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Remembrance is Central

April 25, 2023 | General News | Programs and Events

When faced with loss, finding a balance between commemoration and renewal is important. Introduced by Honorary Central President Howard F. Sharfstein, Central trustee and former President and CEO of the 9/11 Memorial & Museum, Alice Greenwald, discussed this topic, drawing on her experiences with the September 11 Memorial, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, and other organizations.

President Shonni Silverberg's Remarks

Welcome, everybody, and thank you for coming on this wintery evening in Manhattan. I am so over it!

I want to start by saying “thank you” to some people. I want to first thank Howard Sharfstein, sitting in the third row, which is actually the second row. The driving force behind this entire planned giving effort. I want to thank Jordan for picking up Howard’s ball and running with it, never mind professionalizing our entire Development operation, of which this is just a small part, so thank you to Jordan. I want to thank Alice in advance, and I want to thank all of you, our congregants, who are here to learn about planned giving, or if you are already pros, to learn about planned giving Central style.

In Jewish law, tzedakah comes from the root word “Tzedek” or “righteous”. Tzedakah is not just a good thing to do; it is actually an ethical obligation. But tonight, I’d like to give a somewhat different spin on giving. Giving is a great thing to do, but it is also something that feels great. My husband John and I do a lot of giving, and the way that we approach it is to consider what is important to us, then to investigate which organizations are having an impact in that space, and then to support those missions through giving. You are all here because Central Synagogue is important to you. You have voted with your feet by showing up. You have correctly recognized the outsized impact that Central Synagogue has in its space. Planned giving requests to Central Synagogue will ensure that what you love about Central is here for our children and our grandchildren.

And I promise you, it will feel great. And with that, I would like to turn it over to Howard!

Howard F. Sharfstein's Remarks

I am personally overwhelmed by the fact that you’re here tonight, whether in person or streaming, and I’m very grateful for a lot of things. I’m grateful to you. I am so grateful to our president, Shonni Silverberg, who has guided us with immense dedication to our faith and to Central. I am so fortunate to work with Jordan Kessler, our Chief Development Officer, who works so hard to secure the financial strength of our synagogue. And so very, very grateful to Alice Greenwald, a member of our community and Trustee, who will share with us her remarkable career securing for the world enduring memories of the realities of tragedy and loss, while creating powerful institutions that will ensure such memories resonate and educate for many years to come.

Memories and remembrance sustain and inform us every day of our lives. In following Alice’s example, we all have the opportunity to sustain the memories and teachings of our faith and of Central Synagogue. We can do that, after we are gone,  by making planned giving part of our lives. You can leave a bequest to Central in your last will. You can name Central as a beneficiary at your death, of your IRA, or similar retirement plan. You can acquire a charitable gift annuity which will pay you income for your life based on a return far in excess of rates otherwise available, with the remainder passing to Central. You can create a trust during your lifetime benefitting both youself and Central.

What has planned giving meant to Central over the years? When I was president, I spent some time digging into the archives of this wonderful institution – and we have incredible archives. And it was very apparent to me that the debt that was incurred in the 1860s to build our sanctuary was paid off over time by the generous bequests and gifts of its then very limited membership. We rebuilt our synagogue after the fire of 1998 with the generosity of so many, including planned gifts that allowed us to rebuild the financial security of this institution. You ask what have I done? I did something very simple and very easy. I reached out to the administrator of my IRA, and asked for a change of beneficiary form. I added Central as a beneficiary at my death. It was quick, it was easy, and it was inexpensive.  L’Dor V’Dor – from generation to generation.

I hope that Jordan and I can support you in your journey creating a powerful legacy so that others yet to come are blessed by Central Synagogue, as we have been. Thank you.

Alice M. Greenwald's Remarks
© Alice M. Greenwald, 2023

Good evening. A few months ago, when Jordan and Howard invited me to speak on the topic of loss at a Central program that would introduce the idea of planned giving, we compared calendars and landed on the only date that seemed to work for me: tonight, April 24th. While this wasn’t planned, it turns out that this evening marks (as you know) the start of Yom HaZikaron, the Day of Remembrance in Israel. Talk about bashert! 

Like our Memorial Day, Yom HaZikaron was established to commemorate soldiers killed in battle. Over time, it evolved to also include the civilian victims of terrorism. At 8:00 pm on erev Yom HaZikaron, a siren sounds for one minute, and all over the country, everything stops. Literally. People stand in place and remain silent. Drivers in cars and buses brake their vehicles. Time stands still.  

And that is what remembrance demands of us: to make a space – whether temporal or physical – to acknowledge loss.  

I know a bit about this because, for the majority of my professional life, I have been a practitioner of memory, helping to build and then operate two of our nation’s major memorial institutions: the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. and the National September 11 Memorial & Museum here in New York. I’ve also been privileged to work with other communities struggling in the aftermath of events of extreme violence to find the right way to commemorate those who were killed – to make that space for loss. 

While the circumstances are different, the challenges with these types of projects are almost always the same. How do you balance public grief with private mourning? Who among the stakeholders has priority in how their memorial should be shaped? Should it be the families of the victims, the survivors, leaders in the community where the event happened? Or would it be the funders – the people paying for the memorial? Are the dead best remembered by a memorial structure or by actions that defy what the perpetrators had hoped to achieve? Another way of asking this question is: what is the proper balance between commemoration and renewal? Are they in fact mutually exclusive? 

All of these questions swirled around the planning for the 9/11 Memorial & Museum. In the early years, there were advocates for a memorial that would leave the footprints of the Twin Towers vacant – an open wound in the landscape of the city. Their motto was “from bedrock to eternity.” Other voices didn’t want a reminder of what had happened – calling for rebuilding the towers just as they were, as if the attacks had never taken place.  

At Ground Zero, the impulse to commemorate and the imperative to rebuild were both appropriate responses to the devastation in lower Manhattan.  Yet, how could it be possible to realize both in the same space of profound destruction and loss?  Wouldn’t commercial redevelopment be irreverent at a place where so many had been killed?  Wouldn’t an emphasis on commemoration and on the dead prevent this once-vibrant place of commerce, residence, and culture from renewing itself… from going forward? 

Ultimately, the plan evolved to embrace a magnificently designed memorial occupying fully half the 16-acre World Trade Center redevelopment site yet surrounded by new commercial, transit, and cultural buildings: to date, three new office towers, a new transportation hub, a rebuilt Greek Orthodox Church, and coming next fall, a Performing Arts Center.  

Because of what had happened at Ground Zero, the site was transformed into sacred ground. And what “sacred” literally means is “set apart,” “separate,” “distinct”. The sanctity of this place had to be acknowledged, and the void created by the enormity of the loss had to be recognized; there needed to be space distinct from the rest of what would be rebuilt at the site. But precisely because it was a redevelopment site, renewal and remembrance would co-exist. In fact, they had to. The lesson of Ground Zero is somewhat counter-intuitive: in order to achieve renewal, space has to be set aside for remembrance because, in a place of traumatic violence, you cannot ignore what happened there or the trauma remains unresolved. Like time standing still on Yom HaZikaron, at Ground Zero, there had to be a designated place to acknowledge the loss in order for redevelopment to succeed. 

Here's another example. On July 22, 2011, a homegrown neo-Nazi named Anders Breivik exploded a car bomb in the government center of Oslo, Norway, killing eight, and then made his way to a small island called Utøya, the home of a summer camp run by the youth wing of the liberal Labor Party, where he brutally murdered 69 people, almost all of them teenagers.  

In the aftermath, various stakeholders faced the question of how best to commemorate what had happened, and there was a tug of war between those (primarily, some parents of victims) who wanted the entire island to be left untouched, frozen in time as it was on the last day of their children’s lives, and members of the AUF – the Youth Labor League that owned the island – who wanted to resume camp right away as an act of defiance against Brevik’s intention to wipe out the next generation of liberal leadership in the country. There were intense meetings and confrontations. Ultimately, a resolution was achieved, involving a cafeteria building that was the central gathering place on the island and where a number of campers had been murdered. The memorial design proposed preserving a portion of that building, unchanged from how it looked in 2011, with bullet holes still visible in the walls and items of tribute left where grieving families had placed them soon after the massacre. But now, a new structure would be built around those physical remnants. That structure is called “Hegnhuset” – the house that embraces.   

This architectural vision strove to honor the past while looking to the future. By retaining a remnant of the old building, the Hegnhuset would ensure continued witness to what had transpired on the island, inviting remembrance and learning. It would protect the precious elements and sacred spaces, and honor the tragic history now inextricably linked to this place. But it did more. The structure surrounding the old building is comprised of 69 wooden pillars, representing those who lost their lives on 22nd July. But they don’t just encircle the remnant structure, they create a corridor, because a few feet across from them is another set of pillars, 495 of them, creating an outer ring around the remnant. Four hundred and ninety-five: the number of people who survived the slaughter. The pillars do not create a solid wall; the old cafeteria building is visible through the vertical spaces between the pillars. From the outside, you can see into the void occupied by the remnant structure; from the inside, you see the lush, vibrant landscape of the island. Visitors walk through this corridor, in the space between pillars representing the victims and the survivors. It is liminal space, a space apart. And, as you move through this passage, you become part of the embrace. This is design in the service of healing. 

The Hegnhuset is situated at the literal and figurative center of the island, and by placing remembrance at the heart of Utøya, this acknowledgment of loss actively affirms resilience and renewal. The Hegnhuset is a bridge between past and future. It has facilitated a vibrant return to life while asserting the imperative to never forget. The summer camp at Utøya has resumed. A new generation of young people from around the country come together for a few weeks each year to gather on this indescribably beautiful island at the outer mouth of a fjord, continuing a decades old tradition of affirming the values of democratic participation, inclusivity, and equality that are central to the history and mission of the AUF. In addition, a center for the study of extremism has been initiated, with participants coming from around the world throughout the year to gather for meetings and workshops taking place within a new cafeteria building. 

I have learned, both from my work with memorials and in my own life experience, that it is not only possible, it is imperative, to find that balance between a return to life and remembering. I have also learned that the first obligation when building at a site of atrocity and mass loss is to attest to what happened there. If the rebuilding ignores, overlooks, discounts, or seeks to minimize or supersede the traumatic history, it will fail.  

But it is also essential for remembrance to embrace a forward-looking commitment. A wonderful quote I use often came from a writer chronicling the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. She wrote: “Memorials are the way we make promises to the future about the past.” Elie Wiesel understood this truth. His way of saying the same thing was: “A memorial unresponsive to the future would violate the memory of the past.” As Founding Chairman of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, Wiesel, together with others appointed by Jimmy Carter to the President’s Commission on the Holocaust included in their Report to the President back in 1979 three core components for a United States Holocaust Memorial: a national memorial/ museum, an educational foundation, and notably, a “Committee on Conscience.” The COC, as it was called, was to be the advocacy arm of the project, charged with the responsibility to (and I quote) “alert the national conscience, influence policy makers, and stimulate worldwide action to confront and work to halt acts of genocide or related crimes against humanity.” Today, some 44 years later, the Committee provides advice to the Museum’s Center for the Prevention of Genocide.   

Those founders understood something profound. The moral authority the museum would attain by attesting to the history of a particular genocide (one so heinous it gave birth to the word “genocide” itself) would enable it to serve as a platform for heightened public awareness and as a challenge to indifference. They understood that memory is the pre-requisite for moral conscience and that out of conscience comes the recognition of our responsibility, individually and collectively, to the future, to those who will come after us. Jewish tradition offers a roadmap for how to balance past and present, how to negotiate the interconnectedness of remembrance, responsibility, and renewal. At every Shabbat service, we take time out of the week to speak and sing words of praise and prayer recited for generations; we stand in remembrance to say the words of the Kaddish, in memory of our loved ones and in solidarity with those in our community who have suffered loss. Sabbath is time and space set apart – and it is rooted in remembrance. During Havdalah at the close of Shabbat, we say these words: רוּךְ אַ תָּ ה יְ יָ, הַ מַּ בְ ִדיל בֵּ ין ֽקֹדֶ שׁ לְחוֹלָּב Baruch atah, Adonai, hamavdil bayn kodesh lechol. “Blessed are You, God, who separates between the holy and the profane.”

Our ritual celebrates the distinction of Shabbat from the rest of the week, and after acknowledging the separateness of time and space, we can re-enter and renew. Our tradition of sitting shiva after the death of a family member is also about creating that separation. We step out of the routine of our lives. We sit apart for seven days, to attend to our grief and allow others to care for us, feed us, and join us in prayer. We share stories and memories.  After shiva, we re-enter our lives, gradually. We observe Sheloshim, a period of 30 days, in which we say Kaddish daily. And then, life can go on. Yet, we carry remembrance with us, making space in our lives to observe Yahrzeits throughout the year – lighting that candle, saying the prayers our parents and grandparents said before us, and taking time to remember. 

The rhythm of Shabbat, the observance of shiva, Sheloshim, and Yahrzeits, sites of memory like the 9/11 Memorial pools, the US Holocaust Memorial Museum’s Hall of Remembrance, and the Hegnhuset on Utøya, and standing still on Yom ha-Zikaron all have something in common. They provide the space in which to place our grief so that we can move forward in our lives. 

I heard this beautifully expressed by a young colleague at the 9/11 Museum, whose father had worked in the North Tower at the World Trade Center and was killed in the attacks. Amy first came to volunteer at the Museum, serving as a tour guide. She said that this immersion in the story, sharing it with others, allowed her every week to pay attention to her grief. But then, having paid attention, she could go back to the rest of her life, function normally, and live with joy. She had found a way to balance remembrance with renewal. 

Cemeteries help us do this in our private lives, public memorials help us do this in our communal lives, and our rituals of remembrance help us do this in both. We know that our grief and our memories have their place; they are secured, protected, and preserved. And with that knowledge, and the comfort of that knowledge, we can move forward. 

As each of us faces our own mortality, how can we help those we love to move forward? We can give them the tools of our tradition to help with this passage, and we can also do what the US Holocaust Memorial Museum did with its Committee on Conscience, what the team at Utøya did with its new global institute, and what the redevelopment at Ground Zero achieved by placing remembrance at the heart of truly spectacular rebuilding in lower Manhattan: we can transform loss into tikkun olam, the effort, however incremental, to repair the world. We can make our promises to the future about the past. 

And here is where legacy giving comes in. Jewish tradition, in all its wisdom, gives us paths to follow. We are encouraged to make memorial contributions. Every year, for the past 29 years, on my mother’s Yahrzeit, I give to the same hospice organization that tended to her with such compassion and support during her final months. This simple act allows me to honor her and extend to others the blessing of what she received.  

We can write an ethical will that offers moral guidance to our children and grandchildren, effectively instructing them: remember me by how you choose to live your lives.  

And we can think ahead now about what we want our loved ones to associate with us, when we are gone – signaling our values and commitments and underscoring what matters most in our lives, by making a legacy donation, a planned gift, to the institutions and causes we care most about. 
And when we do these things, we help those we leave behind experience grief with a sense of hope. We affirm that in the space of loss, there is always the promise of renewal. Thank you. 

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