A strong sense of community permeated the Kennedy Caucus Room of the US Senate on June 18 as an array of prominent officials representing a cross section of House and Senate leadership. Members of Congress joined with civic, religious, and communal leaders as they commemorated the 30th anniversary of the U.S. Commission for the Preservation of America’s Heritage Abroad.
In 1985, Congressman Steve Solarz along with Senator Ted Kennedy were instrumental in passing legislation that established the Commission. It was included in the International Security and Development Act of 1985.
The mandate of the U.S. Commission for the Preservation of America’s Heritage Abroad (http://heritageabroad.gov/) is to preserve and protect monuments, cemeteries, synagogues, and churches in Central and Eastern Europe. The Commission’s current chair is Lesley Weiss.
The Commission’s members are appointed by the President of the United States and Congressional leadership. It is noteworthy to highlight that a Chasidic individual, by the name of Rabbi Zvi Kestenbaum, was the catalyst whose efforts ultimately led to the Commission’s establishment.
Ambassador Stuart Eizenstat, MC, commenced with a clear message – identity is something that we must hold on to and value. Otherwise, it will simply and tragically be left behind.
The theme echoed throughout the program was the tenacity of Rabbi Zvi Kestenbaum and his ability to communicate so effectively with powerful officials and ultimately establish an official U.S. agency.
Members of Congress that participated included: Senate Foreign Relations Committee Ranking Member Ben Cardin, Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, House Foreign Affairs Chairman & Ranking Member Rep. Ed Royce and Eliot Engel, House Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer, Democratic National Committee Chair Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, Rep. Grace Meng and Rep. Kay Granger, who chairs the powerful Foreign Operations Appropriations sub-committee.
Senator Cardin, who mentioned his family’s own Eastern European roots, said, “Our past gives us strength and instructions that we carry into the future.” Democratic Whip Hoyer discussed how efforts to destroy cultural sites are not only attempts to destroy objects, they are attempts to destroy the faiths the sites symbolize. He further mentioned “Rabbi Zvi Kestenbaum, a Holocaust survivor, was greatly pained by the destruction of cemeteries throughout the post Holocaust era, and how as an individual, he single-handedly was responsible for the reconstruction of cemeteries, yet felt there should be an official US entity to preserve the heritage sites of millions of Americans in Eastern Europe, as this heritage was in danger of being further neglected and ultimately destroyed.”
“Rabbi Zvi Kestenbaum was not only a visionary leader but an intelligent and wise person. He knew he had to actually do something not just speak about it, he knew how to organize the Commission and most importantly he knew how to be a voice for the people” said Rep. Ed Royce.
Former chairs of the Commission, Warren Miller and Michael Lewan, who was also chief of staff to the late Congressman Steve Solarz, were honored alongside its current chair Lesley Weiss.
Ezra Friedlander, CEO of The Friedlander Group, in conjunction with Project Legacy coordinated the planning of the event. He shared a personal memory of the effect Michael Lewan of the Commission and Rabbi Zvi Kestenbaum played in preserving the cemetery in Liska, Hungary, a site of grave reverence for Hungarian Jewry.
Mr. Lewan shared interesting anecdotal details of how Rabbi Kestenbaum convinced Senator Ted Kennedy to support the creation of the Commission. “I remember as if it were this morning, Rep. Solarz with Rabbi Kestenbaum and I walking over from the House side to this very building to meet with Senator Kennedy to convince him.”
“I guess I could say that Kennedy was interested but not convinced,” said Lewan.
Rabbi Kestenbaum addressed Senator Kennedy directly, “Just yesterday I visited Arlington cemetery and saw the magnificent graves to your brothers who are great American heroes and deserve the honor. Don’t all G-d’s children deserve the same honor?”
Those words moved Kennedy. He ultimately agreed to sponsor the bill which President Reagan signed into law, and later appointed Rabbi Kestenbaum as deputy chairman of the Commission.
Rabbi Kestebaum’s son Louis Kestenbaum was the 30th Anniversary Tribute Chairman. He is Chairman of Fortis Property Group, that controls a portfolio of assets valued at approximately $3 billion. At the event, he announced the restoration and preservation of the Jewish cemetery in Slubice, Czech Republic, as well as the restoration of over 200 graves in Ostroh, Ukraine. The initiative was warmly praised by Ambassador Gandalovic of the Czech Republic and Yaroslav Brisiuck , Charge d’Affaires of the Embassy of Ukraine.
Louis Kestenbaum shared his father’s determination with the audience declaring, “My father did not understand the meaning of the word ‘no’. He convinced local officials to cooperate. He built relationships with police to make sure that the graves would be watched.” He also remembered his father’s time in the Holocaust, recalling how his father knew that “G-d kept him alive to fulfill a purpose – and that has become very apparent to all of us.”
In his closing remarks Louis Kestenbaum said, “There was nothing he could do to bring back the millions of lives that had been lost during the war, but their legacy, the cemeteries and holy places that had been destroyed this could be recovered, restored and preserved. He felt that it was his moral duty as a Jew to see that this was done. I thank Chair Weiss and the U.S. Commission for the Preservation of America’s Heritage Abroad for its efforts to continue my father’s legacy.”
PHOTOS – Click on photos to magnify:
By The Friedlander Group
[Photo and Video Credit: Shmuel & Dov Lenchevsky]