The DNA of Our Jewish Lives

Rosenberg guest column image
Officers of the Young People’s Division, YPD (now referred to as the Young Leadership Division, YLD), gather around a table in 1958 to review the monthly YPD newsletter. Standing (left to right): Maynard Wishner; Alan Rosenberg; Lewis Baron; Seated (left to right): Frank Alschuler; Saralyn Dry.

My father passed away on Dec. 13, 2013.   Alan M. Rosenberg was 85 years old.  He was married to my mom for 54 years, had three children, seven grandchildren, and lived a life devoted to intellectual pursuits, his vocation, the Jewish community, and, among other things, a vast array of plants he tended to in his home.   He made creative birthday, anniversary, and Valentine's Day cards for members of his family, was his own search engine on any topic, and was very precise and particular in how he lived his life. 

In the months that have passed since he died, I have done what any son or daughter would probably do in that time: balancing my busy life at work and home while trying to think about my dad, process what his life and death have meant to me, and attempt to put it all in perspective.  Along the way, I have said Kaddish in a variety of places, kept my beard from the Shloshim mourning period (it was, after all, the kind of winter to keep a beard), and have had moments where I came across a photo of him with my kids which made me smile.

As I look back on the weeks following his death, two thoughts kept popping into my head during those days and continue to this day.

First, I think about my own Jewish DNA.  My dad was a former president of the Young People's Division (YPD), which today is known as the Young Leadership Division (YLD).  Not only did he meet my mom during their YPD days, but his involvement in Federation at the time helped define who he was, what was important to him, and provided him with lifelong friends.  And while my own journey in the Jewish community played itself out over the years through various means, from summers at OSRUI camp to trips to Israel, my professional path in the Federation world is not a coincidence.  My dad never pushed me in this direction and frankly, early on in my career while working at the Jewish Federations in Detroit and then Cleveland, I didn't reflect all that much on his past Federation involvement.  But I gravitated to this line of work and I have to think that I was programmed to do so, in no small part because of what he did and stood for over the years.  It rubbed off on me somehow and I'm glad it did.

The second realization relates to the first.  As we prepared for Shiva, we naturally pulled out old and recent photos of my dad and the family.  Of the photos that we laid out on the dining room table, the ones that struck me the most and that my mom was particularly interested in having out were the photos (and speeches and event programs) from those old YPD days.  There were photos from the late '50s of my dad with other Federation volunteers, some of whom ended up being well-known leaders in our community, and all who did their part to build our community and raise the dollars necessary to help those in need.  As I looked at these photos, I began to wonder what other photos and papers from our Jewish community's history are sitting in boxes in homes throughout Chicago and the suburbs.  While our Federation, its agencies, and other communal institutions showcase plenty of important documents and photos from our shared past, the bulk of the community archives can probably be found in our basements.  After seeing the photos during Shiva, we all wondered why we hadn't spent more time looking at them, particularly in my dad's final years.  

And that is, perhaps, the lesson that should be learned, and it is especially timely as we prepare to join with family and friends to observe the Passover Seders.  Just as we tell the story of our Exodus from Egypt every year, we also have an obligation throughout the year to tell the story of those who came before us and what they accomplished to make our Jewish community what it is today.  Those photos are not meant to collect dust or be stored in boxes.  Rather, they need to come alive and be shared.  And whether they are items from historic community events, newspaper clippings, or just old summer camp photos, we are who we are today because of what took place many years ago.  Our Jewish community has flourished for decades and today is stronger than ever.  We need to take a moment, look at what we have, and remember how we got here.  By doing so, we honor the past and continue to build for the future.

Jim Rosenberg is Chief of Staff of the Jewish United Fund/Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago.

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