With her 10-year-old son at her side, a disabled widow from Long Beach told a hushed group of 500 UJA-Federation lay and professional leaders that the local Jewish community center has "been there for us in the very darkest of times."
"I have an immune disease called fibromyalga," explained Harriet Cohen, 46, at the annual Long Island General Assembly in Roslyn, which provides UJA-Federation-funded organizations an opportunity to display their activities.
"I also have diabetes and I am insulin dependent. I am in constant pain. I go to the hospital every few months to get medication by IV, which helps me for about a month or so."
Without having the Long Beach Division of the South Shore Y there to provide her and her son with support, Cohen said, "I can't even imagine what life would have been like. ..."
She said her son, David, has attended the Y since he was 10-months old, everything from the Mommy & Me classes to nursery school, after school and holiday programs, and summer camp each year.
"The Beach Y has always treated David and myself as part of the Y family," Cohen added. "David would never have been able to go through these programs if it were not for the scholarship and program discounts that the Y has always given us. During my frequent hospitalizations, I have always been able to depend on the Y to watch out for David and make sure he was properly taken care of. Thank you for all your kindness and support."
Moments later, a young man who identified himself only as Jack, spoke of the help he has received from FEGS, the Federation Employment and Guidance Service, since he was diagnosed three years ago with AIDS.
"Needless to say, my life went into a tailspin," he recalled. "Nothing seemed to matter any more and I went deeper and deeper into a depression that I never thought I'd get out of. After almost a year of this behavior, I was hospitalized for clinical depression. I was given the usual anti-depressant medications, which did little to help."
It was then that the hospital staff referred him to a therapist at FEGS with whom he immediately connected.
"I slowly started to see the positive aspects of my life," he said. "I'm a much happier person now due to FEGS. ... My health has improved, which I feel is mostly due to my much improved attitude. The UJA has made it possible for me and many others like myself to live again."
The executive vice president of UJA-Federation, Stephen Solender, said those two recipients were examples of "what you have accomplished, of the people who have benefited from your generosity and expertise. ... You have made the world on Long Island better for them."
The president of UJA-Federation, Louise Greilsheimer, told the audience that UJA-Federation has embarked on a "major tasks to reinvent the way we work with Israel." She said the organizations's partner in Israel, the Jewish Agency, has brought 2.5 million Jews to Israel from areas of distress around the world. With that work largely finished, a new relationship must be forged, she said.
Another project highlighted during the evening was the Board of Jewish Education's March of the Living, a bi-annual event in which about 7,000 high school students from around the world visit concentration camps, synagogues, cemeteries and monuments in Poland, before flying to Israel.
One of the students, Elad Meraz of Merrick, told the group that one of the most memorable experiences of the trip to Poland occurred shortly after he stepped off the plane, one of 250 teenagers from New York State including 80 from Long Island.
"Everyone seemed to be passing through customs easily, except me. I am an Israeli citizen and I have an Israeli passport. The Polish customs officer wouldn't accept my passport. He sent me to a room where I was questioned.
"As an Israeli, I always felt different from my peers at school. At this time, I was asking myself why, as a young person going to visit the site where my ancestors were persecuted for being Jewish, I was being questioned because of my religion and where I am from. It is hard for me to this day to understand why those who had not accepted my ancestors still donít accept the existence of Israel and question an Israeli passport."
Meraz was finally admitted to Poland, which he described as a "devastated country" that made him view Israel not only as his home but as a "safe haven for all Jewish people."
He said his experience was heightened by being with thousands of other teenagers and hearing the stories of survivors who accompanied them.
"My dilemma is, who will be there for my children to tell the truth?" he asked. "Nobody but history books and ghost cities. It is our obligation to make sure that the history is not forgotten, that the youth of today take the trip of the living. ... Not only did I learn about the history of my people, but I also learned a lot more about myself."
About a half-dozen representatives of the American Veterans of Israel, about 1,000 American men and women who flew to Israel to help in its War of Independence, were also on hand. One of them, Paul Kaye, said that 192 of the American volunteers lost their lives while battling Arab countries that attacked from all sides.
He recalled that he was living in the Bronx when he was clandestinely recruited by a man who mysteriously phoned him one day and asked, "Do you want to save your people?"
Puzzled, Kaye replied, "Who are my people?"
There was no response, only terse instructions to be on a particular street corner at an assigned time and to look for a man in a black leather coat.
"If the man sticks a paper under his arm, follow him," said the caller. "If not, leave because you are being followed."
Kaye did as he was told and the man stuck the paper under his arm. The next afternoon, Kaye was sent to Baltimore for the start of a harrowing combat experience handling underwater demolition.
"We were lucky to come through it and to come home," he said.
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