” said Sleppin. “Our community has traditionally been committed to Jewish education and remembrance, and we hope that with this program we successfully capture this spirit.”
One of the tragic episodes that will be covered at the program, according to Reiss, is the Nazis’ mass destruction of Greek Jewry. Of the country’s 77,380 Jews, 67,000 — 87 percent — lost their lives during the Holocaust.
Reiss said the percentage killed was among the highest (Poland lost 91 percent of its 3.3 million Jews).
In Greece, “the Nazis came in toward the end of the war. By that time, they had stopped being systematic about the deportation of Jews and were basically just taking them to Auschwitz and killing them. There was no in-between,” said Reiss, an Ashkenazi Jew who belongs to the Sephardi Congregation Etz Ahaim in Highland Park.
Another member of the committee, Sarina Feldman of East Brunswick, was born in the Greek town of Tikala after the war. Her grandfather and uncle were among those murdered.
Jewish life in Greece dated back to before Christianity, said Feldman, but others who fled Spain during the Inquisition settled there because Greece was then under the rule of the Turkish Ottoman Empire.
“They continued to grow religiously in Greece until the Shoa,” said Feldman, a member of the East Brunswick Jewish Center.
Reiss said that when European countries that had colonized North African nations were conquered by Germany, those colonies came under Nazi rule.
“Tunisia, Algeria, and Morocco were part of France, so when France fell, these countries came under Nazi influence,” he said. “Libya was an Italian colony and Italy was aligned with Hitler.”
Jews in these countries were sent to concentration or labor camps set up in North Africa; about 1,000 lost their lives, according to Reiss.