Of Marathons, Dreams and Follies

Having turned our clocks back one hour in New York last Sunday, the sun now dips behind the buildings on its descent into the Hudson River and the waxing silver moon rises in a sky that is streaked with rose-hued clouds before 5:00. Unlike my Jerusalem apartment whose subterranean first floor allowed me no view of the Holy City, my Upper West Side perch is 11 stories above the ground and the sunset skyscapes are awe-inspiring. Last Sunday also saw the running of the New York City marathon, a day devoted to physical effort, endurance, stamina and great pride. There is always a special feeling in the City on Marathon Sunday.

It is from my perch, with this perspective, that I reflect on where I was 24 years and 2 days ago, November 4, 1995, when I learned that Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, z”l, had been assassinated by a Jewish Israeli leaving a peace rally. It was early on that Shabbat afternoon when we heard the news about this tragedy. After absorbing the shock, I reached out to other leaders from our children’s day school, The Agnon School (now the Florence and Joseph Mandel School) to discuss how we would handle this horrific turn of events at that evening’s major fundraiser for the school, the Agnon Art Show. I was reminded that not everyone was going to be as shaken as those of us heavily involved in Israel activism through the Jewish Federation of Cleveland. While the show went on that night, there was certainly a more somber tone amongst the attendees. At the community memorial service a few days later at Park Synagogue, I recall the pain of my breaking heart and the comforting hug of my friend Steve Hoffman as I sobbed uncontrollably.

Thirty days after Rabin’s death, I joined Steve, who was the executive head of the Cleveland Federation at the time, on a very spontaneous trip to Jerusalem, organized by the Jewish Agency for Israel. We were part of a delegation of Diaspora Jews attending the State ceremonies marking Rabin’s Shloshim. My daughter Rachel, who was in kindergarten at the time, casually told her teacher that “Mommy went to Israel today for a few days.” Knowing children’s imaginations, Ines needed to confirm that this offhanded comment was indeed true! That would be the first of many trips to Israel I would take over the next 24 years. For 19 of those years I was a proud foreign resident; now, as before, I travel as an Israel activist and a passionate Zionist with deep roots in the country.

The Israel experiences I began to have following that trip deepened my understanding of my role in the ongoing Story of the Jewish People. It was the wisdom of Rabbi Yitz Greenberg and my other teachers in the Wexner Heritage Foundation program, paired with my Federation/UJA activities that fueled my volunteer leadership. When I took that trip with Steve in that bleak December of 1995, I began running my personal marathon on behalf of the State of Israel, the Jewish People and the ties that bind all Jews wherever they reside. Despite the setbacks, the frustrations and the political uncertainties that surround Israel-Diaspora activism, I continue to approach my support for a modern Jewish Democracy within the State of Israel with physical effort, endurance, stamina and great pride.

On Saturday night, before we turned the clocks back, I joyfully participated in a musical production presented by a community theater here in New York City, AfterWork Theater. I learned about AWT from my niece Jessica who is a wildly talented singer and dancer and expresses herself on this stage. Performing songs from the Complete Ella Fitzgerald Song Books in a venue on 10th Avenue with a wonderful bunch of amateur performers was truly a dream come true. I was so touched that friends from the Jewish choral world were in the audience! I wasn’t nervous in the least, partly because being on stage comes naturally to me, a gift from my mother. Mom understood that if you have the courage and the ability to speak up, you make yourself heard. It is one of the great ironies that Mom who championed the magic of Jewish choral music could not carry a tune. No matter, she certainly served as a role model for me when I found myself with something important to say and decided to embark on The Sacred Rights, Sacred Song Project at the urging of my dear friend Dr. J. A. Kawarsky.

It is exactly 9 years to the day, November 6, 2010, that we presented the first “Sacred Rights, Sacred Song” – Concert of Concern, under the direction of David Gooding at Fairmount Temple in Beachwood, Ohio. Using music to deliver the message, I declared my concern over the violation of “Spiritual Civil Rights” in the State of Israel and my support for the “Modern Jewish Democracy Movement,” long before these issues became flash points in both Israeli politics and Israel-Diaspora relations. In other words, today is the 9th anniversary of my becoming an Artist/Activist, beginning my running of the marathon for social change. I will never forget how a very early lake effect snow blanketed Beachwood that day, adding yet more drama to what was already a very dramatic day.

While I may have dreamed of being on stage in shows or singing in Jewish choirs, I never imagined that one day I would be presenting Concerts of Concern in beautiful settings with hundreds of singers over the course of 6 years, around the United States and Israel. Then as a result of of SRSS, I find myself establishing a home in New York City and singing in the Zamir Chorale and Shirei Chesed, fulfilling my lifelong dream of singing in a Jewish choral group yet once again, as I did as a child in Akron, Ohio so long ago.

When I founded The Sacred Rights, Sacred Song Project, it was never with the intent of becoming a performer, but rather with the goal of educating the Jewish community about the Modern Jewish Democracy Movement. Following the teachings of my late mentor Dr. Art Naperstek, an expert in the area of social change, I wanted to generate solid support for the non-governmental organizations on Holy Ground, the Israeli grassroots groups moving the needle, such as the Women of the Wall, Israel Hofsheet and Itim, just to name 3 of many. My hope was to raise funds to support these Israeli NGO’s. While I raised interest and awareness, I was never able to raise sufficient funds to justify using my own philanthropic resources to produce these beautiful concerts. Besides, once the Israeli government broke the Kotel Compromise agreement, these issues of Religion and State finally started to matter to the established American Jewish organizations, like the JFNA and AIPAC. Finally, I found myself on a committee doing exactly what I had hoped to do, allocating Jewish communal funds to support the change agents on the ground in Israel.

One of the deeply satisfying elements of my New York life is my involvement on the UJA-Federation of New York’s Israeli Judaism committee. Thanks to a good friend from the Zamir Choral Foundation, I have found a group of Israel activists who care about the same issues that I do. While I am grateful to the Jewish Federation of Cleveland for the many years of of activism and leadership,  having made a home in New York, I sensed the time was coming to reallocate my major annual campaign gift. I am also delighted that my daughter Rachel has emerged as a young leader in the Cleveland Federation, following my footsteps by joining the Overseas Connections Committee. In a real sense, I have passed the baton of leadership to my daughter Rachel.

Last Thursday, the New York Lion of Judah lunch was held at the Ziegfeld Ballroom. Walking into this beautiful event space I felt the spirit of my musical theater heroine Fanny Brice, immortalized by my other musical theater heroine Barbra Streisand in “Funny Girl.” Then I noticed the young Federation staff worker holding the King David Society (a UJA giving level) sign. Right then and there, where a gutsy Jewish girl from the Lower East Side took to the stage in the Ziegfeld Follies, this gutsy Jewish girl from Akron, Ohio made a decision. From now on, my main philanthropic stage is here, in New York, supporting this community and the work in Israel I am passionate about.

How blessed I am to be able to pursue my artistic dreams while at the same time continue to run the marathon known as Israel activism. While the situation in Israel is often bizarre, complicated, frustrating and puzzling as seen from my 11th story perch, when it comes to support for the State of Israel, there are no acts of folly to be found. Rather, we assume our roles with physical effort, endurance, strength and great pride.

About the Author
Francine M. Gordon is an artist/activist who maintains homes in New York and Cleveland. From November 2010 through November 2016, through The Sacred Rights, Sacred Song Project, she produced over 10 Concerts of Concern in the US and Israel. Since establishing her New York residence, Ms. Gordon has become a member of the New York Federation’s Israeli Judaism committee which focuses on exactly the same issues as SRSS. In addition, she has become a proud member of the Zamir Chorale which allows her to express her Zionism through song.
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