Shep Englander — Federation Journal
When I was a teenager, my parents inherited an antique black and white portrait of my father’s grandparents, who lived in Eastern Europe until they perished at Auschwitz. My parents hung it in our dining room. In this portrait from around 1920, my great-grandfather’s face resembles mine, but he has a beard and wears a formal hat. My great-grandmother’s face is lined, her hair covered with a scarf. Both stare straight at the camera, making no effort to smile, exuding equal parts sadness and determination. They seem to understand the picture’s importance.
Last month, my mother gave the portrait to me. Now it hangs in our dining room. As they look out at me, my great-grandparents remind me of the heritage they have left me. The problem with caring about a heritage is that you are immediately faced with difficult questions—like what is worth preserving and how to preserve it.
Hanukkah commemorates the world’s first recorded battle to preserve a people’s freedom to practice their religious traditions—it is all about these difficult questions. The Maccabees rose up and overthrew assimilationist Greek forces who they believed would sever Jews’ connection to their traditions. Yet in the history behind the story, we find that the Maccabees’ fight against assimilation included killing other Jews—the assimilated, Hellenistic Jews.
As American Jews today, we live in what may be the most religiously tolerant society in world history. So it seems natural to see differing levels of observance as acceptable and to rely on the concept of pluralism to navigate between assimilation and tradition without resorting to extremism. The other half of the world’s Jews are Israeli Jews, who live in a society where pluralism is much less embraced. They live in a part of the world in which extremism triumphs over moderation.
If we want to preserve one Jewish people for our grandchildren and beyond, American Jews must lend our strengths, like our embrace of pluralism, to our family in Israel, just as we rely on Israel to strengthen our Jewish identities. This explains why our Federation invested some of the Israel-focused portion of the 2014 Community Campaign in new efforts to promote pluralism and moderation in Israeli society. We will be working with rabbis and congregations of all streams on this urgent work.
Here at home, Cincinnati 2020 provides a vision for us to become America’s most welcoming, connected, and collaborative Jewish community. A pressing priority is Cincinnati 2020’s Strategy for Young People and Careers, which helps young people thrive in Cincinnati. Right now, five organizations are collaborating on this initiative. This year, the Federation received an endowment gift to launch the Esther and Maurice Becker Networking and Mentoring Center, which will partner with others to provide a concierge to help talented Jewish young adults deepen their roots in Cincinnati. Our community also has a head start because of the Mayerson Foundation’s standout young adult outreach programs—ACCESS and Shalom Family. Importantly, last year JVS (Jewish Vocational Services) reorganized to focus solely on career services and will be launching new strategies in partnership with the Federation and The Jewish Foundation of Cincinnati. Finally, UC and Miami Hillels will be launching local new internship opportunities. Very few cities can do this—have five independent organizations collaborate on a shared vision. That’s what sets us apart.
The second initiative is Create Your Jewish Legacy (CYJL)—our community-wide effort to help local congregations and agencies build endowments that can sustain them into the future. In September we launched CYJL with 12 teams—six local agencies, our two community day schools, and four congregations. The CYJL program will provide them essential training and support. Coordinated by the Federation, CYJL is funded by generous special gifts from several committed families as well as a crucial grant from The Jewish Foundation.
I hope and trust my great-grandparents would be glad to know about how our community brings our heritage into our commitments to a strong Jewish future.
It’s your commitment and leadership that make Cincinnati strong. Thank you for making this a community where I am proud to work and grateful to raise my family.
Wishing you and your family a warm and relaxing Hanukkah,
Shep Englander, CEO
Jewish Federation of Cincinnati