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Connie and Joe Smukler: Their Amazing Jewish Journey Continues

February 3, 2011 By:
Jessica Endy, Jewish Federation Feature
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Joe and Connie Smukler

 

Last week's article on Connie and Joe Smukler ended with the couple's entree into the Soviet Jewry movement. This week's article, the final in the three-part series, further explores their involvement in both Soviet Jewry and broader communal issues, and how they are helping to inspire Jewish continuity.

The Smuklers are being honored for their outstanding accomplishments on Tuesday, Feb. 15, at Federation's special presentation of "The Thomashefskys."

While dining at a favorite restaurant in Israel in 1973, the Smuklers met a family who had come to Israel from Russia the night before. They spent two nights talking with the family, communicating in a blend of Russian, Yiddish and English, and fell in love with them.

The night before the Smuklers were to fly back to the U.S., the husband said to them: "You have to get my brother out of Leningrad. I can't live without him. I got out through the efforts of Senators Jackson and Javits. You have to go back to your congressmen and senators and you have to get him out."

Connie and Joe Smukler replied, "OK."

They more than lived up to their word.

Connie and Joe returned to the United States and began making phone calls. Joe, who was president of Har Zion Temple, engaged the help of fellow synagogue members. The Smuklers merged two existing agencies to form the Soviet Jewry Council, which became vital to the national movement to free Soviet Jews.

"The founding of the Soviet Jewry Council was definitely a moment of transformation," said the Smuklers' friend and fellow activist Dr. Bernard Dishler. "It was not necessarily an easy job, but they made it work and it was very effective."

In 1976, the night before the Second Brussels Conference, Connie received a phone call in the middle of the night from the Israeli embassy: Irma Chernyak had just been freed.

Connie and Joe worked feverishly to get Chernyak to the conference, where Philadelphia had the second-largest U.S. delegation. "Golda Meir was there, [Menachem] Begin was there, they were all there," said Connie. "The lights dimmed, and the Israeli delegation came out on stage, each one carrying a candle. The last person to come out was Chernyak, because he was the newest Israeli citizen."

Instead of simply taking satisfaction in a job well-done, the Smuklers spent decades helping free Soviet Jews. Abraham H. Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, met and become close friends with the Smuklers through their involvement in the movement.

"In the early years, people didn't realize that Soviet Jews suffered doubly or triply," said Foxman. "Little by little, the Soviet Union opened up its iron gate, and eventually let out some 3 million Jews. This would not have happened if not for people like Connie and Joe taking to the streets." Connie and Joe went on to receive the Soviet Jewry Council Human Rights Award.

While the Smuklers are perhaps best known for their significant contributions to Soviet Jewry, their communal impact goes much deeper.

Foxman noted that Connie and Joe both became deeply involved in the ADL; Joe eventually became chairman of its International Affairs Committee, and together with Foxman, met with heads of state in Washington, in Israel and around the globe.

The Smuklers co-chaired Philadelphia's Israel 50 celebration in 1998, which drew 18,000 people and brought together The Philadelphia Orchestra and Israel Philharmonic to celebrate Israel's 50th birthday, and have worked tirelessly to connect the United States and Israel.

"Terese and I will never forget our first trip to Israel in November 2005 with our friends Joe and Connie Smukler and several other Pennsylvania friends," said U.S. Sen. Bob Casey. "Joe and Connie have been very generous benefactors for the Delaware Valley and for the State of Israel. I have been blessed by their love, friendship and counsel."

The Smuklers love of Israel and music led them to create the Hatikvah Fund, a gift from the Smuklers to the Philadelphia Orchestra, to provide the orchestra with opportunities to nurture, through music, an appreciation and understanding of the cultural contributions of the State of Israel and the Jewish people. The inaugural concert of the Hatikvah Fund was held in April 2008 at the Hear, O'Israel Concert, which launched Philadelphia's celebration of Israel's 60th birthday.

"Encouraging American support for Israel takes advocacy," said Foxman. "It takes people like the Smuklers who care enough to put themselves on the line to advocate what they believe in."

Joe has served in leadership positions in numerous community organizations, including the United Way of Greater Philadelphia and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, and is a recipient of Federation's highest honor, the Avodat HaKodesh Community award. Connie is a former vice chair of Federation and of the Philadelphia Commission on Human Relations. The Smuklers have received the Mellon Bank Good Neighbor Award and the State of Israel Bonds Humanitarian Award.

"I'm fortunate my work brought us together, and we became friends," said Foxman. "It will be an honor to be there with Connie and Joe at the concert."

Inspiring the Next Generation 
Through the life they have lived together, Connie and Joe Smukler have set a fine example -- and a high bar -- for current and future Jewish community leaders.

"You have to make a commitment to start," said Joe. "Find what excites you, see where you want to go, and take the first step. Get involved, no matter how small."

The Connie and Joe Smukler Heritage Fund, a Jewish continuity fund of Federation, will support Jewish camping, Israel travel for teens and young adults, and other Jewish continuity programs.

"We can't take Jewish continuity for granted any more," said Connie. "Our Jewish youth are losing their heritage. We need to be proactive and intervene with meaningful programs like Jewish camping and Birthright Israel. These experiences are priceless, and we need to help them along."

"All of our [nine] grandchildren have been to Israel," said Joe. "One grandson became a Bar Mitzvah there. They all have a wonderful feeling for Israel, and hopefully, they'll want to give back to the community, too, because they see what happiness it brings to us."

"We are part of a continuum that started thousands of years ago," he continued. "Our great hope is that our children and our children's children for thousands of years will be part of this continuum that has survived so much and so many who sought to destroy us. Our fear of losing that continuity keeps us enervated and motivated. It's our dream that we will exist beyond ourselves so that there is no stoppage of that continuity."

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