JFNA opens GA in Washington
By ALAN SMASON
The Jewish Federations of North America opened its annual General Assembly on Sunday, November 8 in Washington, D.C. with a number of addresses by high profile personalities. Three of the more famous of invitees at the Opening Plenary at the Washington Hilton tugged at the emotional heartstrings of attendees, touching on issues of freedom to practice religion, fighting anti-Semitism, establishing a connection to community and reconciling one’s place within the Jewish world.
Among the most heartfelt of speakers was former NBC News White House correspondent and moderator of “Meet the Press” David Gregory, who acknowledged to the delight of the crowd that “Yes, I am (Jewish).”
But the lightness of his opening gave way to a more sombre tone as he revealed he is in the middle of what he termed as the most seminal of L’Dor v’Dor (generation to generation) times. “My father, Don Gregory died two days ago,” Gregory began, “and my son, Max, will be Bar Mitzvahed this Saturday, so I am here with a heavy heart.”
In his book “How’s Your Faith: An Unlikely Spiritual Journey,” Gregory recounts how he returned to his Jewish faith and reconciled with his overbearing talent agent and producer father. Raised in Los Angeles within an interfaith family in which his mother was both a Catholic and an alcoholic, Gregory gravitated away from Judaism. He married a non-Jew, who did not convert from his Christian faith background, but agreed to raise their children as Jewish. He began to ask himself tough questions.
“What does it mean to live with a sense of meaning and purpose?” he posited. “As an adult I have been filled with a sense of wonder about faith and how it helps me to live as a a better father, husband and Jew.”
Gregory admitted that the process of writing the book was both cathartic and trying to his father and his sister, who felt revealing private aspects of family was inappropriate. Yet, he continued to write his reflections and talked to them throughout the course of time. Throughout this spiritual journey he discovered a capacity to forgive. “We learn to forgive,” he said, “because we ourselves want to be forgiven.”
As his father grew sicker, Gregory grew closer to him. The day before his father passed away, Gregory talked to him at his bedside: “‘Dad, you’re not a religious man, but this is a moment to open your heart; to open your heart to whatever surrounds you and let it fill you. Allow God to carry you through these moments.'”
As Gregory prepared to leave his father for the final time, Gregory’s heart was full and he told him “Everything has been said. I’m so grateful you’re my father.” The last thing they did together was to sing Adon Olam together, he recalled.
TV star of “The Mysteries of Laura” and “Will and Grace,” Debra Messing spoke to the crowd on how she and her family dealt with blatant anti-Semitism while she was growing up in rural Rhode Island. “‘Get to the back of the line, kike!'” she was told by one of her fellow second graders, Messing remembered. She had never before been confronted by anti-Semitic language and was unprepared for it.
Messing revealed her parents had hailed from Brooklyn and had been accustomed to living in a more insular Jewish community. Because they looked different, they stood out, Messing said.
Large globe lights on the edge of her family’s farm were regularly broken by neighborhood anti-Semites and her normally quiet father had several choice words for those petty criminals, she recalled. But her father would replace them as an act of defiance.
Messing retreated into her shell as a child, minimizing her Jewishness so as to fit in. It wasn’t until she enrolled in college at Brandeis University that she associated with mostly Jewish friends. The most important person she met during this time was documentary filmmaker and Holocaust survivor Gerda Weissman Klein. They became very close, according to Messing, who was inspired by Klein’s ability to persevere under the most inhuman and difficult of times and rise above them.
When Klein won an Academy Award for her film “One Survivor Remembers,” she sent Messing a photo of her holding her Oscar with an inscription: “You’re next!”
Messing suggested practicing her Judaism proved more difficult in Hollywood, a town noted for its major Jewish influence. In Hollywood, she noted, everyone follows the bottom line and every actor can be replaced by someone else. Enraged over her working on major Jewish holidays, her father called her and invoked the memory of Sandy Koufax.
“Your Jewish life is tenuous,” the actress said. “You have to prove your worth,” she stated. “Then and only then do you have the power to say no.”
Messing won an Emmy for her work on “Will and Grace,” the first network TV show to deal with gay relationships as normal. She believes the show was groundbreaking and opened the hearts and minds of most Americans towards acceptance of gays and lesbians. “It is the thing about the show I most proud,” she beamed.
In addition Messing has advocated for HIV/AIDS patients throughout the world and testified before Congress. “Today I am a proud Jewish woman, ” she said. “In advocating for others, I have learned to accept myself,” Messing concluded. “Today I feel beautiful.”
Also addressing the crowd was Justice Rosalie Abella of the Supreme Court of Canada. Abella, whose parents were Holocaust survivors, was born in a displaced persons camp in Germany and emigrated as a toddler to Canada, where she became a citizen and a leading law authority.
Abella recounted the painful steps her parents took after losing their two and half-year-old son to the Holocaust and leaving to find a new homeland in Canada. “They did and so did thousands of other survivors, who rebuked the humiliation they endured,” she said.
A panel discussion was also conducted on the uptick in violence and the anti-Israel BDS movement in the U.S. Joining Ambassador Dennis Ross of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy were former Washington Post Jerusalem Bureau chief Janine Zacharia and Irwin Cotler, a former member of Canada’s Parliament. It was moderated by The Times of Israel editor David Horovitz.
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