Reaching Out to the Unaffiliated; Honoring Pooch Power


By Masha Leon

Published February 21, 2003, issue of February 21, 2003.
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As the orchestra played a waltz, the black-tie crowd filed into the Waldorf-Astoria’s ballroom for the National Jewish Outreach Program’s annual dinner February 4. Master of ceremonies and philanthropist Sam Domb — a Holocaust survivor introduced by NJOP founder Rabbi Ephraim Buchwald as “a close and constant advisor to Prime Minister Sharon” — labeled the pace of Jewish assimilation “a bloodless Holocaust.” Buchwald founded NJOP in 1987 to help stem assimilation. To date, its programs have served 660,000 participants in 30 countries and 3,580 locations in North America.

Standing beneath a giant photo projection of Israeli astronaut Ilan Ramon, Buchwald quoted from an essay — written before the space shuttle tragedy — by Israeli author Solly Ganor: “While Colonel Ramon was a great Israeli hero, Ramon’s mother, an Auschwitz survivor, was a hero of no lesser distinction.” Ganor, a Holocaust survivor, once served as an interpreter for a British psychiatrist, Colonel Woodhouse, sent to evaluate the mental state of Jewish concentration camp survivors. According to Ganor, Woodhouse claimed that based on the severity of the trauma suffered by Jewish survivors, he saw no hope for them. “They would never be able to live normal lives, get married and have children.” Concluded Ganor: “Well, Colonel Woodhouse, allow me to introduce you to Mrs. Ramon, an Auschwitz survivor who not only got married and brought children into the world, but brought up a son that anyone in the world would be proud to call his own.”

I was delighted to hear my friend Solly Ganor quoted at this event. We first met in 1994 on a special mission to Yoatsu, Japan, to honor Chiune Sugihara. Sugihara was the Japanese consul in Kaunas, Lithuania, who in 1940, against his government’s orders, issued 2,139 life-saving visas (including my mother’s and mine). As an 11-year-old in 1939, Ganor met Sugihara and invited him to his home in Kaunas for a Chanukah celebration. The Ganors were unable to get one of these visas and were trapped in the Kaunas ghetto. Solly Ganor survived Dachau and a death march and was rescued by a Japanese-American soldier.

To underscore the unbroken chain of Jewish tradition and continuity, Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau, Ashkenazic chief rabbi of Israel and the evening’s keynote speaker, imagined the following scenarios: Socrates arrives at the Athens airport, but the baggage handler “neither speaks the same language, nor has the same faith.” Julius Caesar lands at Rome, “Vini, vidi, vici; his Latin is not the Italian of today and it is not the Rome of Caesar but of Fellini. Where once stood a statue of Jupiter now stands the Vatican.” Then: “An old man lands at Ben-Gurion airport and says to the baggage handler, ‘Shalom Aleichem.’ ‘Aleichem Shalom’ comes the reply. ‘Who are you?’ the man asks. ‘I’m Moshe.… I know this is the land of my people… but I forgot my tefillin.’ ‘Take mine,’ says the worker.… Same tefillin… same language as 3,300 years ago,” Lau said with a smile.

* * *

Jerry Orbach, star of the NBC television series “Law & Order” and his wife Elaine, were honored at Bide-A-Wee’s February 3 Centennial gala dinner-dance at the Pierre Hotel. Chairman Elizabeth Cooke announced that since its beginning one hundred years ago, “Bide-A-Wee has found homes for more than one million abandoned and abused dogs, cats, puppies and kittens.”

Bide-A-Wee alumna Natasha, a Russian husky, and Miss Coco, a poodle, that work as therapy pets at geriatric, rehabilitation and special residences for the disabled were honored, as was a 9-year-old German shepherd named Police Officer Sean. This dog was instrumental in rescuing a gang-rape victim and capturing six suspects in Flushing Meadows, Queens, in December.

When I mentioned the Bide-A-Wee event to Rabbi Joseph Potasnik, president of the New York Board of Rabbis (and owner of a golden retriever), he cited the Judaic injunction tzar bal chayim, compassion for animals. He recalled: “The late Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach was once asked if animals have souls. Carlebach replied: ‘Animals don’t have souls. They give their souls to their masters.’”

* * *

Black-Jewish relations was the theme of the panel discussion held February 6 at the 92nd Street Y. Participants Rabbi Marc Schneier, president of the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding, and hip-hop impresario Russell Simmons, the foundation’s secretary, addressed the shared values and shared dreams of African Americans and Jews and the need to be more sensitive and open to issues of concern to the respective communities. “The threats of political terrorism and religious extremism remind blacks and Jews that we may not share a common faith but we share a common fate,” Schneier told the 500-strong crowd. Following the discussion, the audience was treated to a screening of “Strange Fruit,” a documentary about the famed protest song of the same name about lynchings of blacks in the South. The song was composed by Abel Meeropol, an American Jew, and was made famous by Billie Holiday.

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