Joe and Connie Smukler
If you’ve been to a major Jewish communal event in Philadelphia over the past 40 years, chances are you’ve spotted Connie and Joe Smukler. Among the deans of the local Jewish establishment, they represent that rare combination of activism and philanthropy that keeps on giving.
From Israel to Jewish identity-building to Holocaust education, the most pressing causes on the Jewish agenda have captured their attention and engendered their support. But it was their pivotal role in the Soviet Jewry movement that most energized them as a couple and catapulted them to the national and international stage.
Both Joe, 83, and Connie, 74, grew up in the area but hailed from completely different backgrounds — a “mixed marriage,” she jokes. He was raised in the heavily Jewish section of Strawberry Mansion; she grew up with assimilated parents in the once “very anti-Semitic” neighborhood of Narberth on the Main Line. She says her “awakening to Israel,” and by extension the Soviet Jewry cause, came from reading Leon Uris’ Exodus while pregnant with the first of their three children.
Joe Smukler’s entry into Jewish communal life came in the 1950s by way of his first job as a lawyer in the city. He worked at Fox Rothschild for Nochem Winnet, who at the time was president of the precursor to the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia and who urged his young colleague to get involved in Jewish life. Over the decades, Smukler served in countless leadership positions, including president of the local Hillel and of the Jewish Community Relations Council. In 1999, when, he contends, he was already “too old,” he served as president of the Federation.
He still looks back fondly at the April 1964 dedication of the Monument to the Six Million Jewish Martyrs on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, the first such monument in the country, as a highlight of his Jewish involvement. Now the Smuklers are involved in trying to develop a Holocaust educational center at the site of the memorial.
Connie Smukler has also served on several agency boards over the years, but for her, nothing has replaced the drama or passion surrounding their campaign to free Soviet Jews.
“It was, for me, the embodiment of everything I could do other than raising my kids. It gave me a purpose,” she says, adding: “We got from it much more than we gave.”
For nearly 20 years, they staged rallies and vigils, lobbied lawmakers and strategized with world leaders about how to open the Soviet gates to Jewish emigration. Working with other local activists, they placed Philadelphia on the map with their efforts. During their numerous visits back and forth, they befriended scores of “refuseniks” who were barred from leaving, including the most famous name of that era: Natan (Anatoly) Sharansky.
The Smuklers worry that nothing has replaced that kind of passion among today’s younger generations, especially when it comes to Israel, which they have visited 50 times and where one of their nine grandchildren now serves in the Israeli army.
“They’ve got a lot of other pulls,” Connie Smukler says, citing hospitals, museums and other institutions where a lot of Jewish philanthropy is directed. “And there aren’t the dollars there used to be. You have to pick and choose more carefully.”
Concerned about increasing disengagement among younger Jews today, the couple has established a special Federation fund to support identity-building programs like Jewish camping and Israeli travel experiences.
And they are still moved by the expressions of gratitude that continue to flow in. A local doctor whose family emigrated from the former Soviet Union recently wrote to them: “None of us take for granted our physical safety, the educational opportunities and the ability to hope for the best for our children. I have been trying to imagine what had motivated you to put your own lives at risk by traveling to a completely unpredictable, lawless and anti-Semitic place that was the Soviet Union,” she writes. “Whatever the transcendent force it was that moved you, thank you for your extraordinary kindness and extraordinary courage.”
– Lisa Hostein