My JCP Story: Richard Leibovitch – Yom Kippur 5777
I would like to thank Rabbi Jason, Susan, Erin, Evan, and the rest of the JCP leadership team for asking me to speak today about my Jewish journey. Over my career, I have been asked to speak at many business events, usually to talk about interest rates, the stock market, real estate or some topic related to my work, and usually I can talk for hours off the top of my head on those types of subjects. But here, I have been asked to speak about my Jewish Journey. For that, I have spent the past month worrying about what I can say to even fill up a 5 minute speaking spot.
In a way, its been a great learning experience for me, just thinking about what I was going to say today. I hadn’t really thought much about my Jewish Journey. I didn’t even know that I have even had one. But in fact, as I started to think about it, I realized I did have a bit to say on this subject, so I thought I would spend the next hour or so telling you about my life story…. Don’t worry, I wouldn’t torture you with that, especially on empty stomachs.
My journey starts with my mother, Diane Medina, who was born in Egypt and attended a Catholic school as a child. She was forced to hide her Jewish identity for fear of retribution. Despite their best efforts to blend in, she and her parents were forced to leave Egypt in 1958 when Nasser took over power in Egypt, leaving their lives, their jobs and their savings behind. With only a suitcase in hand, my family moved to France (one of only two countries accepting Egyptian Jews at the time, the other being Brazil). My grandfather, who had been a banker in Egypt, began his new life by selling books door-to-door. My mother, who was 15 at the time, started to do some modeling as a way to help support the family. At 18 she became Miss Paris, then Miss France and then quarterfinalist in the Miss World contest. She met my father during a fashion show in Italy. My father himself, was the son of 7 brothers who had left Romania in 1920 and landed in Rimouski, Quebec and began their new lives selling suits out of the back of a truck.
My father passed away when I was 6 years old, and my mother sent me to France to live with my grandparents. I was raised in an environment where we had to hide our Jewish identity. Even in the early 1970’s being Jewish was not something you would want everyone to know in France. I returned to Canada a few years later, and was sent to a Catholic elementary school. Unlike my mother, at least they excused me from the Catholicism class and I got to spend the hour in the principal’s office. Needless to say this made me really popular with the other kids in class. So thankfully, I didn’t stay too long in that school.
Unlike my mother and father, I was bar-mitzvah’d. Preparing for my Bar-Mitzvah was really my first encounter with Judaism, although many of the traditions and teachings, like putting on Tefillin, were really foreign to me and certainly not reinforced at home. By the time I went to college, it seemed like being Jewish wasn’t something that I needed to hide so much anymore. I had started to meet a lot more Jewish kids and although my university, McGill, did not begin accepting Jews until 1945, by the time I got there, I didn’t feel so out of place. In fact, during my time there, we started the McGill chapter of Sigma Alpha Mu, or better known as Sammies, which is a Jewish Fraternity.
Its only when I got to New York City, as a young professional, that I became comfortable enough to come out of my Jewish shell. For me, New York is a special city and one of the few cities in the world where being Jewish is not something that you have to hide. Clearly in New York there is strength in numbers. If Jerusalem is the heart of Judaism, then New York is very much the muscle. Although I never felt that I had the Jewish education or background to be a leader or even a contributor from a religious standpoint, I have felt an ever increasing need to help my community in the way that I could – with my time and money. I saw first hand from my family how a shrinking community can become weak and be forced into hiding. For me, part of being Jewish meant that I had to help in the best way that I knew how.
I moved to Boston in 1999 and joined the oldest Jewish community in Massachusetts, Temple Ohabei Shalom, established in 1842. Unlike myself, I sent my kids to Hebrew School. They were Bar-Mitzvah’d there. But even in Boston, Jewish communities today struggle to survive and grow. My temple had experienced decades of declining membership. From 300 families in 1980, the membership had dwindled to only about 70 families. The leadership came up with an idea to counteract the decline. If they could start a pre-school, they could attract more young families to the synagogue. I felt this would be a great way to help the community grow again. Along with the Trust family, we helped fund a new pre-school, and I am happy to say that 10 years later, the preschool has 120 children and is considered one of the most sought after pre-schools in the Boston area. Most importantly, the synagogue’s membership has stabilized and has begun to grow again.
Which brings me to JCP. When my wife Cindy and I moved back to New York from Boston, we were looking for both a pre-school as well as a Jewish community to be a part of. JCP met both of those needs. I guess it helped that we decided to move to Tribeca as well, so it was pretty convenient. After attending some Bim Bom classes, we knew that JCP was our type of place with our kind of people.
Andrew’s first JCP Class was at the Dance Factory. We met some wonderful downtown families that we share so much in common with. We are close friends with many of them today. We were encouraged to come to Friday Night Lights, which we have now attended on several occasions. We also have been able to participate in services in these wonderful albeit temporary locations and meet this amazing community of like-minded families. For me, not growing up in a religious home, JCP has allowed me to fit into a Jewish community in a gradual and gentle way. It has made Cindy and I realize that being a community is first and foremost a function of the people. When Cindy lost her mother earlier this year, we were overwhelmed by the love and support that we received from our JCP community.
But I have always wondered how amazing JCP would be if we could combine the wonderful energy and connection that we have as families, with a home that could not only accommodate the pre-school but could also provide us with a permanent sanctuary as well as places for kids to play and adults to drink. A place that we along with hopefully generations of families to follow us that they could call home. For me, being able to contribute in helping make this a reality is not only a fitting tribute to my family, who at times had to hide their identity, but a great way for me to help preserve and grow our community.
For our family, JCP has become a key part of our Jewish identity and I look forward to seeing our son Andrew grow up as a Jewish boy, being proud of his heritage and identity, and being surrounded by friends in a warm and loving community.