There is one element to our annual Yom HaShoah service that distinguishes it from any other Holocaust commemoration service in the Bay Area. It is Interfaith. All other Yom HaShoah services that I know of in our region are sponsored exclusively by Jewish communal institutions. However, our annual observance is sponsored by the Tri-City Interfaith Council.
It is a testament to our interconnection as a community that members of different faiths join together to remember what is not only a Jewish catastrophe, but also a tragedy for all humankind. Nine different faith communities had representatives participating in the service this past Sunday. As one of the planners for the service, I am aware that it is our ongoing responsibility to find a balance between the uniquely Jewish elements of the Shoah and the crime against humanity that was carried out by the Nazis.
Inevitably, I am moved by our Tri-City Interfaith Yom HaShoah Service. Our guest speaker, Temple member Leon Vermont, offered a deeply affecting account of his experiences during the war. I also came away from this service greatly appreciative of the shared experience of worshipping together with people of many different faiths.
Sunday’s Tri-City Interfaith Yom HaShoah Service reminds us of what we share as a community. All the more, the news of the next day came as a jarring blow when the Supreme Court ruled that sectarian prayer before a legislative session does not violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. As with many major decisions by this Supreme Court, the ruling on Town of Greece, NY v. Galloway was an exceedingly close vote (5-4).
The Establishment Clause states, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.” It is the foundation of our society’s separation of religion and state. Jews in the United States have often felt the sting of being a minority. This week’s Supreme Court ruling states, in essence, that when a prayer is offered in a public meeting, the governing body cannot predetermine that the prayer is nonsectarian. What this means is that when a prayer will be offered in a public setting, it most likely will be from a particularistic perspective.
The Tri-City Interfaith Council models how to pray – and to be inclusive. At our monthly meetings, a member of the council offers inspirational words at the beginning and the conclusion of our gathering. Never has a member offered a prayer that by its content is exclusive; dividing the council between believers and non-believers. It is unfortunate that the five members of the Supreme Court who ruled in favor of the Town of Greece, New York, could not affirm the beauty of diversity and respect for people of all faiths.