When We Rise
This was a very busy week for JCC Association, the JCC Movement, and the Jewish world.
- Staff members from six JCCs (Oshman Family JCC, Palo Alto, California; David Posnack JCC in Davie, Florida; Roth JCC of Greater Orlando, Florida; New Orleans JCC, Louisiana; JCC Greater Boston, Massachusetts; and Shalom Austin JCC, Texas) were in Israel together as part of the Sheva Center’s Year of Intention, an initiative whose focus is professional development—21st-century skills seen through Jewish lenses. This was our first staff seminar in Israel in more than two years.
- Nearly 130 staff members from 25 JCCs participated in JPro22—Going Places, Together, the largest gathering in the North American Jewish community since the onset of the pandemic. Our people were among nearly 1,200 Jewish communal professionals representing 20 different sectors, including federations, congregations, foundations, day schools, summer camps, social service agencies, higher education, and organizations focused on the LGBTQ+ community, Jews of color, and many other facets in the Jewish world. The JCC Movement delegation was the largest yet to attend a JPro conference, and we reveled in our participation in the wider community of professionals dedicated to doing good, to doing more, to doing better.
- The Jewish world commemorated those lost in the Holocaust on השואה יום | Yom HaShoah | Holocaust Remembrance Day and those who gave their lives in defense of Israel on יום הזכרון | Yom HaZikaron | Israel’s Memorial Day; and on העצמאות יום| Yom HaAtzmaut | Israel’s Independence Day, we celebrated our freedom and independence as a sovereign people. Seventy JCCs hosted in-person community events, while dozens more gathered online to take part in global programs or the official ceremonies in Israel.
- A new rotation of JResponders traveled to the region to lend a hand in the ongoing efforts of our peer JCCs in Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania, and Moldova as they work tirelessly to meet the needs of Jews and countless others fleeing the ravages of war. Among them was Michael Katz, head counselor at Camp Gesher, part of the Shalom Institute in West Lake Village, California, and designed especially for campers with Russian-speaking Jewish families. He recently completed two weeks of volunteering in Budapest, Hungary, under the auspices of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) helping resettle Ukrainian refugees. Two former head counselors from Camp Gesher, Israelis Igor Gulman, now a camp director in Israel, and Asya Donik, also volunteered—resettling Ukrainians in Budapest last month. A third, Allison Gorokhovsky, is in Poland now, supporting refugees at the border and in Warsaw. Irina Kadaev, a member of the finance team at the Riverdale Y in New York City and herself an immigrant to the U.S. from Ukraine, will depart for Budapest this weekend.
I was at JPro22 in Cleveland much of the week, having served for several years as a member of the JPro board and representative of the more than 30,000 full and part-time, year-round staff members who are the backbone of our movement. Our own core commitment to greater Jewish community is predicated on our recognition of the need for each of us to be part of something greater than ourselves. To spend several days in the company of more than 1,000 of our peers from other movements, sectors, and organizations was an opportunity to network, share and learn. It was also uniquely meaningful to be together for moments of special significance to all of us.
Amidst a host of powerful, inspiring, and emotional moments, two found us—all 1,200 of us—rising to our feet.
JPro22 coincided with Yom HaZikaron and a meaningful tribute was included in the plenary gathering on Tuesday afternoon. One remarkable voice in that tribute was that of Gadeer Kamal-Mreeh, senior envoy of the Jewish Agency for Israel to Washington, D.C. A former member of the Knesset and a television news anchor, she is the first Druze to serve as a senior representative of the Jewish Agency. Her extraordinary patriotism is a product of her upbringing in the Druze village of Daliyat al-Karmel—the same village in which Naftali Herz Imber, the author of the 1878 poem that became the lyrics of “Hatikvah,” Israel’s national anthem, lived for a time. Among the Druze in Israel, more than 80% choose to serve in the IDF—a percentage even higher than that of Israel’s Jewish community. Near the close of her remarks, Kamal-Mreeh underscored one of the themes of the conference—our diversity as a nation and our commitment to inclusion, noting that she is a leader but not a man; a representative of Israel but not a Jew; an Arab but not a Muslim; and a proud, passionate Zionist honoring all those whose lives were lost in defense of her country.
For an instant, silence. Then in every corner of the huge ballroom, people rose to their feet—not only to acknowledge the lives lost but to celebrate an extraordinary leader and role model.
Later in that same plenary, we rose a second time for another extraordinary leader and role model: Ted Comet, the recipient of this year’s Mandelkorn Distinguished Service Award. Established in honor of Ben Mandelkorn, z”l, the first executive director of the Columbus Jewish Federation and director of the Columbus Jewish Foundation, the award honors those who have made significant and enduring contributions to the Jewish nonprofit field.
Volumes could be written about Ted, and I couldn’t hope to do justice to his life or his career across a dozen Friday messages, so I will simply say this: Ted has been a leader in the professional Jewish world for nearly 80 years. He began his career as a social worker, tasked with traveling to post-Holocaust Europe to support orphan survivors of the camps—broken children like Elie Wiesel, z”l, whom he met at an orphanage in France and who became a lifelong friend.
In the ensuing decades, Ted served the Jewish world as part of the American Zionist Youth Foundation, the Council of Jewish Federations, and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, among others. He was the creator of New York’s Salute to Israel Day Parade and its annual Israeli Dance Festival. He planned and coordinated general assemblies of the Jewish federation system—drawing tens of thousands of Jewish leaders throughout the 70s, 80s, and 90s into debate and deliberation about the major issues confronting the Jewish world—and the most effective ways to contend with them. Together with his wife, Shoshana, z”l, he became a teacher on critical elements of Holocaust education, a role he continues to play—as he approaches his 98th birthday—with passion, erudition, and love.
In conversation with incoming JPro board chair Aliza Kline, when he was asked what words of wisdom he might want to leave with the 1,200 assembled Jewish community professionals, he urged us never to forget that each of us is a work in progress, part of an ongoing journey of learning and growth, as we strive to reach ever-higher as professionals, as leaders, and as architects of the Jewish future.
Ted Comet has shaped and influenced countless careers—including mine. I don’t have the words to adequately describe my feelings as we rose once more…
Quite a week indeed. A week in which we were reminded how important it is to come together in person. To be part of something larger than ourselves: in Israel, on the borders of Ukraine, and in Cleveland, Ohio,—rising to the occasion each time.
President and CEO
JCC Association of North America
P.S. Yom HaZikaron honors the memory of those who gave their lives in defense of Israel—and those murdered in acts of terror against Israel. Today JCC Association of North America and the JCCs of North America join Israel and the Jewish world in mourning three heartbreaking additions to this roster of heroes. Yonatan Havakuk, z”l, Boaz Gol, z”l, and Oren Ben Yiftah, z”l, were massacred by Palestinian terrorists in the central Israeli city of Elad as they celebrated Yom HaAtzmaut late yesterday afternoon. They are survived by their widows and 16 children. עם ישראל חי | Am Yisrael Chai.