Next time you are walking down East 60th Street on your way to Central Park or to attend an event at the Harmonie Club or to meet a friend for lunch at Avra, I encourage you to look down at the plaque in the sidewalk in front of number 14 East 60th. I was reminded of the plaque the other evening while en route to a meeting on Jewish communal priorities in Israel and around the globe in the wake of the horrific October 7th attacks by Hamas, attacks in which over 1,200 of our brothers and sisters were murdered, over 240 taken hostage and still held captive – a topic to which we will return soon enough.
The text of the plaque is in Hebrew and English: Ba-bayit zeh shakhnah mifkedet ha-haganah, bayit ha-yotzer shel tz’va haganah l’yisrael (Tzahal). “This building sheltered the clandestine mission of the “Haganah,” Israel’s pre-State defense forces, which labored unceasingly for Israel’s independence and survival.” Sandwiched between the Hebrew and English are the dates 1945–1948, and to the right of the text is the symbol of the Haganah – a sword wrapped in an olive branch. You have passed it a million times; it is right there adjacent to the Avra dining shed, a chapter of American Jewish history as understudied as it is significant, that, as I will come to explain, is altogether relevant in light of the crisis our people presently face.
The tale is an extraordinary one, best told in Leonard Slater’s book The Pledge. The years 1945 to 1948 were transformative for the world, America, and American Jewry. There was the conclusion of World War II, the reverberations of the Holocaust, and the absorption of the remnant of European Jewry in an already heterogenous American Jewry constituted by descendants of Eastern European Jews and German Jews of the Harmonie Club variety (members of this congregation included), all of whom were in the midst of a GI Bill induced process of suburbanization. As if this weren’t enough, 1945 to 1948 were also the years that the Jewish community of pre-State Palestine, called the Yishuv, were actively planning for the end of the British Mandate and the hoped-for establishment of a sovereign Jewish state.
In Hebrew, Haganah means “defense,” as in the defense wing of the Yishuv – a noble calling, excepting the small but rather important detail that they lacked weapons. The story of 1945 to 1948 is the story of a race against time: How a group of American Jews, coordinated by a young Teddy Kollek – the man who would later become Jerusalem’s mayor – conducted a tireless and illegal campaign to provide arms to an army for a state not yet born. Kollek’s office, in a run-down hotel at 14 East 60th called “Hotel 14,” was the American headquarters for a network that spanned from Scarsdale to San Diego. I get chills thinking of the secret kick-off planning meeting held on July 1, 1945, before World War II had even ended, attended by David Ben Gurion and seventeen prominent unnamed American Jews – businessmen, lawyers, the head of UJA, and even one rabbi.
The stories are as colorful as they are plentiful. At the end of WWII, the War Asset Administration sent massive amounts of inoperable weaponry to the scrap heaps, to be sold legally as junk. Jewish American scrap dealers were mobilized to determine how to make the inoperable scraps operable. At just twenty-two years old, Elie Schalit was tasked with moving the arms from the United States to Palestine. Shell companies were set up; planes and ships were registered under Panamanian title. Kollek traveled the world to make alliances with anyone who could help the cause, including corrupt dictators like General Anastasio “Taco” Samoza, setting up schemes whereby weapon-filled ships ostensibly going to Nicaragua would be diverted to Palestine. Another plan that was hatched, with a touch of poetic justice, involved captured Nazi weapons that were purchased from a bankrupt communist regime with donated American money and then flown to Palestine from a military airfield in Soviet-controlled Czechoslovakia.
The plan depended not just on statesmen and wealthy businessmen, but on countless anonymous every-men whose names have long since been forgotten. At the time, the ports – the freight docks of Newark and New York – were controlled by organized crime, with members of the Jewish Mafia, like the West Coast mob boss Mickey Cohen, raising millions for the cause or Bugsy Siegel of Flamingo fame delivering cash-filled suitcases. And it wasn’t just Jews. Irish Americans as high up as New York Mayor William O’Dwyer or as plain as plainclothes cops were allies sympathetic to the Zionist efforts, no doubt fueled by their ongoing resentments against the British. Even celebrities, both Jewish and Jewish-adjacent, were engaged in the effort, most famously Frank Sinatra, who, at his friend Kollek’s behest, handed a paper bag full of cash at the Copacabana to the captain of a ship loaded with munitions. The stories are incredible – a Jewish “Ocean’s Eleven,” but better. The history that was made at 14 East 60th – something to think about next time you are waiting for a table at Avra.
And while I could go on, it is here that I need to pause to clarify why I am sharing these stories with you: what I am saying and what I am not saying. I am not saying, in any way, shape, or form, that anyone here should be smuggling arms, misdirecting resources, or doing anything a lot (or even a little bit) illegal. The vast, overwhelming majority of efforts by American Jews on behalf of pre-State Israel happened inside, not outside, the law – through little blue boxes, rallies, political advocacy, and infinite acts of hesed. Always, and especially in a time like ours when the world seems to have been thrown off its moral axis, we are obligated to choose right over wrong and the rule of law over its violation.
For me, the heroism of American Jewry’s actions between 1945 and 1948 is not in the lines that they crossed, but in the lines that they held – that our people stayed unified in purpose, were mobilized into action, and did everything in their power to assist our brothers and sisters in need. Traumatized as American Jews were by the Shoah, anxiety-ridden as they may have been at the threat facing pre-State Israel, they came together. They stepped up to the calling of the hour. Genteel German Jews and rough-edged refugees, religious and secular, socialite and socialist, rabbis and gangsters, young and old, rich and poor, celebrities and unknowns. It’s not that they didn’t have differences; of course they did. But they understood that their obligations to each other and to world Jewry far outweighed their differences. Unity, Jewish pride, mobilization – a sense of global Jewish peoplehood – that was the calling of the hour, and answering it was their heroism.
The war being fought right now is taking place on many fronts. First and foremost, we stand united in support of the IDF in their efforts to secure Israel’s safety, to free the hostages, and to free innocent Palestinians from the terrorist grip of Hamas. At the meeting I attended the other night, I heard of other fronts to the war in Israel. There are forty-three communities that have been destroyed; over 220,000 Israelis have been displaced and are living in temporary shelters in Eilat, Tiberias, and at the Dead Sea. They are in need of everything from trauma relief to schools for their children to laundry soap. There is fruit on trees that needs to be picked, a harvest that needs to be harvested. Entire industries have been brought to a halt due to the war and the call up of reserves. There are immediate needs and there is the long game – the rebuilding plan for Israel and Gaza. We need a day-after plan, a strategy as to how to secure the future of a Jewish and democratic Israel. American Jewry has a role to play in Israel. Our labors on behalf of our brothers and sisters are needed more than ever.
And just as there are short-, medium-, and long-term fronts in Israel, there are multiple fronts to be fought around the world: The information war, addressing what is being put out in print, online, and social media. The fight to keep America’s attention on the atrocities of October 7, to keep the plight of the hostages at the center of attention, and to call out and respond to antisemitism in all its forms. The fight on university campuses for the safety of our students, the stance of the administration, and the climate of the classroom. Now is the time to redouble our support for the campus Hillels working to secure the physical and mental health of our students and for the communal professionals working tirelessly to build Jewish pride and to support our Jewish students on campus.
And then, of course, there is the political front to this war. Right now, we need to make sure that the 535 members of Congress show up for Israel. We need total unity of purpose, leveraging our proportionally small demographic to disproportional political effect. We’ve seen some $15 billion of aid to Israel, two aircraft carriers in the region, and a wartime presidential visit. We need to express our endless gratitude and backing for those demonstrating support for Israel, and we need stand up to those not invested in a secure democratic Jewish state.
This war is taking place on many fronts and in many dimensions; I have named but a few: in Israel, in the United States, online, and in the quad, short-, medium- and long-term. You have shown up for rallies. You have oversold a solidarity mission. As a community, we have raised and continue to raise dollars at a pace befitting our congregation. And yet I still ask you: What are you prepared to do? Years from now, what will the plaque say about our generation? Will it say that we were so traumatized that we failed to mobilize? Will it say that we quibbled over internal differences? That we made the perfect the enemy of the good? That when Israel was on the line, we refused to stand together? Will it say that we let our egos get in the way, were duplicative in our efforts, insisting that the idea, the committee, the donation be credited to us?
I hope to God, that when we look back, when we tell our children and grandchildren about this time, the record will show that we believed in each other, that we didn’t criticize each other, that we encouraged each other, and most of all, that we all stepped up. From a toddler’s art project for an Israeli soldier made at tomorrow’s Vicki K. Wimpfheimer Mitzvah Day to a teen taking the day off school this past Tuesday to go to the rally in DC. From the extra ten minutes you will never get back for a water cooler Middle East primer with a colleague to the additional philanthropy you give for which you will never get recognition. From your fortitude in making clear to your elected officials that you are engaged on behalf of Israel to your investment in a long-term vision of Israeli-Palestinian coexistence. This is an all-hands-on-deck moment. It is a game of inches, and everyone needs to find their lane of activism.
This week is Thanksgiving – a time to be grateful for what we have and to think of those who do not. Given the moment, I encourage you turn your holiday dinner into a seder of sorts. Ask four questions around the table. Here are my suggestions that will be emailed out and put on the website in the days ahead:
1. What does Israel mean to you? Describe your love and connection to Israel. Let your children and grandchildren know the place Israel holds in your heart, so we can better understand why our hearts are presently so broken.
2. Who is not able to sit for a meal right now? Tell the story of a hostage. Consider the plight of a displaced Gazan. Leave a seat empty at the table or print out a picture and set it at a place setting.
3. What can you do on behalf of Israel? On what front will you fight? Have everyone at the table make a commitment to activism on behalf of Israel and the Jewish people in the presence of family and friends.
4. What is your long-term vision for Israel’s future and the Israeli-Palestinian future? Have a conversation that can house diverse views. Model how to disagree without being disagreeable. If we can’t share our hopes and fears with those we know and love, there is little chance that we will be able to do so as a people.
Most of all, and more important than any of the questions you ask at dinner are your actions that follow. Live proudly as a member of the people of Israel. Live with an active connection with the State of Israel. Stand tall with the name Israel. Isn’t that, after all, what our Torah reading is about? How a heel-holding child named Jacob, Yaakov, was born and lived his life trying to find his place in this world, until that fateful day when history called, and he wrestled his demons to the ground and was renamed Israel, Yisrael. That is our name, that is our calling, that is our destiny – Israel, Israel, Israel. Am yisrael chai.
Slater, Leonard. The Pledge. New York: Pocket Books, 1970.