There are special people…and then there are special people. On Wednesday morning our community lost one of those very special ones, Henry Blauer.
Henry was a past president (amazingly, he served in that role 50 years ago) and a lifetime board member of the Jewish Federation of Greater Portland. If anyone reads through the minutes of Federation Board meetings the one constant is Henry. But in reality, Henry served the entire community by sitting on multiple boards and committees (the number are too numerous to name). He took his volunteer roles extremely seriously and his sense of responsibility was one of the greatest I have ever witnessed in a communal leader. I am amazed that he maintained his “real job” as a CPA while spending so many hours on community business. He attended everything. And, he never seemed to slow down. I truly believed that Henry would live to be 120.
I know that most of you knew Henry much better and for a longer period than I. He was a mentor and coach to me from the moment I came to Portland 21 months ago. He was always accessible and found the time to discuss communal ideas and provide suggestions on how to manage difficult issues. It was not about “his way” -- it was about “what is best for the community.” It was not about the organizations most important to him – it was about doing what was right for everyone. He was able to see the “big picture,” both through a historical context and a future prism. I remember him saying, “Let’s think about how this decision will impact the community. At the same time, I do not want to stand in the way of change.” Not only did he not stand in the way, he was one of the lead change-agents in Jewish Portland.
Henry was a true mensch -- the quintessential example of what a great communal leader should be. And at every opportunity he acknowledged that none of this would be possible without the love, support and partnership of his wife, Gerel, and his family. Henry’s presence, voice, and wise counsel will be terribly missed.
May the Blauer family be comforted along with all other mourners in Zion, and may the name of Henry Blauer (z"l) be for a blessing.
On Tuesday evening at Federation’s 92nd Annual Meeting, our Jewish community welcomed a modern-day hero, Natan Sharansky. It was an inspirational evening with over 500 people coming to hear Mr. Sharansky’s personal journey.
The night of his visit coincided with the 45th anniversary of the 1967 Israel-Arab Six Day War. What I learned from Mr. Sharansky is that this historic moment “woke up” an entire generation of Jews (whose only Jewish connection was the word “Jew” on their national identity cards) in the then Soviet Union. As Mr. Sharansky explained, the victory by Israel humiliated the Soviets who had provided weapons and arms to the Arab countries. This led to increased anti-Israel propaganda and anti-Semitism throughout the country.
But an underground movement started. Groups of people began to read Jewish stories…discover their Jewish history…and meet their Jewish mishpocha (family) they never knew they had. There was a new found sense of confidence for the Jewish community.
Mr. Sharansky told a story of being interrogated by the KGB where they asked whether he preferred “death (if he continued his Jewish activities) or freedom.” Sharansky would respond with comical/insulting jokes about Leonid Brezhnev, the leader of the Soviet Union at the time. The KGB agents wanted to laugh, yet knew they could not out of fear. At that point, Mr. Sharansky asked the agents, “Who is free now? Although I am in a prison cell, I can laugh at anything I want, yet you can laugh at nothing.”
In his closing remarks, Mr. Sharansky, Chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel (a funded partner agency of Federation), emphasized the Jewish community’s current challenge – assimilation and Jewish identity building. “Today, 94% of the Jewish people live in the free world, yet we lose hundreds of Jews every day to assimilation. More Israel experiences, immersive programs, and positive Jewish connections – no matter if they are a 10-day Birthright Israel trip, year-long study programs, Jewish summer camps, or even the presence of a community Shaliach -- make an incredible difference.” It is through these types of experiences where one’s Jewish identity comes alive for years to come. These initiatives are all supported by your annual campaign commitment to the Jewish Federation. Thus, our investment impacts the participants from Portland in these Israel and overseas programs. In the end, Mr. Sharansky said, “Jews need a strong Israel and Israel needs strong Jewish communities. It is my belief that Jewish solidarity and our collective Jewish family can make any dream a reality.”
The evening ended with comments from Ben Shmulevsky, the 17-year old son of immigrants from the Soviet Union who came to Portland on June 2, 1988. He shared his parents’ struggles of learning a new language, being in a strange culture, and finding new jobs. The opportunity to leave the Soviet Union was made possible by Natan Sharansky and the global Jewish community – yet it was Portland’s Jewish community that provided food, shelter, and love for Ben’s family and 2,000 other immigrants who came to our city. We should be proud to know that the next generation, as evidenced by Ben, is poised to help lead the Jewish people into the future.
This week certainly had its highs and lows. We welcomed a man who inspired the Jewish world, while we lost another who truly helped make Jewish Portland what it is today. And, both did it in the most humble of ways.
May we continue to have leaders like these special men for generations to come.