By Doron Krakow
David McCullough (1933-2022), among America’s most accomplished popular historians, authored a host of acclaimed works, including Pulitzer Prize-winning biographies of Presidents John Adams and Harry S. Truman. A lesser-known book, “Brave Companions: Portraits in History,” is a collection of mini biographies published in 1991, which profiled, among others, Alexander von Humboldt, Harry Caudill, and Harriet Beecher Stowe, extraordinary figures in U.S. history, yet considerably less famous. Though my memories of much of the content has faded with time, its essence remains with me – as does the notion that all of us, from time to time, find ourselves in the company of remarkable people whose lives and works have had an outsized influence on those around them. People we have been privileged to know and with whom we have shared portions of the journey along life’s long and winding road.
During my current visit to Israel, I have had the good fortune to spend time in the company of a number of precisely these kinds of special people.
Yefet Ozery was born in 1949 in the tiny Jewish village of Gadef, a two-week trip by donkey from Aden, then a British-controlled, Yemini seaport. He was the last Jewish baby born in Gadef before its entire population, among 50,000 Yemenite Jews, was airlifted to the newborn State of Israel as part of Operation Wings of Eagles, the name taken from Exodus 19, which chronicles the Jews’ flight from Egypt. Communities like Yefet’s had for countless generations called countries across the Arab world “home,” until the nations turned increasingly hostile to Jews following Israel’s independence.
The village was relocated to a hilltop outside Jerusalem, known today as Moshav (agricultural village) Givat Yearim, which is still home to more than 200 of the families that arrived there together in 1950. In his teens, Yefet wrote to David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s founding father, and to his great surprise, received a personal letter in reply. So began an exchange of 16 letters that produced a visit by Ben-Gurion to Yefet’s boarding school in Jerusalem. Their meeting and Ben-Gurion’s interest in his plans for the future sowed the seeds for a lifetime spent in service to the Jewish people at Hebrew University, the University of Haifa, and the Museum of the Jewish People in Tel Aviv. Yefet became a storyteller, a teacher, and a visionary leader. Serving also as a shaliach (emissary) of the Jewish Agency for Israel, he worked with abiding dedication on strengthening ties between the American Jewish community and Israel — with JCCs as the main platform for programs of every description.
Ankie De Jongh was born to a Catholic family in the Netherlands and grew up to become an accomplished fencer. In her early 20s, she participated in a masters fencing program led by Andre Spitzer, a 27-year-old Israeli and future coach of his country’s national fencing team. The two fell in love and were married in 1971, choosing to make their home in Israel, where Ankie later converted to Judaism. In the spring of 1972, their daughter, Anouk, was born, and that summer Andre traveled to Munich, where he was among the 11 Israeli Olympic team members murdered by Palestinian terrorists in what became known as the Munich Olympic Massacre.
Although her marriage spanned barely 18 months, Ankie Spitzer and fellow Olympic widow Ilana Romano – whose husband, Yosef, a weightlifter on that ill-fated Olympic team – waged an extraordinary, 50-year battle with the International Olympic Committee (IOC), which refused to include a moment of silence in memory of the Munich 11 at the opening ceremonies at any ensuing Olympic Games. They traveled the globe. Staged protests. Held press conferences. Met every IOC chairman as well as leaders of national Olympic committees from nations around the world — all to no avail.
Until last year.
As the 50th anniversary of the massacre approached, they achieved a breakthrough — the long-awaited moment of silence at the opening ceremonies in Tokyo.
Here in North America, the Munich 11 became a symbol of our movement’s commitment to Jewish peoplehood and the State of Israel. For more than 40 years, in dozens of North American Jewish communities, the opening ceremonies of every JCC Maccabi Games® has included a memorial program through which more than 100,000 athletes and perhaps a million others – coaches, community members, families, and guests – have taken the Munich 11 into their hearts and homes.
Nachman Shai became a household name in Israel during the first Gulf War in 1991, when he served as IDF spokesman. With Scud missiles falling on Tel Aviv and Iraq determined to make Israel pay a terrible price for the U.S. led coalition’s efforts to drive Iraq out of Kuwait, which the former had conquered in an unprovoked attack, Shai held the people of Israel in his arms. On television and radio, it was his voice that provided nightly reassurance as well as guidance and instruction regarding bomb shelters, safe rooms, and gas masks in the face of the nation’s justifiable fears not only of conventional warfare but of chemical and biological warfare as well. The nation’s people looked to Nachman – and he gave them both confidence and comfort in those perilous days.
Nachman’s long career in public service has included stints in the diplomatic corps and as press secretary to Israel’s U.N. delegation and its embassy in Washington, D.C., as well as service at the highest levels of the Israeli government. For nearly a decade he represented Jewish Federations of North America (known as United Jewish Communities – UJC at the time) in Israel, and today he serves as Israel’s minister for diaspora affairs in the government of Prime Minister Yair Lapid. His tenure began in the immediate aftermath of the Surfside, Florida, building collapse and has been marked by rising antisemitism across the globe, war in Ukraine, and the ongoing challenges of a global pandemic. Once more, his warmth, kindness, wisdom, and resolve are bringing comfort to Jews in crisis and inspiring confidence and pride in Israel’s commitment to the Jewish people. Today that includes a commitment to increasing Israel’s partnership with the JCCs of North America through a growing menu of new programs now in the pipeline.
My work somehow brought me into contact with each of them – Yefet, Ankie and Nachman – and I have been privileged to draw inspiration from their tireless dedication to our people and our history, to justice, and to safeguarding the miraculous State of Israel. Each one a giant in his or her own right. My brave companions.
President and CEO
JCC Association of North America