Reasons for the Jewish people’s suffering and their purpose in exile was the theme of keynote speaker Rabbi Ari Lamm at Holocaust Remembrance Day held at the Young Israel of Forest Hills on Wednesday, May 1.

Special Advisor to the President of Yeshiva University, and grandson of Rabbi Norman Lamm, Rabbi Ari Lamm drew lessons from Joseph’s exile in Egypt and three similar events in Jewish history: the destruction of the First Temple by the Babylonians, the story of Purim, and the book of Daniel.

Joseph was sold into slavery by his brothers, rises as advisor to Pharaoh’s wife, Potifar, who tries to seduce Joseph, gets thrown into jail, and becomes viceroy of Egypt after correctly interpreting Pharaoh’s dreams.

Jeremiah warned the Jewish King Yehoyakim not to rebel against Babylonia. Babylonia’s society is not condemned in the Torah as Egypt and Persia were, said Rabbi Lamm.

The king throws Jeremiah into a pit, tries to have him killed, and burns his writings. Jeremiah warns King Jeconiah’s son, King Yehoyachin, not to rebel against the Babylonians but does anyway. The First Temple is destroyed and the Jews go into exile. The Babylonian Emperor later releases King Yehoyachin from jail, raises the King’s stature in society, and allows the Jews to rebuild their Temple.

The lesson from this story: The Jews need the king’s support and protection. “This is an argument we know well from the pre-Holocaust era.” Jews were granted protection by monarchs in countries like England, Spain, and France, but were soon expelled. “The mistake of exile is being completely reliant on the authorities around us. Relying on powers-that-be is an enormous mistake,” said Rabbi Lamm.

Esther’s beauty is emphasized in the story of Purim, just as Joseph found favor with Pharaoh’s wife, Potifar. Mordechai is asked to bow down daily to Haman but refuses, like Joseph refusing Potifar’s advances. The lesson here is to be strong and retain your values. “We cannot allow ourselves to be vulnerable.” With the restoration of Israel and tremendous strides in building Torah institutions and learning in America, this is the post-Holocaust lesson, said Rabbi Lamm.

The third and final lesson: Daniel was in prison, like Joseph. Daniel interprets King Nevuchadnetzar’s dreams successfully, as Joseph did with Pharaoh. Daniel is promoted to be second in charge of Babylonia, like Joseph. Daniel wants to help the society around him, like Joseph.

“We are now in the era of the first flowering of redemption,” said Rabbi Lamm. The non-Jewish world turns to the Jews for advice in science, technology, water desalination, culture, how to be a start-up nation, security, and moral inspiration. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks’ advice is sought from clergy and politicians. The editor and associate editor of The Atlantic magazine are ex-Israeli Army soldiers. “In the 1200s, the Talmud was burned in front of the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris. Now, clergy ask to come into our sanctuaries.”

“The Jewish people have always been a counter-culture force,” said Rabbi Lamm. Jews show how “society does not need to be this way.” “That is our role, to teach society to be a moral one, to be a light onto the nations.”

Rabbi Schreier, of the Young Israel of Forest Hills, quoted the Passover Haggadah: “In every generation, they rise to destroy us.” The greatest miracle in the world is that we still exist and are growing and thriving. Our job is to never give up and that’s something embedded into our DNA from Avraham and Sarah.”

The president of the Young Israel of Forest Hills, Philip Belkin, said, “Expressions of hate against Jews have moved into the mainstream where they have become acceptable on college campuses and in the mainstream media, as we saw this week when The New York Times published an anti-Semitic cartoon.”

“We have even seen swastikas painted on a schoolyard in our own neighborhood and the NYPD reported a 22-percent increase in bias crimes against Jews in 2018. We must redouble our efforts to combat anti-Semitism with continued Holocaust remembrance and education.”

Holocaust survivor and Forest Hills resident Leon Sherman remembered cutting stone next to Anne Frank’s father, Otto. Sherman also clearly remembers Jews singing “Ani Maamin” (I believe) before being gassed. Sherman survived slave labor, a death march, and the Nazis killing people up until the day of liberation. Sherman lit the first memorial light.

Louis Katz turned 100 years old a few days before. Katz avoided being captured by running from town to town until being caught. Having counterfeit papers, Katz was thought to be a gentile and was arrested for mistreating Jews. He was taken to Theresienstadt where he was beaten so badly, he fell into a coma. Katz was hospitalized until the end of the war. He lit the sixth memorial candle.

“It makes you think what our role is in the Diaspora. We survived, we have a mission to stand tall, to identify and not be ashamed of who we are, and stand tall for what we believe in,” said Rachel Epstein.

“The speaker was very powerful. He tied together the past with the present with hope for the future,” said the daughter of Holocaust survivors who wished to remain anonymous.

Rabbi David Algaze of Havurat Yisrael and Rabbi Yossi Mendelson of Machane Chodosh read kinos (elegies). Yaniv Meirov of Chazaq and Rabbi Avi Hirt of the Queens Jewish Center said T’hilim (Psalms). Roshel Meirov sang a stirring “Shir HaMaalos (a Song of Ascension).

Sy Kaplan closed by having the more than 100 attendees sing, “Ani Maamin” (“I believe with a perfect faith in the coming of the Messiah, and, though he may tarry, I will wait daily for his coming”), Maimonides’ 12th of his 13 Articles of Faith.

 By David Schneier