By Doron Krakow
Beyond Their Wildest Dreams
What a remarkable few weeks it’s been. The broad and diverse nature of Jewish life and Jewish community have been largely front and center for me as I continued my JCC visits traveling from St. Louis to Minneapolis and St. Paul. From Kansas City to Palo Alto. Across South Florida and Greater Washington, D.C., with time at several New York metropolitan area JCCs as well. That every JCC is a unique reflection of local circumstances, leadership, and opportunities has long been clear. Still, it is hard to properly understand and appreciate that uniqueness until it is seen up close. Until you walk the facilities, talk to staff and board members, and meet with Jewish community leaders. Oh, but when you do…
The JCC Movement is a network of unrivaled scope and proportion. In nearly every instance, the most significant Jewish community real estate in the area it serves. We are the largest employer. The most prominent point of contact for the broadest and most diverse population of Jews—and a critical grass-roots platform for community relations with our wider circle of friends and neighbors. In every community, we are unique. And uniquely important.
While out on the road, I find myself reflecting on our role in Jewish community life and on this particular moment in Jewish history—the moment in which we lead and chart the course for the moments to follow. When speaking before staff or board meetings, I frequently share my assessment that we are living and leading at perhaps the high point of Jewish history since the destruction of the Second Temple. As powerfully woven into the principles of Zionism 3.0 (Z3), founded at the Oshman Family JCC in Palo Alto, CA—we live at a time of both Jewish sovereignty and an unrivaled Jewish diaspora.
We’re on the cusp of a new calendar year that will include the celebration of the 75th anniversary of the founding of the State of Israel—the fulfillment of millennia of Jewish longing and the crowning achievement of the modern Zionist movement. Israel’s independence emboldens and empowers Jews and Jewish communities everywhere—as in its orbit, we are free to determine the course of our own lives, a dramatic change of station for Jews, following 100 generations of dependence, subjugation, and reliance on others.
Here in Canada and the United States, we have achieved unsurpassed success and prosperity in every human endeavor. Science and the arts. Business and industry. Education, media, service, and in the worlds of politics and diplomacy. What hopes for themselves and their progeny were held by our parents, grandparents, or great-grandparents when they first came to these shores? Could they, , in their wildest imaginations, have dreamt of what we today have become?
I was thinking about that with respect to my family this past Monday as I made my way to Washington, D.C. My mother, two uncles, and grandparents fled Latvia and the oncoming Holocaust in September of 1939—the Second World War already underway. They were among the last to make it out. My grandfather, on my father’s side, fled Kishinev in 1909 in the aftermath of a wave of pogroms which heralded one of the bloodiest periods in our long, troubled history—a period of vicious and merciless assaults against Jews not much spoken of these days as it was overshadowed by the depths of the Nazi darkness that followed not long thereafter.
What was it they sought—these two sides of my family? A safe haven? Some quiet and peace to rebuild their lives and raise their children? They sought freedom—and hoped for more. Some comfort, perhaps. Some prosperity. The chance to provide the next generation with a life better than their own. Simple dreams—but emerging from the bubbling cauldron of hatred and vulnerability they left behind—grand hopes and aspirations.
They were with me in my heart as Janet (my wife), and I arrived at the White House—at the invitation of the President of the United States, Joe Biden, and First Lady, Dr. Jill Biden. Among several hundred Jewish leaders, we had been invited to celebrate Hanukkah with them. Imagine that! The leader of the free world made a point of hosting a grand celebration of a wondrous Jewish miracle—the triumph of the Maccabees. There, in the East Room of the White House, the candles of the Hanukkiah | חנוכייה were lit, and the blessings were sung—followed by a rousing chorus of Ma’oz Tzur | מָעוֹז צוּר | Rock of Ages. Senators and diplomats. Celebrities and key figures in the administration. Together with leaders of countless Jewish community agencies and organizations.
It wasn’t the first such celebration hosted by the President at the White House. That august occasion took place in 2001, just weeks after 9/11, with President George W. Bush. In his remarks that evening he told his assembled guests that “America and Israel have been through much together…We can see the heroic spirit of the Maccabees lives on in Israel today, and we trust that a better day is coming, when this Festival of Freedom will be celebrated in a world free of terror.” The tradition begun that evening has been embraced and continued by every president since.
What would they have thought—my Grandpa Tevye and my Grandma Rose? What would my Grandpa Benny have said? They fled the flames for the safety of these shores, escaping with their very lives—and their grandson, as representative of the Jewish Community Center Movement, was a guest of the President of the United States for the celebration of Hanukkah.
Hanukkah is a festival of miracles—and of dreams come true. Chag Urim Sameach | חַג אורים שמח—Happy Festival of Lights.
President and CEO
JCC Association of North America
On the morning of December 23, 1947, the S.S. Unafraid, a two-masted motor schooner carrying 880 immigrant survivors from Europe, was intercepted by four British navy destroyers 90 miles southwest of Haifa. The passengers and crew, including 150 children, were taken into custody and subsequently deported to a British detention camp in Cyprus, where they would remain until after May 14 and the end of the British Mandate over Palestine—Independence Day for the State of Israel. Among those detained was American Jewish author and journalist Meyer Levin. And that’s the way it was…