(Author’s note: This post first appeared Sunday, July 4, 2010, as a Facebook note. It is re-posted here with permission. The Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society was created in 1881 by American Jews. The HIAS has helped rescue, reunite and resettle 4.5 million persecuted and oppressed people worldwide, including Jews and non-Jews alike … and is still going strong.)
By Doug Stern
Henry’s face always brightens when the Jewish Community Center comes in view.
It means friends and family and swimming and pizza bagels and fun, fun, fun. Maybe someday it will mean more to my little boy. I hope.
Maybe someday it – or something like it – will help Henry understand just what a miracle was created 234 years ago today in Philadelphia.
Louisville’s JCC is one of the places that has kept me awake to what this nation has promised so many. It has kept me awake to the freedoms and other blessings that I so often take for granted.
It’s where I have, for nearly 50 years, seen Europe’s refugees gather. It’s where, when I was about Henry’s age, I sat at a picnic table one sunny, summer day by the JCC’s big outdoor swimming pool. Across from me was a woman, young, smiling, pretty. I remember asking about the tattooed numerals on her forearm.
I don’t remember what she said. But I remember how she smiled at me. How she touched her forearm. As if to remind her that it was still there.
Yet she was here. With me, a little boy she didn’t know.
At a picnic table. Safe. Surrounded by other Jews. A million miles and a million years from the unspeakable on her forearm.
I think of her often. I think of her today when I see the old ones, these from Russia. Many of them live in the high-rise built for them and other new Americans next to the JCC. They walk over to the Center, where they eat and swim and visit with one another. They sit – two or three of them together, usually old women in old dresses – on one of the benches in the shade of the maples that I remember as saplings.
I look at them and hear their Russian and Yiddish. I’m sure they’re gossiping about this and that or sharing potato-salad recipes. What I think about when I see and hear them is far less mundane. I think about the suffering and horrors I imagine they’ve survived.
And I think about their gratitude. My gratitude.
And then I wonder. I wonder if these old Russian women ever imagined 30 or 40 or 50 years ago that they would be sitting in the shade, free.
In a place called Louisville, Kentucky, United States of America. In the safety and abundance of the Jewish Community Center.
About Doug Stern: Doug Stern has lived in Louisville his whole life.