By Doron Krakow
It had been almost three months. I was last with my team in New York around a JCC Association board meeting in mid-September before heading to Israel to spend the High Holidays with my son, Aaron, daughter-in-law, Zoe, and new grandson, David. I returned at the end of Sukkot, but the start of the war and Aaron’s recall to active duty in the IDF had me back on a plane a day later—having promised him, having promised myself, that I would watch over his family until he returns home.
Over the past few years, I have been privileged to help build a remarkable professional team and am honored to work with an extraordinary board. Both are passionate about our work and dedicated to our mission to guide and support the JCCs of North America in pursuit of greater Jewish community and more vibrant Jewish life. Community building is retail work—most effectively undertaken face-to-face. That’s what gives our JCCs their unique advantage—welcoming more than 1.5 million people in person each week. Simply stated, once inside under the Jewish community’s big tent, the things we share matter more than those we don’t. Being together. Seeing one another. Knowing each other. That’s how bonds are formed.
But what happens when we’ve been apart for a while? Sometimes the bonds loosen. Certain memories fade. In the face of more limited contact, something narrower comes to the fore—an issue, a statement, an idea. And we begin to look at one another a bit differently.
I have to admit, I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect when I walked into the office on Tuesday morning. Naturally, owing to a bit of jetlag, I was the first to arrive in a dark and empty space, but it didn’t stay that way. As I had done on countless other days, I turned on the lights and made my way in. The jar with the blue ribbons was the first thing I saw—North American Jewry’s symbol of solidarity with the hostages and their families. Then there were the signs. And the flags. Before long, I was far from alone, and in the ensuing hours, every concern I’d had about how time and distance had affected the dynamic and connection between us disappeared in a sea of smiles, long embraces, and more than a few tears.
The JCC Association professional team is anchored in New York, but a third of us are based elsewhere—in D.C., St. Paul, Boston, Palo Alto, Pittsburgh, Montreal, and Israel. Periodically we gather for a week in the New York office. We call such gatherings, B’Yachad | ביחד | Together, and they are among the most important ways we build our own community. This was one of those weeks.
We marked the pending retirement of Andy Paller, who has led JCC Association’s benchmarking efforts for the last dozen years. We celebrated the remarkable tenure of Guy Sela, our movement’s central shaliach | שליח מרכזי | Israeli emissary. Our Board Chair David Wax and Vice Chair Adrienne Matros both flew in from California for the chance to see everyone; David committed to extending his gratitude to each member of the team personally. Retail community building at its finest.
I had several opportunities to address the staff and was privileged to salute both Andy and Guy. I shared thoughts about my extended time in Israel—pride in my son’s service in its defense and the fear I live with every hour of every day in which he serves in harm’s way. About what it has meant to be a daily part of Zoe and David’s lives. About the ordinariness of it all in Israel, where every family has a son or daughter in uniform and a family member or friend who needs a helping hand. Every family’s pride and every family’s fears.
The world we thought we were living in on October 6 turns out to have been something quite different. Not only was Hamas preparing its horrific onslaught, but a seething cauldron of hate was bubbling just below the surface. The slaughter, rape, torture, and mutilation of Israeli citizens in their own homes and at a concert for peace unleashed not a cascade of sympathy for Israel and outrage at the perpetrators but a wave of antisemitism akin to what Jews have faced across the ages and that had been largely unseen since the days of Nazi Germany. The world has changed, and the time has come for us to make clear where we stand.
Zionism was the response to generations of antisemitism and the absence of Jewish self-determination. Formally launched by Theodor Herzl at the first Zionist Congress in 1897, and affirmed by the United Nations on November 29, 1947, this extraordinary movement resulted in the declaration of Israel’s independence on May 14, 1948. Zionism is the national liberation movement of the Jewish people— committed to the establishment and upbuilding of a Jewish and democratic homeland with exclusive responsibility for the safety and security of its citizens. A world in which Jews have a state of their own is a world in which Jews, no matter where they make their homes, need not fear that they are defenseless or alone.
I stood before my staff on Tuesday morning and proudly reminded them that JCC Association is a Zionist organization. That we stand with Israel as it fights to restore the security of its people. That we will face the rising tide of antisemitism with resolve and determination. This is who we are.
And yet, I’m certain that for some members of this team, there are questions. Concerns raised about the war’s implications for civilians in Gaza, the complexities of the Middle East, occupation, Israel’s current government, the seeming confrontation between universalist causes—including climate change, race, identity politics—and our responsibilities to ourselves as Jews, all give us much to discuss. That too was a part of the message. That we are not simply open to such conversations, we welcome them. I welcome them. During my time in New York, my door will be open to any member of the team who simply wants to come and talk.
I’m certain that when all is said and done, questions will remain, as will some uncertainty, some discomfort. And that’s more than okay. We can and should be clear about who we are and what we stand for—as agencies and institutions. And we can and should expect those in our employ and those who serve in our leadership ranks to reflect those values and ideals in the course of their service. But we must also make room for questions and conversations and a commitment to continuing education. From time to time, individuals may come to believe that their paths lie elsewhere, and that is their right, their privilege. But they also have a right to expect us to be clear about what JCC Association is, and what it stands for so they can knowingly and honorably choose to be part of it and can make that choice with pride.
That’s what we talked about this week. JCC Association of North America—unequivocally Zionist and proudly standing with Israel. May the celebration of Hanukkah remind us of the long and extraordinary history of the Jewish people, and may we, together, illuminate the darkness as we join with family and friends to light the hanukkiah. Am Yisrael Chai | עם ישראל חי.
Shabbat shalom | שבת שלום
President and CEO
JCC Association of North America