One might expect a Yom HaShoah event attended by 70 Holocaust survivors to be a somber gathering. Of course, no one understands the significance of Holocaust Remembrance Day more than the people who lived through the horrors of 1933-1945. However, the tone of the Yom HaShoah luncheon, a program of Schechter Holocaust Service’s Café Hakalah, earlier this month was far from melancholy. While there were moments of serious reflection and sadness, the overarching spirit of the event was one of resilience and optimism.

Held in a beautiful function room in Congregation Kehillath Israel in Brookline, the Yom HaShoah luncheon was a lively affair. The room buzzed with energy as guests chatted with each other in English, Russian, Yiddish, Hebrew and even Spanish. As the guests trickled in, they were greeted with hugs and kisses on the cheek by staff members of JF&CS Schechter Holocaust Services, including Café Hakalah Brookline manager Sue Spielman, who organized the event. Café Hakalah hosts monthly gatherings for survivors, so recurring guests get to know one another and the event organizers.

“We love to see our friends,” said Elizbeth Sosman, one of the guests at the Yom HaShoah luncheon. Her sentiments were echoed by Bert and Helen Katz, who said, “Being with Jews and being with others,” were their favorite parts of attending Café Hakalah events.

“A Prayer, a Promise, a Vow”

Once all the guests had arrived, Lora Tarlin, the director of Schechter Holocaust Services, welcomed everyone to the event and delivered thoughtful remarks about Holocaust Remembrance Day. “The observance of Yom HaShoah,” said Tarlin, “reminds us of the importance of Jewish peoplehood.”

Reflecting on the recent attack on the synagogue in Poway, California, Tarlin noted that the difference between today and 1940s Europe is “this time we have a close partnership with the local and federal law enforcement…they stand behind us and protect us.” Tarlin’s words were repeated in Russian by a translator, Stella Pasternak, to ensure that the guests, many of whom hail from the former Soviet Union, could follow along.

Quoting the late Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel, Tarlin said, “Never again becomes more than a slogan: It’s a prayer, a promise, a vow.” Many survivors nodded and repeated, “Never again,” as Sue Spielman lit a memorial candle in honor of the 6 million Jewish people who perished during the Holocaust.

Wonderful Volunteers

After the ceremony, the guests looked from the past to the future as preschoolers from Kehillath Israel arrived to sing songs in Hebrew and English. The faces of the guests lit up as the children sang, “Turn to your neighbor and say shalom!”

The luncheon food was served by a group of outgoing volunteers, many of whom belonged to the Harvard Hillel and the Houghton Mifflin Harcourt publishing company.

Matt, a sophomore at Harvard University, explained that he runs the tikkun olam programming at Hillel, and he came across the Café Hakalah luncheon online. “This seemed like a cool opportunity to get involved,” said Matt. “Helping survivors is something that is important to Jewish people of all denominations.”

Jackie, a volunteer with Houghton Mifflin, was also excited to help out at the luncheon. “This is a really unique experience; something we typically don’t get to do,” she said. “We have a partnership with JF&CS, and this is our third consecutive year volunteering.”

Preserving Memories, Enjoying Today

This year, Café Hakalah offered guests at the Yom HaShoah luncheon a special treat—the opportunity to get a free portrait taken by a professional photographer. Nicole O’Connor of Shanachie Studios graciously volunteered her services, recreating a studio setting in a corner of the room.

The portraits were a big hit with the guests, who flocked to the photo station in droves. In a few weeks, everyone who sat for a portrait will receive a complimentary, framed picture from the event. “We are so thrilled to be able to offer portraits to our guests,” said Spielman. “It just makes people feel special to have their picture taken, and Nicole has such a great rapport with everyone.”

The portraits were a natural fit for the Yom HaShoah lunch because they perfectly encapsulated the theme of the event—remembering the past while living in the present. Seventy survivors gathered at Congregation Kehillath Israel to commemorate the tragedy of the Holocaust, but also to enjoy being with each other, being with their community, in the here and now.

Tania Lefman, one of the guests at the Yom HaShoah luncheon, said it best: “I love bonding with my people. I am still alive, and it makes me feel good to come here.”

To learn more about our monthly gatherings for Holocaust survivors in Marblehead, Brookline and Worcester, visit our Café Hakalah page. For questions about Café Hakalah Brookline, please contact Sue Spielman at 781-693-5659 or sspielman@jfcsboston.org.

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