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West Hempstead synagogue holds Holocaust Remembrance Day ceremony

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Anti-Semitic assaults in the United States more than doubled last year, according to a recent report by the Anti-Defamation League. Incidents such as the Tree of Life Synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh last year, and the attack on the Chabad of Poway in San Diego last month, were referenced several times during a Holocaust Remembrance Day ceremony at Congregation Shaaray Shalom in West Hempstead on May 1.

“I think it’s important that we look back at what happened back then and ask what we can learn from it today,” said guest speaker Rabbi Joseph Potasnik, referring to the Holocaust, which his parents survived.

Potasnik, 72, the executive vice president of the state Board of Rabbis and a religious commentator for 1010 WINS radio, said that everyone has the responsibility to stand up against injustice and those who try to demonize others.

“It doesn’t matter whether you’re on the left or the right,” the rabbi said. “It doesn’t matter whether you’re in Congress or on campus. No one has the right to get away with it.”

The event was held in cooperation with the Holocaust Memorial and Tolerance Center of Nassau County, the Jewish Community Relations Council of Long Island and the Nassau County Commission on Human Rights. Rabbi Art Vernon, spiritual leader of Congregation Shaaray Shalom, said that it is important to reflect on anniversaries, such as the 80th anniversary of the start of World War II, to help people gain perspective.

“We cannot help but think about our own day and age and what an important message remembering the Holocaust brings to us in light of the events that seem to bombard us almost daily,” Vernon said.

County Executive Laura Curran shared statistics showing the public’s lack of knowledge about the Holocaust. She said that 31 percent of Americans, including 41 percent of millennials, believe that two million or fewer Jews were killed in the Holocaust. In addition, 66 percent of millennials do not know that Auschwitz was a concentration camp. Curran said she believed that conspiracy theories on social media are one of the contributors to this trend.

“Holocaust skepticism is terrifyingly, steadily growing,” she said. “We have to acknowledge the sober reality that we have not eradicated anti-Semitism from this world. We must call out and condemn the rise of white supremacist violence that is targeting Jews, and we must call out those same forces of bigotry using the tools of dehumanization that threaten Jews, alongside immigrants, Muslims and other minority groups.”

Nassau Police Commissioner Patrick Ryder said that the county has taken steps to address safety at places of worship, including security cameras and training sessions on emergency situations.

“Hatred has no place in Nassau County,” Ryder said. “We fight gangs, we fights opioids, we fight general crime, but the safety of all of those that come to pray in their places of worship is where we should spend our time. We have your back.”

State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli said that because of the increase in anti-Semitic incidents, this year’s ceremony took on renewed urgency and significance.

“To think that in 2019 that we would still be talking about synagogue shootings in Pittsburgh and California, we really have to shake our heads and say, ‘What is going on here?’” DiNapoli said. “This is a reminder for us, as citizens and people of goodwill, to not be indifferent, and to not turn the blind eye. We will be people of action.”

“There are those who seek to destroy us, but we are determined to live and love as proud Jews,” Potasnik said, “and, I would add, as proud members of every faith.”