My mother, Ruth Epstein, now nearly 87, worked her way up from volunteer to executive director at our Jewish Community Center in Deal, New Jersey. A brilliant, intuitive woman with four children and two degrees, she founded the youth employment program, ran the older adult group, managed the senior center and pretty much everything else before being appointed assistant executive director. She remained in that position for years as men were brought in from the outside for the top job. Fifteen years after she arrived, the board finally put her in charge.
She was an amazing role model for her children in an era of stay-at-home moms. A natural leader, she shone at the podium with impossibly clear diction and polished delivery. As far back as I can remember, she was running programs and study groups for the local chapters of Hadassah and the American Association of University Women, and organizing lectures of celebrities such as David Niven, Olivia de Havilland and others at the local college. By day, she was a scout leader and class parent.
One of my favorite childhood memories is watching this radiant woman with mischevious sapphire eyes and a knockout smile carefully dress to go out for a meeting. I loved the way she glided through our suburban ranch house in heels, all smiles, on her way out. It was even better when she returned: To my child’s mind, whenever she came back from a meeting, she announced: “They made me president.”
Her leadership of other organizations was eventually set aside as the Jewish Community Center—in addition to her children—became her life’s work. Fortunately for our family, the JCC was but a mile from our house, and over time, it became our home away from home. My father, a physicist, was very supportive of his wife’s career, and we kids were minor royalty at the JCC, where the staff was like family. We participated in every youth program from theater to sports, and made friends of all kinds. One of my brothers even met his future wife there.
My mother worked hard to unite a newly diverse Jewish community, which included a growing number of Syrian Jews from Brooklyn who had moved to the predominantly Ashkenazi Jersey Shore. She made them feel welcome and included at the JCC.
Her greatest strength was that she cared about people and that they knew it. Dedicated to the Jewish community in an inclusive way that was far ahead of its time, she brought everyone together to raise funds to expand the JCC’s services and building. She believed—as she taught her children—that you could accomplish anything if you set your mind and heart to it.
My mother retired in 1990 and over the past year, that spark that I have always so admired has largely vanished. Suffering from Parkinson’s and aphasia brought on by a stroke, the woman who once gave speeches has fallen silent. Only occasionally does she say a word.
The JCC, to which she gave so much, has also fallen upon hard times. Unable to keep up with mortgage payments, it may close its doors, a victim of a divided Jewish community, among other misfortunes. I’m not sure anyone has actually told my mother, but I think she knows. I can see it in her eyes.
The kinds of deep divisions between Jews with different values and goals that have led, in part, to the problems at my hometown JCC—an organization that was created to bring Jews together—also pervade the Jewish community on a national and international level. It behooves us to care enough about each other to understand and transcend our differences. That’s why Moment goes out of its way to offer a broad array of opinions.
In this issue we ask what may be the most explosive question around: What does it mean to be pro-Israel today? It is rarely asked in public forums because it leads to disagreement and upsets people. Ignorance seems preferable to disagreement.
We pose this question because it needs to be asked today. It’s been around, in one form or another, since the mid-20th century, when the State of Israel was established. Its origins hark back to the pre-statehood struggle between Zionists, who believed in non-violence, and Revisionist Zionists, who advocated the use of force. It may be an old battle in new guise, but it is still a battle—of words backed up by vast amounts of passion and money.
And so we present a range of thinkers from John Mearsheimer to Marty Peretz and Benny Morris to Amos Oz. I ask you to read the entire symposium for its range and nuance. Before you do, be aware that some responses will speak to you and others will not. Also take note: We have included opinions from an Israeli Arab and a Palestinian-American. Our rabbis in our Ask the Rabbi section also weigh in on this important question. Send your letters to firstname.lastname@example.org.
There’s plenty of Israel coverage in this issue, including one of the most complex topics to be covered so far in our series on Arab Citizens in Israel. Israeli reporter David Green interviews Knesset member Ahmad Tibi, civil rights attorney Hasan Jabareen and others, and lays out the political challenges at the heart of the relationship between Arabs and Jews living in Israel. Our Jewish Word section examines sabra, the Hebrew moniker for native-born Israelis that seems to be fading from use.
Our profile of Judith Leiber, the iconic handbag designer who survived the Nazi occupation of Hungary, will leave you with much to think about as will our story about the Jews of Alaska. Until I read it, I had no idea that Jews played such a major role in the development of the 49th state! And speaking of the Last Frontier, please join me on Moment’s cruise to Alaska this July. We’ll have many stimulating speakers along for the ride, and I’m looking forward to spending time with you!