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While Ukrainians Died

The head of the Beth El Academy in the 1960’s was a Holocaust survivor by the name of Zev Weiss. I distinctly remember my mother Arlene holding the copy of “While Six Million Died” that he had given her to read, shocked beyond measure by what she had learned. Her hero President Franklin Delano Roosevelt had utterly failed to act while 6 million Jews perished in the Holocaust. Touched by a survivor whose mission was to ensure that the next generation of Jews would be educated in the ways of our People, my mother raised me to be a loud and proud American Jewish woman. By nothing other than good fortune to be born and raised in the United States in the last half of last century, I’ve been able to use my voice proudly, raising it when I see injustice, even if I stick my neck out. Anyone who remembers Arlene Gordon knows that’s exactly who she was. It is with her on one shoulder that I write these words.

Those of us who grew up in the 1960’s in the United States came of age during an explosive time of social change and cultural reform. While the Gordon family ate dinner, we watched the network news cover the carnage of the Vietnam war. I distinctly remember my older brother Scott’s relief at his high lottery number. By the time I was the second woman to be elected President of Central Region United Synagogue Youth (CRUSY)  in 1975-76/5735-36, Watergate had happened, Gerald Ford was President and the United States had lost the war in Vietnam. The voice of the people had been heard throughout the land, finally, and the United States realized the use of force and the destruction that it entails was no longer worth it. 

After graduating from the University of Michigan, I headed east to Boston to get a law degree and then returned to my native northeast Ohio to practice law and build a life of meaning, purpose within the context of family and community. I was blessed to get married, raise 3 remarkable children and became a professional volunteer within the Jewish community. Belonging to the National Young Leadership Cabinet of the UJA while participating in the Wexner Heritage Foundation during the 1990’s allowed me to develop a level of passionate expertise that I am deeply grateful for. Mom was so proud of me as I evolved into an empowered and articulate communal leader. While it was Mom who taught me to be a loud and proud American Jewish woman, it was She Above who guided me to make decisions that allowed me to have the time to use both my talent and my treasure for good. 

So it is that I’ve participated in the miracle of rebuilding vibrant Jewish life in Eastern Europe and the lands of the Former Soviet Union. In November of 1996, the Young Leadership Cabinet journeyed to Vilnius and Minsk. Shivering in the cold of the Ponary Forest outside Vilnius, Lithuania with the great Israeli artists Ehud Manor, z”l, and Chanan Yovel, I was warmed knowing in my soul that I was part of a generation that had the power and the influence to say NEVER AGAIN to such horror, brutality and barbarism. On that same trip, I remember standing in a public space in Minsk, Belarus where Jews were rounded up and persecuted. Breaking the quiet of the moment, I raised my voice to declare Am Yisrael Chai and was joined in song by my fellow leaders of the most empowered and affluent Jewish community in history. And that was in 1996. Our power and influence has only grown since then.

In the spring of 1999, I used my treasure to purchase a second home for my family in Jerusalem. For 19 years, I was deeply rooted in daily life in southern Jerusalem, even if I wasn’t physically present at any particular moment in time. Throughout the terrifying years of the Second Intifada, I left the comfort of suburban Cleveland and took the “risk” of spending time in my other home.  As the chairman of the Cleveland-Beit Shean/Emek HaMayanot Partnership, I had the sacred responsibility to show up on a regular basis to represent the interests and values of the Cleveland Jewish community. I will never forget the trip we took at the end of November, 2002. The Beit Shean community was reeling in the aftermath of an election day terrorist attack at Likud headquarters that killed 5 people. In the early days of videoconferencing, my children were able to watch as their mother participated in a communal candle lighting ceremony for the 4th night of Hanukkah, 5762. 

On Thursday, August 9, 2001, my middle daughter Sarah was not in the mood to attend Ramah Day Camp so she joined me for the morning. As I listened to Danny Gordis address the Wexner Heritage Foundation members who were on their Israel trip, Sarah sat quietly on the floor. Afterwards, we had lunch at the David Citadel, just a few blocks from the busy intersection that would become the site of the Sbarro terrorist attack just a few hours later. I will never forget Sunday August 12, 2001, the day my oldest daughter Rachel and I drove north from Jerusalem to Beit Shean to pay a shiva call on the Reshef family whose son D’vir had been killed in Tulkarm and then another shiva call at Kibbutz Merav where on that same horrific August 9, a Palestinian terrorist attacked a car with 5 girls at the gate of the kibbutz. Then Rachel and I visited the survivors of the attack in the hospital in Afula. The experiences of the Second Intifida are seared in my guts and in my bones. So is my immense pride knowing that at its core, the Israel Defense Forces is a moral army. In my soul I know that the modern Jewish democratic State of Israel truly wants to find a way to share the territory that is known as the Holy Land with the Palestinians, as soon as they can support a mature leader who is truly acting in the interest of his or her people. A leader like President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine.

 Which brings me directly to my call for action.

Just as I witnessed the carnage of the Vietnam war while eating dinner as a child, I am now Witnessing the absolute carnage of Putin’s War against Western Values.  Do you see what I see?

During the Vietnam war, Jews were on the street in this country, exercising our First Amendment right to protest.  The horror of January 6 happened here because of our right to assemble and petition the government. It is exactly this basket of freedoms that Ukrainians are dying for and Russians are getting arrested for. Yet because of geopolitical concerns and the threat of Putin exercising the nuclear option, the world is allowing Putin to continue to bomb Ukraine. The President of Ukraine, who happens to be a Member of my Tribe, is appealing to the world in general and to his fellow Jews in particular to understand that a genocide is taking place on behalf of our Western values. Do you hear what I hear?

During the 1940’s, the American Jewish community was afraid to speak up and demand that the military might of the United States and the Allies be used to bomb the tracks. As a result, 6 million Jews died as well as 5 million other people just because Hitler and his mechanized state sanctioned killing machine were allowed to keep killing. It was not in the geopolitical/strategic/military interest to take that action. In the aftermath of that utter failure to act, I was taught by my mother and by every Jewish experience that if I was ever faced with a similar situation I would act in such a way that made good on the words Never Again. Did you learn what I learned?

So, it is with my Mom on one shoulder and She Above on the other that I invite others to demand that our military might be used now to enforce a No Fly Zone. In 2022 Never Again means imposing a No Fly Zone so that President Zelensky can lead his Beyond Brave Ukrainian people to a victory on behalf of Western Values. If Ukrainians are willing to die for me, I am willing to take the risk of a nuclear conflict to call Putin’s bluff. My life is no more valuable than the life of the Ukrainians who are either becoming refugees or putting themselves at great risk because the world allows Putin to control the skies.

I FOR ONE WILL NOT BE SILENT. WHERE IS THE JEWISH MORAL VOICE? 

I know I am but one voice in the call for doing what is moral in the face of such a horrific geopolitical disaster of the highest order. But I am scared and I have to speak up. And I have to sing. So, I did what I do in these times, I wrote a song. I invite others to join me in singing this song. I think you will know the melody which was written by two Ukrainian brothers in the 1930’s for a movie. The tune was then used by the Partisans to strengthen their souls during the darkest days of the Holocaust. May this tune continue to strengthen the souls of all those who care about the Values that both my Jewish and American traditions taught me well. It is rather ironic that while Mom cut her leadership teeth fighting for the Beth El Junior Choral Society, she couldn’t carry a tune. But, oh she had a way with words. Let’s follow her example and use ours to demand that the world do something so that we can be proud to say that we acted while the Ukrainians died. 

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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