Thousands mark Yom HaShoah each year with solemn remembrances and memorial tributes, but for many of the young men of Our Place, this past April 16 was the first time they had ever officially observed the annual commemoration of the six million Jews who died during the Holocaust.
“While many of those who frequent Our Place come from families that were decimated by World War II, few of them have ever been in any synagogue or school that held any kind of official commemorative program paying tribute to the Holocaust,” said Rabbi Aryeh Young, executive director of Our Place. “We felt this was an appropriate opportunity to pay homage to those who were killed as well as reaffirming the unbreakable bonds that link each of us to previous generations.”
Our Place was one of many institutions that joined with the Linking the Shoah initiative, a project developed by Alicia Kaylie Yacoby and funded by the Harvey & Gloria Kaylie Foundation, which distributed hundreds of thousands of “We Remember” candles throughout Israel and New York. Each candle bore the name and a short description of a Holocaust victim, and a QR code on each label gave participants a chance to learn even more about the person for whom their candle was being lit. Linking the Shoah, a nonprofit volunteer organization, estimates that over 300,000 candles were lit by Israeli families this past Yom HaShoah, with an additional 5,000 candles kindled in New York.
Many of the young men did not even know it was Yom HaShoah. They had just dropped in out of routine to eat a hot dinner, work out in the gym, shoot pool, or speak to one of the therapists; yet they were visibly moved as they were given the opportunity to light the We Remember candles. Over 50 different candles were lit in the first 30 minutes after being set up. “The kids were really into it; we simply ran out of candles,” explained Our Place clinical director, Sony Pearlman. “Lighting the simple yahrzeit candle was perhaps the most Jewish thing some of these kids have done in years.”
“The Holocaust took place decades ago and it is our responsibility to ensure that those who died are never forgotten,” said Yisrael S., a 14-year-old from Flatbush who regularly frequents the Avenue M drop-in center to shoot pool and get a hot meal.
The power of the rare emotional connection kindled on Yom HaShoah cannot be underestimated, according to Rabbi Young. “So many of the people who come to Our Place spend their lives distancing themselves from their roots, but lighting these candles was a physical step that actually brought them closer to their heritage,” he noted. “We can only hope that the flames of those candles have ignited a greater spark deep inside them.”
Aaron B., a 17-year-old who has consistently relied on Our Place services for several years, shared his thoughts after the ceremony: “I never really thought about the Holocaust before, but seeing all of those candles, each with a different name and story, made me realize that all types of Jews were killed. Once a Jew, always a Jew.”
To learn more about Our Place and its wide array of lifesaving services, please contact Rabbi Aryeh Young at firstname.lastname@example.org or 516-512-4494.