Strains of somber organ music resonated in the large sanctuary as the eight Holocaust survivors told their stories. As each spoke about horrors endured, loved ones lost and, ultimately, faith reclaimed, the congregation punctuated their speeches with murmurs of "Thank You, Jesus."
Clearly, this was no ordinary Holocaust memorial. The survivors spoke as part of the First Annual Varian Fry Committee of Concerned Christians Awards at the Church on the Way, a prominent Pentecostal church located in the San Fernando Valley. Co-sponsored by Stephen S. Wise Temple, the educational gathering brought together more than 900 Christians of seemingly every color and age, as well as some Jewish guests, to honor Holocaust survivors and their rescuers.
"I was blown away," said Dean Jones, one of the event organizers. "I never expected the survivors to be so spiritually dynamic and to bring so much hope to that congregation."
Jones, a veteran actor (his credits include "The Love Bug" and "Clear and Present Danger") and member of the Church on the Way, said that he expected the event to serve as a model for similar ones nationwide. As spokesperson for the 8-year-old Committee of Concerned Christians (CCC), he sees Christian awareness and involvement as critical in the fight against anti-Semitism. Recognizing the history of Jewish persecution and noting that much of it came from people professing to be good Christians, Jones firmly believes in the work of the Committee in curbing anti-Semitism worldwide.
"It's mind-boggling that the Holocaust happened in this century," said Jones. "I believe that Christian people who really want to follow Christ have a lot of credibility to regain with Jewish people the world over."
The CCC's main goal is education. Most of the organization's efforts are directed toward providing instructional materials for schools and churches throughout the country. These include "The Diary of Anne Frank" as well as educational videos on the Holocaust. Funding comes from private donors.
Co-founded by Los Angeles Jewish businessman Ben Friedman, CCC has enlisted more than 2,000 Christian priests and ministers of all denominations. These clergymen have agreed to devote at least one sermon a year to teach about the Holocaust and the dangers of anti-Semitism.
Acknowledging the limitations of the organization, Jones said: "It's true that the skinheads are not going to be sitting in church, hearing a sermon on the dangers of anti-Semitism. However, if the religious community is sensitized and united, and they take a firm stance against any outbreaks of intolerance, I believe that anti-Semitism can be contained."
According to Friedman, the organization's biggest obstacle today is the indifference of Jews. Friedman said that Jewish media and organizations have been resistant to publicizing his group.
Indeed, many in the Jewish community wonder why Jews should bother lauding steps that should have been made long ago.
"How much Jewish blood had to be shed before a major figure in Christianity finally debunked a belief that has been either implicitly or explicitly passed on for centuries?" said one local Jewish activist, who did not wish to be named.
"The beneficiaries of this are the Jews," countered Friedman. But he stressed that "the real goal of CCC is for Christians to understand that they have to appeal to Christians to solve the problems of Christians hating Jews for the last 1,600 years."
Ebi Gabor, one of the survivors who spoke at the church gathering, concurred. She was 16 years old when she was taken to Auschwitz from her upper-middle-class home in Hungary. "Churches are the most influential, and the most convincing. We need their help to educate people about what happened," she said.
Almost every seat was filled in the church on June 4. A large gospel choir stood at the back of the pulpit, while a five-piece band played on the side. The stage was flanked by two large video screens that projected words to hymns and psalms.
In his opening prayer, Dr. Jack Hayford, senior pastor of the Church on the Way, invoked, "the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of God, and Ruach HaKodesh." As he spoke, many congregants murmured words of praise or raised their arms and heads upward in prayer.
Throughout the evening, the mood was somber yet uplifting. The attendees were clearly disturbed by an intensely graphic 15-minute clip from the miniseries "War and Remembrance," of the journey from the cattle cars to the gas chambers of Auschwitz.
Cantor Nathan Lam of Stephen S. Wise Temple, who helped initiate plans for the event a year ago, sang "Sim Shalom." After the proceedings, Lam recalled that his initial concern about the group's intentions were unnecessary. "It was truly an evening of spiritual brotherhood, with everyone respecting the other's religious beliefs and being moved by the other person's sincerity."
There are tentative plans between the two congregations for a "thanksgiving" event, either during Sukkot or during the actual November holiday.
Rabbi Eli Herscher spoke about his own background (his family left Germany in 1935) and noted that the key to the evening lay in the fact that "we are here, Jews and Christians, as partners in memory." Both he and Lam received standing ovations.
Named for the first American to be given recognition by Israel as Righteous Among the Nations, the Varian Fry awards were presented to Barbro Osher, Consul General of Sweden, in recognition of her country's work in saving the lives of thousands of Jews during the Holocaust, and to Dr. Marcel Verzeano, an associate of Varian Fry who helped smuggle thousands of people out of Vichy France.
Hayford spoke of how only "halfway into the 40 years of [his] ministry" did he learn about the history of anti-Semitism in Christian tradition. "I didn't know that the viciousness of the Inquisition, the Crusades or other pogroms were often conducted in the name of Christ."
He stressed the importance of education and awareness in combating intolerance, ignorance or just apathy, especially by those who consider themselves true Christians.
"The Bible teaches us that repentance is what you do when you finally understand. And that's what we're trying to do, now that we finally understand," he said.
For more information on CCC, call (818) 848-3442.
Shlomit Levy is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer.
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