Rabbi Zvi Kestenbaum, a Holocaust survivor and prominent community leader, was greatly pained by the destruction of cemeteries throughout post-war Eastern Europe. As an individual, he singlehandedly was responsible for the reconstruction of cemeteries, yet felt there should be an official US entity to represent the heritage sites (including, synagogues, cemeteries…) of millions of Americans in Eastern Europe, as this heritage was in danger of being further neglected and ultimately destroyed.
In 1979, due to his diligent advocacy efforts and visionary leadership, a bill was introduced in Congress that would create a commission to preserve the cemeteries and monuments associated with Jewish heritage and other immigrant communities in the United States, recognizing that as a nation of immigrants, many Americans trace their roots to foreign lands.
Years later, the legislation had not yet passed, but Rabbi Kestenbaum was still advocating on behalf of this concept. In 1985 Congressman Stephen Solarz along with Sen. Ted Kennedy were instrumental in passing legislation that established the Commission when it was included in Public Law 99-83, the International Security and Development Cooperation Act of 1985, which President Reagan signed it into law.
Thus the U.S. Commission for the Preservation of America’s Heritage Abroad was established and is now celebrating 30 years of service of preserving and protecting the monuments, cemeteries, synagogues, and churches in the countries that make up Central and Eastern Europe, thus allowing Americans connected to these sites to visit them for the first time and connect to their heritage and family roots. (http://www.heritageabroad.gov/).
At the recommendation of the Honorable Lesley Weiss, current Chair of the Commission, a special tribute honoring Rabbi Kestenbaum, who served as the founding Deputy Chairman, as well as all its former Chairs are going to be recognized at an event in the US Senate on June 18. The event will pay tribute to the Commission’s previous Chairs, since its establishment Warren L. Miller, Michael Lewan, Rabbi Arthur Schneier, the late Israel Rubin, and the late Betty Heitman. Ambassador Stuart E. Eizenstat, who served in senior positions in three US administrations, will be the program chairman.
21 individuals are appointed to the Commission by the President. Of these, seven are appointed in consultation with the Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives and seven are appointed in consultation with the President Pro Tempore of the U.S. Senate.
They are appointed for three-year terms, and continue to serve until they are replaced.
Among its former chairs is Michael Lewan who as the chief of staff to Rep. Steve Solarz was instrumental in the creation of the Commission and who greatly assisted.
Rabbi Zvi Kestenbaum in the restoration of the Beis HaChaim in the town of Liska, Hungary, where the ohel of the Rav Tzvi Hersh of Liska and his son in law and successor the Tal Chaim of Liska is located, in coordination with Harav Avrohom Friedlander Hivnover Rav, son of the previous Liska Rebbe and brother of the current Liska Rebbe.
The Holocaust is still remembered as one of the most heinous eras in history, and resulted in the annihilation of six million Jews. However, the Holocaust also left behind a rich and telling history. After the war ended, access to these sites was limited, due to the rise of Communism in Europe and the Cold War. Therefore, these important cultural sites were neglected.
Millions of Americans are grateful that to Rabbi Zvi Kestenbaum that the US government is officially committed to preventing a valuable part of their history and heritage from being lost, destroyed and forgotten. With the establishment of the Commission, the US government recognized that the population of the United States is mostly comprised of immigrants and their descendants, and that the United States has an interest in the preservation of sites in other countries, since these sites are an important part of the cultural heritage of many Americans” said Ezra Friedlander CEO of The Friedlander Group who along with Project Legacy are coordinating the logistical planning of the Congressional Tribute.
Rabbi Kestenbaum’s son Reb Louis Kestenbaum whose achievements cover a broad and diverse range of activities has been named tribute chair of the Congressional Tribute. As founder and Chairman of Fortis Property Group, he presides over a portfolio of assets valued at approximately $3 billion. As a community leader, Mr. Kestenbaum is committed to continuing and expanding the legacy of his father, Rabbi Zvi Kestenbaum. In this capacity, he serves as Chairman of the ODA Primary Healthcare Network. His philanthropic work has included the construction of an entire community for low-income families in Jerusalem. And following the example of his father, he has led a ceaseless effort to restore and preserve Jewish cemeteries in Eastern Europe. Among recent achievements have been the restoration and preservation of the Jewish cemetery in Slubice, Poland, and the restoration of over 200 graves in Ostroh, Ukraine, a project which is ongoing. At the same time, Mr. Kestenbaum currently is pursuing the restoration of the Jewish cemetery in Prostejov, Czech Republic. Both of these projects are slated for completion in 2016.
“Thanks to the foresight of Rabbi Zvi Kestenbaum, the pain of past atrocities and wars has now become a gleaming light; displaying significant cultural sites that stand as a testament to acceptance and denial of intolerance. As a member of the Jewish community, I am deeply moved by Rabbi Kestenbaum’s commitment to preserve American’s heritage abroad” declared Senator Charles Schumer.
By the Friedlander Group