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Tuesday, May 21, 2024
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AU Hillel honors Holocaust victims during annual 24-hour name reading

Student leaders brought together over 25 campus organizations for Holocaust Remembrance Week event

American University Hillel hosted their 20th annual 24-hour name reading of those killed in the Holocaust as part of Holocaust Remembrance Week, which began April 8 and concluded April 12 this year. 

Beginning promptly at 11 a.m. April 10, readers took shifts reading names of those killed in the Holocaust. They continued through the day, and, while much of the campus slept, they read through the night until 11 a.m. the following morning. At the conclusion of the reading, two dozen students gathered to speak the traditional Mourner’s Kaddish.

Organizers said that for the event, they tried to balance mourning and remembrance with celebrating Jewish life, joy and culture. 

“We tried to make this week feel like a celebration, not only a commemoration of the dead but a celebration of the life,” said Jacob Pinto, Hillel’s HRW committee co-chair and sophomore in the School of Public Affairs.

Along with a name, readers included the deceased’s birthplace, birth year, death year and place of death. For many names, some of these details were listed as “unknown.” In the 24 hours, readers only got through about 18,000 names of the over six million Jewish people killed, according to Sam Makarczyk, a HRW committee member and freshman in SPA and the School of International Service.

In addition to reading names, participants had the opportunity to place rocks in front of six yahrzeit candles — long-burning Jewish memorial candles lit to mark the anniversary of one’s passing — in remembrance. Pinto explained that each candle represented one million of the Jewish people killed in the Holocaust.  

“In Jewish culture, instead of placing a flower on a loved one’s grave, we place rocks because they last longer and it’s very meaningful,” Makarczyk said. 

Naomi Fainchtein, the assistant director of AU Hillel, said that the week and the readings were important for the Jewish community on campus. 

“The Holocaust is a huge piece of who we are as a Jewish people, for better or worse. We do a lot here at Hillel focusing on Jewish joy, focusing on Jewish resiliency and Jewish identity and Jewish culture and trying not to lean into simply victimhood and sadness and all of the horrible things that have happened in Jewish history,” Fainchtein said. “But sometimes it’s really important to stop for a minute and to pause and to focus on what’s happened to us and to remember.”

Organizations like Alpha Epsilon Pi, AU Catholic, Students Supporting Ukraine, Chi Omega, Days for Girls, Students Supporting Israel and more signed up for hour-long slots and arrived in groups to take turns reading pages of names. Hillel’s HRW committee spent weeks reaching out to organizations on campus to sign up for reading slots, according to Pinto. 

Ellie Sweet, a co-chair of AU’s J Street U chapter and sophomore in SPA, took one of the first hour slots, reading on and off from 11:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. April 10. 

“I have family who died in the Holocaust; I like honoring them,” Sweet said. “When I read these names I’m always like ‘hmm, I wonder if my grandma knew this person.’” 

J Street is a nonprofit organization based in D.C. that advocates for and supports U.S. policies that “help secure the State of Israel as a democratic homeland for the Jewish people,” and believes Palestinians “deserve full civil rights and an end to the systemic injustice of occupation,” according to its website

Grace Milch, a member of the HRW committee and freshman in the College of Arts and Sciences, described reading overnight as “more relaxed of an environment because it was just us.” 

“I think it really spoke to [me] that it was just people who were choosing to be there overnight,” Milch said. “When you speak into the microphone [at night], it echoes across campus, and I don’t know why, but that just really stuck with me.”  

Fainchtein said the week is a little different every year, but the dedication from students shines through.

“It’s looked different in different iterations of student leadership, but the 24-hour name reading and a Shabbat — a memorial Shabbat at the end of the week — and usually some kind of speaker event are regular occurrences,” Fainchtein said. “With some of the other pieces changing as students have different ideas and different interests.” 

HRW is just one part of the AU Hillel’s programming and community. Pinto said the welcoming environment Hillel creates is a large part of why he became involved.

“Now we have thriving in one of the most amazing universities in the country, in the heart of our nation’s capital, a Jewish community that is coming together in times like this to commemorate next month’s Yom HaShoah. And this is why I joined Hillel,” Pinto said.

This article was edited by Kathryn Squyres, Zoe Bell, Tyler Davis and Abigail Turner. Copy editing done by Isabelle Kravis and Ariana Kavoossi. 

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