Why We Give
By Sara Cohen Rich '86
Today I have three children at CESJDS and the fourth on the way to kindergarten next year. When I look at these children immersed in the nurturing environment of CESJDS, able and proud to learn about their heritage and culture, reciting the prayers my grandfather murmured in hushed tones not knowing if he would ever live, let alone be part of the free society we benefit from in the United States, tears always fill my eyes. My Zayde's face appears before me and I hear the words he told me as I grew up, daring me to reach for my dreams, "Your Zayde is always behind you." I cannot express how happy it makes me feel knowing that my children are benefiting and thriving from the supportive framework that CESJDS provides. My husband, Norm Rich, and I give to preserve this link to our past, to provide our children with the strong foundation and security of knowing the rich culture from which they come and to ensure that our children have the opportunity to carry this knowledge with them as they mold their futures.
Memories of my childhood often center around Shabbat and holiday dinners at both of my grandparents' tables, replete with delicious food, Jewish traditions, family and friends. My mother's father, Joseph Wolke, used to fill us with stories of his childhood, his ten brothers and sisters and his experiences during the Holocaust in Poland. We marveled at his bravery and his pride in his heritage as he interwove stories of loss and terror with the importance of education and integrity. It was out of respect and honor for these traditions that my Zayde treasured, and his survival of the war, that my sisters, Erica and Mia Cohen, myself, and my cousins, Heather, Jessica, and Aaron Brooks were sent to CESJDS. My Zayde's wife, my Bubi Guta, also a survivor, always echoed, "They can never take away what is in your head."
My father's parents, while born in the U.S., share an undivided love of Judaism and Israel. My grandfather, Morris Cohen, is a tireless supporter and fundraiser for Jewish causes. He has told us many stories of the importance of the Washington Jewish community and its role in past and current historical events. Both he and my Grandma, Dorothy, taught us to stand up for what we believe in and speak our minds. They are frequent guests at classroom events and Grandparents Day. They love being a part of CESJDS traditions. They most recently attended a CESJDS dinner for grandparents in Florida this past winter. My cousin, Sybil Ottenstein, also graduated from CESJDS, studied in Israel, and now attends graduate school at Tufts, studying Middle East affairs.
Almost twenty years from my high school graduation, my Zayde passed away a month shy of his ninetieth birthday. He did live to see his first great-grandchild, Amelia Rich, complete kindergarten and first grade at CESJDS. In his absence, his tales have become only vivid memories, but his hope that the Jewish people and their traditions would survive a dark period in human history and beyond, endures.
Never could I have imagined that a link could be forged today to a time that seemed frozen in my Zayde's recollections until my son, Sean, entered kindergarten and befriended Sammy Melnick. The families soon realized that Sammy's grandfather and Sean's great-grandfather, Joseph, had both lived in the same town in Poland, Tomaszow Mazowiecki. They had known each other and although both were no longer living, Sammy's great-uncle remembered Sean's grandfather's family. Sammy's grandfather survived the war with his brother, fleeing to Russia and later emigrating to the U.S. This friendship that has grown is both an act of defiance and endurance. Defiance, because despite attempts to extinguish Jewish lives and scatter them, they survived and were reunited. Endurance, because it demonstrates that despite no one surviving from my Zayde's immediate family, in a small way, his great-grandson was able to reunite with a link from his familial past. In any case, it inspires me that we can always find our way back to our common heritage if we know where to look. Or as my Zayde used to say, "Sometimes you have to make your own luck." Attending CESJDS created this unbelievable opportunity to have two families' friendship restored seventy years later.