Tuesday, April 30, 2019
I have visited Yad Vashem (Israel's Holocaust Memorial) several times and have always found it to be a moving memorial that makes me thankful for my life in the United States and the existence of the State of Israel. At nearly every turn, with every sculpture, garden, and stone, the memorial teaches visitors a lesson. The segment of the memorial that I find most moving is the sculptures by Nathan Rappaport found in the central courtyard because they represent the dichotomy of the Jewish experience before and after the Holocaust.
The sculpture found on the right (when facing the courtyard from the entrance) titled “The Last March” is carved on a flat panel and is recess mounted on a brick wall. It depicts Jews marching with their belongings, hunched over, their faces filled with sorrow, grief, and fear. It represents a time when Jews in Europe fell victim to the false security provided by a heightened sense of influence In the face of government sanctioned genocide, they – as the sculpture portrays – quickly found that influence does not equal power, safety or security.
The second sculpture, on the left, is titled "The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising," which depicts seven figures, gathered around the central figure of Mordecai Anielewicz, one of the leaders of the uprising. The towering sculpture stands alone, disconnected from the walls of Yad Vashem, not relying on anything other than its foundation for support. It represents the Jewish fighter, the one that fought back, that would assume the mantle of self-determination, and would eventually, establish the State of Israel. The Jew portrayed in the Warsaw Uprising Sculpture would guarantee that there would never again be a homeless Jew, a Jew that had to live under persecution, a Jew that did not have a community, and ultimately that Jews would never again allow their existence to be determined by others.
Rappaport's sculptures also embody the resiliency of the Jewish people. Jews have survived every fire of history from the destruction of the first and second temples to the inquisition, to the pogroms, and the Holocaust. We survived because survival was not and has never been the ultimate ambition. Merely surviving implies that our only goal has been to stay alive. Our objectives have always been and are greater than survival. We, as a Jewish people, have a metaphysical, generational, drive aimed at growth, strength, and innovation from generation to generation.
This week, when our community gathers for our local commemoration of Yom HaShoah, we will once again commit to "Never Forget" those who perished in the Holocaust and at the hands the scourge of hatred and bigotry. We should also "Never Forget" a time when, despite calls for intervention on behalf of the Jews of Europe, no one came forward. We should "Never Forget" the turning back of the St. Louis. We should "Never Forget" a time when seemingly good, G-d fearing people, turned a blind eye to the mass extermination of their coworkers and neighbors. We should also "Never Forget" about the importance and relevance of the State of Israel in ensuring that we will never again allow the world to sit idly by while Jews are persecuted. We will never again be sheep to the slaughter. We will never again be homeless. We will stand on our foundation with faces of strength, self-determination, and empathy for those living under the anvil of oppression.
Todd Polikoff, JCBA CEO
Tuesday, April 16, 2019
Passover is a Time for Introspection
As a Jewish community, we have reached the time of year that provides us with a great opportunity to re-evaluate our problems. While Yom Kippur – the day of atonement— gets the bulk of the exaltation as a time for self-reflection, I believe that Passover is as equally a significant time for introspection. The two aspects of the holiday that I find invaluable are the opportunity to reevaluate our problems and the reminder that things will get better.
At the Seder, through the recitation of the story of the Exodus, we are granted the opportunity to view our own circumstances through the lens of tyranny, brutality, and oppression that our ancestors experienced in Egypt. For many of us living in 2019, this assessment quickly reveals that worst things have happened in the history of the Jewish people than many of the "First world" problems with which we are dealing.
To be clear, I am not speaking about illness, death of loved ones, or anything that severe. I am, however, talking about the moments when we equate sluggish Wi-Fi to a sign of the apocalypse, or when we liken standing in line at a coffee shop for more than three minutes to be as onerous as Shackleton’s sojourn on Antarctica. These are inconveniences, not tragedies, and no one will be entering them into the canon of Jewish liturgy. This is the perspective granted by the retelling of our ancestors’ oppression and eventual salvation. It is a reminder of the difference between annoyance and literal adversity.
The Passover story is also about the belief that if we commit to the cause, things will get better. Yes, there are times when we may feel like all is lost like there is no way out, and that we are out of options, but the same was true for the Israelites. Our forbearers who were in Egypt when “there rose a Pharaoh who knew not Joseph" thought that their world and people had come to its end, never again to experience freedom. It took individuals with an unwavering sense of obligation to their people to show that there was still an opportunity for salvation, for redemption and for freedom…through adherence to the word of the Almighty. Soon, after a bit of theatrics, the displacement of some water, a touch of leadership, and a few other actions, the Israelites’ faith was rewarded.
As we gather for the Seder this year, let’s try to remember that there are many people in our community who are dealing with significant issues and circumstances. Many of them suffer in silence out of fear of being stigmatized or persecuted even further. Others have no voice, no recourse, and feel as though they have no place to go. The Jewish Community Board of Akron, along with our local synagogues and agencies, is the voice that they seek. We are the rally point around which they can regain their freedom and seek justice. We are the place to which they can turn. No one should ever feel as though they cannot come forward to find help. More importantly, our community will continue to proactively project that we are seeking those who are suffering. We want to help, we want to bring them out of the darkness, and we want to restore hope.
This Passover let us remember to not harden our hearts like Pharaoh. And, just as we are instructed to expend the effort to clean our homes, so we can attempt to clean our hearts and minds and ensure that we are doing what we can do for our local and global community.
Wishing you, your family and your friends a very happy, healthy and peaceful Passover.
Todd Polikoff, JCBA CEO
Wednesday, February 13, 2019
Building Community the Lego Way
As a parent, I have experienced one of the greatest moments of shock and pain. Like other parents, I have employed, unsuccessfully, several strategies to ameliorate the source of this pain: the dreaded "middle of the night random Lego" attack!
Since their introduction in 1932, parents have tried through lecturing, yelling, PowerPoint presentations and Venn diagrams to train their children to put away ALL of their Legos. Yet, in 2019, the sharp rectangles remain lying in wait for the unsuspecting bare feet of parents. This is a war that probably won’t be won as Legos are, first and foremost, fun, and they are nearly as prevalent in a house with children as is laundry…they both seem to magically regenerate! Yet, there was a time when this dreaded parental nemesis nearly disappeared.
In the late ‘90s, Lego posted its first loss as a publicly traded company. After some intense introspection, the company realized that it had moved away from its core principles. It put most of its efforts into the "Lego set" basket. That's to say, they were focusing on selling sets that once fully constructed had no other use for the builder. Lego strayed from its most attractive attribute – that you could make virtually anything that came to your imagination. It wasn't until a few people at MIT built a power pack for Legos that would turn creations into moving robots. This created a new and ever-expanding set of options for Lego.
There are lessons for our Akron Jewish community in the near collapse of Lego. We are not and should not become a community that is unwilling or unable to look for new and inventive ways to grow and become stronger. Like a box of random Lego parts, the limits of our community should only be governed by the imagination of our community members. We as Jewish Akron always need new ideas and concepts that are inclusive of the entire community as to not unintentionally cut off idea-streams. Additionally, our Jewish community is a constantly changing entity. One does not need to be a sociologist to understand that our geographical distribution, demographics and needs are not the same as they were 50 years ago or even five years ago. That is why we are on a near-constant search for the next best way to accomplish our goals of growing and strengthening our community.
To this end, the Jewish Community Board of Akron (JCBA) will be expanding the number of committees of the Board of Trustees. Our goal is to have more than 100 members of the community serving on committees by the end of 2019. These groups will fulfill the core criteria of the work of the JCBA and the agencies on the Schultz Campus for Jewish Life. Our staff will also be engaging with community members on a much more regular and intentional basis. We currently have terrific professionals and lay leadership serving on behalf of our community, but we/they do not have all of the best ideas, nor do they have the perspective of someone not completely immersed in the daily process of providing for our community. Sometimes a set of "fresh eyes" can identify an area that many of us have missed.
There will be more coming on the rollout of the committee structure, and it is my hope that members of the community, who have great ideas and passion for Jewish Akron, will come forward to have an impact on the future of our community. Just as Lego recognized the perils of constructing a static set, we must also recognize that we cannot afford to be static in our approach to strategic planning, advocacy or service delivery to the community. If you have a great idea, shoot me an email, I would certainly welcome the input.
Todd Polikoff, JCBA CEO
Friday, February 1, 2019
Careful, You May Already Be Engaged
I was very active in the B’nai B’rith Youth Organization (BBYO) while in high school. My involvement was not intentional and would not have happened if my parents didn’t make it a priority. Regardless of my vehement protests, my mother dropped me off at a seemingly random home with a few dollars for dinner. She purposefully neglected to tell me that the event was a sleepover. By the next morning I was elected “Sergeant at Arms,” most likely because I was the biggest guy in the room. I eventually became a BBYO regional officer, attended a summer program, and even (unsuccessfully) ran for Grand Aleph Godol (international president). Due mostly to family financial and time constraints, BBYO was the extent of my Jewish organization, agency, or synagogue involvement.
Because my family was not involved in any other capacity, many at the time (the late ‘80s) who considered us to be unaffiliated — and we weren’t the only ones. Organizations exhausted human and financial capital in an effort to find Jews, like my family, who were undiscovered or, even worse, hiding in an effort to avoid paying dues.
In the past several years, Jewish semantics has shifted from using the term “affiliated” to “engaged” to indicate participation in the community. Regardless of which word is used, there remains a lingering problem with both: their definitions. I think we need to be explicit about how we define affiliated or engaged and avoid using them as one-word mission statements for an initiative or committee. When applying the Socratic Method to define these terms, I find that our initiatives either don’t match the definition or that the population that we thought fit in the engaged/affiliated category is not as large as we thought (or even exists at all). To take this one step further, when we widen the scope of “engaged,” organizations may find that they are wasting capital to capture community members that they already have in their database.
Take PJ Library as an example. To enroll in it, families must take the initiative to sign up to receive a Jewish book for their children from the Jewish community, in their home, every month. Very often, PJ Library registration may be the only connection that these families have to the community. It is one of the few times in which unknown members of our community raise their hands, often unsolicited, and say “Heneni – Here I am.”
This begs the question of what engagement means. If a family signs up to receive at least one Jewish storybook for the next eight years of their child’s life, are they engaged? Are they participating in the community more or less than someone who pays synagogue dues but only goes to services three times per year or someone who joins the JCC but only uses the gym? I would argue that PJ Library registration easily passes the bar to consider that family engaged. The extent to which they become further engaged is based on how the relationship is cultivated. In essence, it is on the Jewish organizations to present the value proposition (both communal and financial) for those families to join.
I think that we as a community need to spend a bit more time defining what we really mean by engaged before we apply financial or human capital toward an initiative. In the end, if we only define engagement by the payment of dues or membership, then we will miss a broad spectrum of our community. This is why the Jewish Community Board of Akron funds programs like J-Ticket, PJ Library, Rubber City Jews, BBYO, and other initiatives. All of these require some action by the participant to identify as a member of the Jewish community. That awareness, that self-identification, that act of proactively wanting to be a part community, that call of “Heneni” is a more than sufficient definition of “engaged” in my book.
Todd Polikoff, JCBA CEO
Friday, January 4, 2019
Walk Around Like You Own the Place
Friday, December 7, 2018
Light Your Candle for the Future of the Akron Jewish Community
As I reflect on my first week in the JCBA office, I would like to share my appreciation with all of you for entrusting me with the stewardship of this organization and our Akron Jewish community. I consider this work – the work of Jewish communal organizations – to be truly holy work, and I look forward to continuing to build on the strong foundations that you've created in Akron.
Since we are in the middle of Chanukah, and while I have your attention, I thought I would also share a few words about my perspective on the Festival of Lights and the work of the JCBA. While there are certainly more sagely Jewish interpretations of Chanukah and its subsequent rituals, I find inspiration for the Festival in a uniquely "American" moment in our history.
In 1960, then Presidential candidate, John F. Kennedy accepted the Democratic party's nomination at the National Convention in Los Angeles. In his speech, Kennedy said, "We are not here to curse the darkness, but to light a candle that can guide us through the darkness to a safe and sure future. For the world is changing, the old era is ending. The old ways will not do."
I’m often reminded of this passage during Chanukah, and I've come to find parallels between Kennedy's words and the determination and persistence of the Jewish people. Throughout Jewish history, we need not look very far to find terrific examples of those who have not been satisfied with simply cursing the darkness and those who have worked for a brighter future for the Jewish people.
Hadassah hospital founder Henrietta Sczold immigrated to Palestine in 1933 and helped run Youth Aliyah, which rescued 30,000 Jewish children from Nazi Europe. Holocaust survivor, poet and Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel told the story of the Holocaust and kept the story alive so we will never forget the horrors that were perpetuated upon our people. Natan Sharansky's strength and opposition to Russian brutality inspired Jews around the world to ensure the rescue of Soviet Jewry. These are merely three who represent the countless other examples of our people who have brought light to the world. But as great as they were in their actions, we must remember that they did not "light candles" alone. They had the support, advocacy and participation of the global Jewish community to keep their light radiating into the darkness.
Jewish Federations, like the Jewish Community Board of Akron, exist to ensure the successful survival of the Jewish people. The work that we do, as professionals and lay leaders, is done in the spirit of President Kennedy's speech and while standing on the shoulders of those Jewish heroes who have paved the way for the global Jewish community that we see today. We are responsible for the future of our community and for the sacred task of carrying the flame which ensures that no one need continue to live in darkness. Like those heroes of the Jewish people previously mentioned, we also cannot do it alone and need the support, both financial and human capital, of our community.
To that end, should you happen to know of anyone whom may be interested in holding a candle in support of our efforts to grow and strengthen the Akron Jewish community, please send them my way as I have several boxes of candles in my office waiting to be lit.
Thank you for all that you do and will continue to do for our local and global Jewish Community. Shabbat Shalom and Happy Chanukah!
Todd Polikoff, JCBA CEO