A Thanksgiving like no other…remembered

Note to readers…this is an article I wrote last year when we returned from a trip to Israel so the news article I reference is from November, 2005.


I knew that our family Thanksgiving would be a bit different this year. We were in the midst of a whirlwind tour of Israel when Turkey Day arrived. As the day dawned in Jerusalem I remembered past Thanksgivings with family all around. Watching the Macy’s Parade while the tantilizing aromas of roasting turkey and pumpkin pie and fresh baked bread filled the house. Watching the football games, eating way too much, and  then the afternoon lapse into semi-consciousness known as the traditional Thanksgiving day nap. I knew that this year would be a little different but I had no idea how much.


When I heard our schedule I knew this would be a Thanksgiving like no other. Our final activity for that day would be a visit to the Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem.  My first reaction was “no, no, not today”. But then I reconsidered. What better reminder of how very much I have to be thankful for than to relive this abomination of history.


We pulled up to impressive facility and began the tour. My heart was pierced within the first moments when I read a display about the deadening silence of the Christian church during much of this evil genocide. I recalled the haunting words of Elie Wiesel who said, “The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference.”  I prayed that I would never allow my convenience and comfort to overcome the responsibility to speak out.


I wanted to look away from the pictures of smiling children innocently and unknowingly being resigned to death. I struggled to absorb the depth of evil as I looked into the eyes of the death camp guards and commanders. My heart ached as I saw the vacant gaze of the death camp prisoners. I saw Jews and Christians weeping side by side as testimonies of the horrors were recounted by survivors.


I was overwhelmed by the Hall of Names…a giant repository containing millions of names and testimonies. My chest hurt as I walked through the Children’s Memorial dedicated to the 1.5 million children who perished. I tried to grasp the enormity of that number. Dallas has a population of about 1.2 million. What if Dallas were exterminated? Yet that would fall 300,000 short of the children who died at the hands of these monsters.


I left the Yad Veshem (Holocaust Museum) in contemplative silence.


Just a few days after we returned home I read a story in USA TodayWhile we in Israel a speech had been delivered in my adopted home state of Texas by the leader of the largest branch of American Judaism.


Rabbi Eric Yoffie blasted conservative religious activists, calling them “zealots” who claim a “monopoly on God” while promoting anti-gay policies akin to Adolf Hitler’s. Yoffie, president of the liberal Union for Reform Judaism, said “religious right” leaders believe “unless you attend my church, accept my God and study my sacred text you cannot be a moral person.”


Rabbi Yoffie’s comments seemed particularly sad coming off our experience at Yad Veshem in Jerusalem. I am a sometimes uncomfortable member of the evangelical community (I am probably on double secret probation) and I would dispute Yoffe’s comments.  I have never said that unless you attend my church, accept my God, or study my sacred text that you cannot be a moral person. I know moral people who are agnostics and Christians and Jews and Buddhists and Muslims and you name it. No religion has the exclusive franchise on morality. Christians do feel strongly that they need to communicate what they believe because Christians believe that it is true. That does not excuse behavior that does not reflect the grace of God.


In a later interview Mr. Yoffie said he meant to include all conservative faith activists including Jews. I will take him at his word. But he had other controversial things to say.


“We cannot forget that when Hitler came to power in 1933, one of the first things that he did was ban gay organizations,” Yoffie said.


I noted sadly that another thing that Hitler did early on was to begin to euthanize the disabled and mentally challenged. Under the banner of the greater good for all and quality of life these souls were snuffed out. I feel uniquely qualified to comment here. I am the father of a child that would have been euthanized by the standards of Nazi Germany (and the standards of many current ethicists) because of a severe birth defect. Katie was an amazing blessing to our family. I am sad and more than a little discouraged that a man in leadership would somehow link my commitment to the sanctity of life to barbaric behavior like I witnessed at the Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem.


But he said, overall, conservatives too narrowly define family values, making a “frozen embryo in a fertility clinic” more important than a child, and ignoring poverty and other social ills.


Who is saying that? I believe the message I try to communicate is that life is sacred and man is a poor arbitrator of when it can or should be ended.


You would think a Rabbi would understand better than most the slippery slope of value judgements on life that are based on prevailing cultural shifts. Perhaps a review of the Torah would be instructive.


Listen to me, you islands;
       hear this, you distant nations:
       Before I was born the LORD called me;
       from my birth he has made mention of my name.  Isaiah 49


The word of the LORD came to me, saying,  “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you,
       before you were born I set you apart;    Jeremiah 1


God seems to indicate that life began for Isaiah or Jeremiah before they were “viable”.


After leaving the Yad Veshem I decided to never again call anyone Hitler or any group Nazis. Can we agree to disagree without invoking such polarizing and inflammatory rhetoric? There is no Hitler that I have seen in the religious right. No one in that group deserves to be called Nazis. You have every right to argue with them and dispute their views. You hurt the cause with the name calling.


And one more thing. I left the Yad Vesham feeling deeply thankful for how much God has blessed me. It was a tough way to spend Thanksgiving. But I am grateful that I did.


One year later I am still feeling the effects of the Thanksgiving like no other.