Why Should Young Jews Care About the Shoah?

The reality for the generation beneath me is vastly different. To them the Holocaust is more history than memory.

by David Jacobson

I was literally just leaving the Pinelands cemetery in Cape Town, South Africa from yet another incredibly moving Yom HaShoah ceremony in May, when the annual lament of ‘where are the young adults?’ began. And it is a fact: despite over 1200 members of the Cape Town Jewish community turning up on a public holiday to commemorate the Shoah, the demographic of age 20 – 40 were conspicuous by their absence. That got me thinking as to ‘why’?

In my Jewish memory, the distinction between ‘being Jewish’ and the Holocaust is very fuzzy. I am not sure what I learned first: the Exodus from Egypt or the death march to the gas chambers. Stories like Leon Uris’s Mila 18, the poetry of Chana Senesh, short films like ‘The Ambulance’ and songs like ‘Donna Donna’ and ‘Eli Eli’ were the mother’s milk to my Jewish soul. Being Jewish meant remembering the Holocaust and remembering the Holocaust meant being Jewish. This aphorism was emotionally and inextricably woven into the fabric of my Jewish narrative via every interaction I had with my Jewishness, from my teachers at the Cheder to my Grandmothers at the Seder.

I have no Holocaust survivors in my family, yet I understood from a very early age how the shadow of the Shoah loomed large over the Jewish people. Not only was it a horror story of unimagined proportions, but it had personally, physically and horribly touched the lives of so many people I knew. But perhaps even more powerful was my intuitive understanding that I could not truly comprehend what it meant to be connected to the Jewish people, if I did not share this collective pain. The Shoah was a near-fatal injury that was perpetrated against the Jewish people and not just against the individual Jewish lives that were destroyed in flames. That was my Jewish upbringing and I was born decades after the Holocaust.

The reality for the generation beneath me is vastly different. To them the Holocaust is more history than memory.

This is perhaps reflective of a general trend of the millennial generation – they are a highly individualised generation and do not easily attach themselves to constructed groupings, particularly if these groupings are imposed upon them by the preceding generation. For this reason, many younger Jews tend to feel less attached to the story of Zionism, the story of the creation of the State of Israel or the story of the campaign to free Soviet Jewry.

Of course, Judaism in its infinite, omnipotent wisdom has always been aware of this potential very human pitfall. Our sages understood that if future generations of Jews were not able to internalise the Jewish story as being ‘theirs’, as if it is ‘they who were personally taken out of Egypt’, then the Jewish story would simply remain in the realm of history and would never transform into the human power that is memory. For thousands of years, we have managed as a people to create this phenomenon of transforming history into memory – it is arguably this psychological miracle that has allowed us to survive. You can easily and cognitively reject history. But if you reject memory, you excise a living part of your emotional self.

We, as leaders, as elders, as educator and as parents, have to find a way to re-create these living, collective memories. This may require re-thinking the way we teach all recent (and not so recent) Jewish history, including the dark chapter of the Shoah.

Do young people see the Holocaust as a burden as opposed to a memory? Or is there an apathy related to young people being able to connect to the collective? To many young Jewish adults, the Holocaust, with all its horror, is really just another item in the long history of the Jewish people. It has not been internalised into their collective memory. They say: “It is not my story. It is his-story.”

Until we change this paradigm, we should not expect the demographic of the audience at the Yom HaShoah ceremony to change either.

David Jacobson is the executive director of the Cape SA Jewish Board of Deputies.