Light emerging after dark past

By Stephen Pack, December 16, 2011

The day before Yom Kippur, we read in this newspaper about a number of couples who, some decades ago, had lost their children at or around the time of birth. These people had been wrongly informed at that time as to where their children's remains had been buried.

Today, it seems almost unimaginable that this could have been the case. That some of these events took place as long as 78 years ago does not diminish the pain that people have suffered; our sincerest sympathies and apologies go to all those who have been affected.

Despite the sadness of the story, a number of positive things have come about as a result. Perhaps most importantly, some dozens of people affected have come forward and been given real support.

In every case, the United Synagogue Burial Society has helped parents to identify the burial places of their lost children and to make the arrangements they wished for marking the sites. In addition, the US Chesed department has worked with leading experts to provide access to welfare and counselling support.

Today, there is a greater clarity then ever before in supporting those affected. The rabbinate and the Beth Din have contributed to the production of a booklet whose wide distribution will provide sensitive guidance to parents in the event of a miscarriage, stillbirth or neonatal death.

We want to ensure that this is never repeated

That sensitivity lies at the heart of the US response that "the United Synagogue Burial Society's overriding concern [is] that they will do everything they can to accommodate the sincere wishes of the grieving parents in accordance with halachah".

We must also acknowledge the positive contribution that the JC has made. Drawing attention to the events of the past effectively prompted the above developments. This is a fine example of journalism providing a real service to our community.

In contrast, however, last week's editorial assertion that the US report on the events of the past was a "whitewash" caused immense disappointment. The US found that it could not with certainty attribute blame to specific individuals. This surely should not have come as a surprise in connection with events that occurred over a period of half-a-century, with the most recent instance taking place more than 25 years ago.

Perhaps inevitably, the strength of feeling about this issue gave rise to strongly worded statements by both by the US and the JC. There is clearly disagreement over what can reasonably be expected in apportioning blame. However, such a disagreement should not descend into hyperbole. Our focus was, and remains, to ensure that these events can never be repeated and that crucial support is given to those who need it today.

We are approaching Chanucah, a festival of light. While no trite exposition can capture every nuance of a situation fraught with raw emotion, perhaps one simple thought is worthy of consideration.

Chanucah takes place during the darkest time of the year - not just physically but spiritually as well. We are a long way from both the elevation of Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur or Succot, and far from the liberation of Purim and Pesach. And yet, in the midst of the darkness we bring light.

We pray that none of us should experience the darkness of suffering. Should we do so, we hope that the whole community will shed some light by doing all they can to help. It is this approach that lies at the heart of the US's work in Jewish living, learning and caring.

Stephen Pack is the president of the United Synagogue

Last updated: 11:03am, December 16 2011