Seventy five years ago, German Jews were captive in their own country.
Nov. 9, 1938, was Kristallnacht, the Night of Broken Glass.
It was the symbolic beginning of the end of what was once a vibrant European Jewry of powerful Torah learning and Jewish enlightenment.
This year also marks the 75th anniversary of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington, which observed that milestone at Washington Hebrew Congregation. And its leaders, like they did in 1938, told us that there was still plenty of work to do. That the hatred against Jews hasn’t gone away over time. It has been merely cloaked in the form of anti-Israel rhetoric.
Carol and Gary Berman received the prestigious Breslau-Goldman Award. Cindy and Rick Zitelman were awarded for their community leadership.
Every word said by both the Bermans and Zitelmans validated the reasons they spoke before us as community leaders.
But when Rep. Chris Van Hollen got up to present the Distinguished Service Award, the evening took a turn into a reality that reconnected some to the very pain felt by Jews in the 1930s. Van Hollen presented the award Thursday evening to Alan Gross. But as we know, Gross was not there to accept it. He could not be there even though every person in that room painfully wished he would have been.
None felt the pain more than his wife Judy, who did accept the award.
Gross has been held in a Cuban jail since December 2009 when he was arrested while helping the Havana Jewish community set up an intranet site so that they could communicate with the two other Cuban Jewish communities. Gross is serving a 15-year-sentence despite the protests of President Barack Obama, the U.S. State Department, Congress and leaders throughout our land.
The JCRC has been a leader in keeping us aware of Gross’ situation with its regularly held vigils outside of the Cuban Interests Section in Washington, D.C.
Yes Thursday night was an incredible evening to remember what JCRC has done through the years, and how it has prospered under the leadership of its executive director Ron Halber.
But it was the few, but strong words coming from Judy Gross that grabbed all of our undivided attention.
Gross expressed her appreciation to the JCRC on behalf of her husband. She said, “Alan accepts this award for those around the world who are wrongfully detained.” She told of how her husband is sharing a 12 x12 cell with two other inmates. She explained how her husband has lost 110 pounds and, in her words, looks like a “walking skeleton.”
But the worst possible message came next when Judy Gross told us that her husband’s “spirit is broken. He doesn’t laugh anymore. He’s lost all hope that he will get out of jail alive.”
Alan Gross always looked for ways he could help improve life for people in the more than 50 countries he visited through the years.
Now, “Alan is a hostage in Cuba and a political pawn in the United States,” she said. And then Judy asked that politics be put aside so that her husband of 42 years could be brought home.
It was difficult to feel anything but sadness and a determination to help Judy Gross get her Alan home.
And the very fact that he remains in a Cuban jail is exactly why the Jewish council was formed; the rationale for its existence hasn’t gone away.
In 1938, the need for such a group was seen in the piles of broken glass scattered across Berlin’s streets; in 2013, the personification of its rasion d’etre is a physically and spiritually deteriorating man languishing in a Havana prison.
The reasons for a JCRC are more urgent than ever.