Stretching the boundaries of community

Stretching the boundaries of community

Marla Cohen is a freelance writer. She lives in Rockland County.

Two years ago, when JCC Rockland’s board of directors decided to dedicate hosting their Maccabi Games to the memory of the 11 Israeli athletes murdered at the Munich Olympics in 1972, I could no more have imagined that this would thrust the JCC and our community onto a world media stage.

I always thought dedicating the games to the memory of the athletes was appropriate; after all, the JCC Association had made remembering the Munich 11 a part of the games since 1998. And Rockland’s hosting was going to coincide with the 40th anniversary of those horrific events in Munich. What better way to pay tribute to these men than to make them central to our games?

But to think then that our community was going to bring attention to a very out-of-date cause didn’t seem realistic. In April, when we started promoting the online petition to gain a minute of silence at the XXX Olympiad in London, it seemed no more obtainable than a trip to the another galaxy.

For many, the story is familiar: Working with Munich widows Ankie Spitzer and Ilana Romano and the other Munich family members, the JCC’s CEO David Kirschtel, and board members Micki Leader and Steve Gold managed to get right in the face of the International Olympic Committee. More than 110,000 people from around the world signed. For many, this issue had become one of basic justice.

The IOC refused. But we saw that we are only limited when we fail to dream.

Then the community turned around and proved this all over again by hosting successfully the JCC Maccabi Games the following week.

While the minute of silence campaign was brash and brought some incredible attention to our community and to the J, the games proved something so fundamental that it simply sounds trite writing it: That working together we can accomplish great things; stuck in our silos, we will continue to founder.

I was at Rockland Community College every day during the games running the JCC Maccabi Times, a daily newspaper that was meant to be a non-athletic option for teens wanting to participate. I had two reporters, one my daughter, who had some misgivings.

Each day, I watched JCC staff and hundreds of volunteers create a micro-community that was filled with activity and a sense of purpose. The result was a positive Jewish experience for more than 1,200 Jewish teens who will probably carry their memories with them into adulthood.

When my daughter said she was glad she had participated and that it had been a lot of fun, I felt enormous relief. I was worried that I had dragged my family unwillingly into some personal mishegas that included hosting two girls from England for 10 days, longer than the requisite five that would have accommodated domestic athletes.

We ended the week with Shabbat dinner for 23 people, including visiting family members of one of our Maccabi swimmers. It was just the right finale, leaving me with the feeling that we can make our Jewish community stretch to include everyone (even when it’s a really tight fit).

It’s a message we need to consider. The games enabled our community to work toward a common goal. We succeeded beyond our imaginations because we put aside our institutional biases. Working in unison bred success.

This past year has been a tough one for Jewish Rockland. Reuben Gittelman Hebrew Day School closed; the Jewish Federation of Rockland County shuttered its newspaper; our shuls continue to struggle for membership and meaning among a younger generation; and the Rockland Jewish Community Campus, while outwardly successful, continues to grapple with crushing debt.

In 2007, we opened the doors to the campus in West Nyack. More than 5,000 people showed up on opening day, and there is great pride in a place that is used by a wide-variety of people, from the “just Jewish” to the “black hat” Orthodox.

The games were meant to showcase not only the JCC’s programs, but also that we have a strong, vibrant Jewish community. We do, but sometimes we shirk from pitching in together, because it remains easier to tend our own gardens and pretend that we do not need our neighbors because they didn’t join our synagogue, or for that matter, any synagogue.

This month, we have a new newspaper and we have a new day school. I hope that each receives the support that it deserves. The community needs both: a Jewish newspaper provides a basic level of community connection and this particular day school provides an educational option to Jews of varying backgrounds.

During the month of Elul, we blow the shofar as a spiritual wake up call each day. Tishrei and the Days of Awe are nearly upon us. As we reflect on the year behind us, we should bear in mind both our successes and our failures.

Our successes remind us that we have the capacity to achieve great things. But our failures caution us that we need to find better ways to sustain our institutions so that they endure.

We don’t want the minute of silence campaign, or for that matter, hosting the JCC Maccabi Games to be among the last of our successes. Instead, they should serve as peaks from which we can view the possibilities for tomorrow.

Marla Cohen is editor of the Rockland Jewish Standard.