On Monday evening, April 17, the Young Israel of Kew Gardens Hills hosted a virtual event commemorating Yom HaShoah. Rabbi Ari Schonfeld welcomed everyone. The event was organized by Rabbi Yoel Schonfeld, Rabbi Emeritus of the Young Israel of Kew Gardens Hills, Rabbi Moshe Rosenberg, Rabbi of Congregation Etz Chaim, and Rabbi Shmuel Marcus, Rabbi of the Young Israel of Queens Valley.

The event was sponsored in memory of Martin Dov Berger z”l, father of Ephraim Berger. Rabbi Daniel Rosenfelt, Rabbi of the Young Israel of Kew Gardens Hills, spoke first. He shared that people from all over the world were attending this program, and our coming together for Yom HaShoah makes us a stronger community. He shared a d’var Torah from Parshas Sh’mini. The Lubavitcher Rebbe taught that the deaths of Nadav and Avihu, sons of Aharon HaKohen, represent the deaths of all righteous people. The Rebbe said that, in K’dushah, we recite that we should sanctify Hashem’s Name in this world just as they sanctify Hashem’s Name in Shamayim. The people murdered because they were Jewish made a kiddush Hashem. “Remember them and remind everyone of the kiddush Hashem they created 80 years ago.”

Following this, Ephraim Berger, community leader and lawyer, introduced the featured speaker Dr. Rafael Medoff, American professor of Jewish history and founding director of the David Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies. Dr. Medoff began with an audio recording of Rabbi Herschel Schacter zt”l, Rabbi of Buchenwald. The audio was accompanied by photos he took of the Buchenwald camp. The photos were difficult to look at, as they documented the barbaric cruelty of the Nazis to our people. Rabbi Schacter said that April 11, 1945, was the most unforgettable day in his life. He was an American army chaplain, and that was the day he saw the liberation of the Buchenwald death camp. He shared that it was a privilege to come face to face with the stark, bitter reality of Jewish tragedy. The army opened the gates of hell. There were hundreds of human bodies, and the ovens were still steaming, waiting for more. “How can any human being ever forget such a sight!”

He shared that, later, it was always difficult to relive that moment. When they were there, they went to seek out Jews who were still alive. They were in a barracks. “No words in the human vocabulary can remotely describe the brutality and human horror perpetrated against our people,” he said. He related how he will never forget those eyes, crazed with fear, on the faces of the emaciated men. He called out in Yiddish, “You are free. The war is over.” The survivors looked back at him with incredulous eyes.

After the short powerful audio recording, Dr. Medoff spoke about Rabbi Schacter. Herschel Schacter grew up in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn, New York, in an Orthodox family and community. His father was a shochet. He took a different path and decided to become a rabbi. He studied at Yeshiva University, and, in 1941 he was the first rabbi to be ordained by Rab Joseph B. Soloveitchik. He spent his first year after ordination as the rabbi of a shul in Stamford, Connecticut. He would have qualified for an automatic exemption from military service during World War II, but he decided to enlist in 1942, as he said he couldn’t remain a pulpit rabbi when fellow Jews were fighting. He joined the US Armed Forces as a an army chaplain. He trained at Harvard and found himself in the company of nonobservant Jews and non-Jews. He stepped out of his comfort zone. He organized a Pesach Seder for the soldiers. There were many other Jewish chaplains, but none were told that they would encounter death camps. For all the chaplains it was quite a shock.

A typical army unit would stay a short time after liberating a camp and then move on. Rabbi Schacter was different. He requested to stay in Buchenwald even though there were many contagious diseases like typhus rampant in the camp. It was an extraordinary decision. He set up a makeshift office in the infirmary and he organized minyanim for the survivors. Many survivors who were interviewed by Dr. Medoff shared how meaningful it was to have those minyanim. In addition, Rabbi Schacter provided personal counseling, and he organized a mail system for them. He also arranged for several hundred children to be transferred to Switzerland. He bent or broke rules to get them out.

After two and a half months, when Buchenwald became a Soviet zone, he moved on. When he returned to the United States, he was a sought-after speaker, as he had the unique ability to describe from first-hand experience what happened to the Jews in Europe. He spent a year speaking to Jewish audiences and on radio shows. He then decided not to return to the pulpit in Connecticut, instead he took a pulpit in the Bronx. He began to emerge on the national scene as a Jewish leader. In the 1950s, Orthodox rabbis didn’t head inter-denominational Jewish organizations. They were viewed as old-world relics, and the non-Orthodox believed that Orthodox Judaism would die out in short order. Yet, at this time, Rabbi Schacter carved a unique role for himself. He was different, as he had no accent, he was well-versed in national and international issues, and he was a gripping speaker.

In 1954, the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA) sent Rabbi Schacter to be part of a delegation to Israel to mediate a crisis in Yerushalayim where a secular Zionist youth club had opened at the edge of Meah Shearim. Rabbi Schacter met with the Prime Minister and other officials, and because he also had a relationship with many chasidic rebbes, he was able to broker a compromise.

In 1956, the RCA sent a mission to Moscow, in the Soviet Union, which lasted a number of weeks. They brought hope and chizuk to Soviet Jews who felt forgotten.

In 1964, Mizrachi USA chose him as president and, in 1968, he became the first Orthodox rabbi to chair the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. Dr. Medoff displayed a photo of Rabbi Schacter with President Richard M. Nixon.

Rabbi Schacter organized public protests against the [Secretary of State William P.] Rogers Plan [December 1969], which sought to return land to the Arab regimes that the State of Israel conquered in the 1967 Six-Day War, a war that the Arab nations waged against Israel. His protests helped President Nixon to quietly withdraw the Rogers Plan. Next, Rabbi Schacter became president of the American Jewish Conference on Soviet Jewry, later to be renamed the National Conference on Soviet Jewry. He held a rally that united all different Jews together for the cause of Soviet Jewry.

Dr. Medoff shared that, as he studied Rabbi Schacter’s life, it seemed that Buchenwald transformed him in two ways. He committed himself to a life of Jewish service, and he became comfortable with all different types of Jews. He had flexibility, as he was forced to have flexibility in wartime conditions. In Buchenwald he met Jews from all different backgrounds.

He learned first-hand in Buchenwald that all Jews shared a common fate. It didn’t matter if you were Reform, Conservative, or just secular; the enemy didn’t discriminate. As a Jewish leader, he needed to forge unity, and this is a lesson we should aspire to today.

Rabbi Shmuel Marcus led everyone in reciting a perek of T’hilim for the k’doshim, and then Kenny Mittel sang “Ani Maamin.”

The program ended with a Q&A session.

By Susie Garber