Sacred Space in a Time of Tragedy

Sacred Space in a Time of Tragedy

Credit:flickr/taedc

It was my last day in D.C. for a work trip. I had too much to do and too little time. National museums and government institutions galore beckoned me to tour them.

One attraction in particular I had been putting off was the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. I’ve seen the world’s two largest Holocaust museums in Jerusalem and Chicago. I read about the Holocaust almost every day for work. I figured I was good.

Obligation

However, this day was different. I was in a McDonald’s eating a sausage McMuffin when my manager texted, informing me about a shooting in Pittsburgh and asking for my assistance with some materials to post on social media. Looking into the matter, I learned it was an anti-Semitic hate crime at a synagogue.

I decided it was important to visit the Holocaust Memorial. In fact, it felt like an obligation. To whom? I didn’t know. But I owed it to them.

Honestly, my heart has grown numb to news of mass shootings. This time was different, however. My network of Jewish friends has grown greatly since I started working with The Fellowship and volunteering with an organization called Israel Policy Forum.

In the wake of the attack, the conversations online were much different than what one normally sees on social media. People were asking if their friends or family were okay. Fellow Jews were reminding each other that they were loved and there for each other. As an outsider looking in, I was amazed to see this level of care and camaraderie that I’d never experienced.

I was truly touched by the how close-knit and intimate the Jewish community really is.

The Hall of Remembrance

I went through the museum, walked through the cattle car, stepped on the original cobblestones from the Warsaw ghetto, and listened to disgusting and passionate Nazi rhetoric.

The museum was excellent, jarring, and thought-provoking. But what starkly stood out this day for me was the very last room — the Hall of Remembrance. It is a hexagonal, grey and black stone room lined with candles under the names of concentration camps.

As soon as I walked into the round room, I knew I was standing in sacred space. I felt the heaviness in my chest. This experience solidified and clarified for me what exactly sacred space is. A sacred space is one that demands something from those within it. A specific decorum is enforced not by a placard or a person, but by the sheer gravity of the space itself.

As I sat at the edge of the room, soaking in the heaviness, I noticed a young couple on the other side. A young woman was stroking the back of the young man next to her. His head in his hands. His eyes glazed over. Eventually the young man rested his head on the young woman’s shoulder, cradled in her silky red hair. At one point, his head found its way atop her lap and she held him while his eyes just gazed outward. Sniffles echoed throughout the room.

From the Ashes

When the time was right, I made my way to the focus of the Hall of Remembrance, a black stone slab inscribed with the following:

Here lies earth gathered from death camps, concentration camps, sites of mass execution, and ghettos in Nazi-occupied Europe, and from cemeteries of American soldiers who fought and died to defeat Nazi Germany.

Even though I now knew what I was in the presence of, I had been feeling it the whole time. Atop this black stone slab was a bright orange flame. The flame of rebirth and rebuilding. The flame of the great strength, perseverance, and resilience of the Jewish people.

It’s one thing to hear motivational tropes of “flames rising from ashes,” it’s quite another to see that metaphor embodied right in front of you, feeling the heat, hearing the crackles. Sitting in a beautiful temple made to commemorate the greatest trespass against the Jewish people.

Around the top of the room are a few verses from the Torah etched in stone, one of which includes the very words God spoke to Cain after jealousy and hatred overwhelmed him enough to kill his own brother. “What have you done? Listen! Your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground”(Genesis[CC1]  4:10).

As I read this, not too far away in Pittsburgh, fresh blood still covered the floor of Tree of Life synagogue. The blood of Irving Youngner, Melvin Wax, Daniel Stein, Sylvan Simon, Bernice Simon, David Rosenthal, Cecil Rosenthal, Jerry Rabinowitz, Rose Malinger, Rich Gotfried, and Joyce Feinberg called out for justice.

Unfortunately, that building and that room are not just monuments to the past, but to the present. The spirit of the Holocaust is alive and well.

Ask Why

As you walk into the museum, signs encourage those inside to ask “Why?” I found myself asking that during my time in the Hall of Remembrance. I struggled to come up with any answers or neatly packaged take-aways. Am I supposed to be motivated to work for a better future and advance society? Am I supposed to be resigned to the fact that human depravity and evil will always exist? Am I to be thankful that this evil period of history is over, or mournful that similar evil acts still happen today? Literally, today.

The human heart seeks closure and certainty that, unfortunately, we rarely get in this life. As I sat with these thoughts, no clarity came. Just confusion, heaviness, and more questions, each one unanswerable.

Eventually, I felt allowed to leave the Hall of Remembrance. As I left, I looked back at the couple. They were smiling and laughing, now surrounded by a few friends, probably basking in the afterglow of post-cry euphoria.

– Jonathan Goldthwaite

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