A strong community doesn't just exist. It must be established and cultivated through hard work. Thankfully for both the local and global Jewish community, Connie and Joe Smukler understand the work it takes — and over the past 50 years have dedicated their own blood, sweat and tears to significantly strengthening the Jewish world.
For their efforts to transform Jewish life, the Smuklers will be honored by the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia with a special evening of tribute on Feb. 15 featuring "The Thomashefskys," the Philadelphia premiere of Michael Tilson Thomas' engaging tribute to his grandparents, Boris and Bessie Thomashefsky, who set the stage for Broadway, the Borscht Belt and other classic American theater experiences.
As Boris and Bessie Thomashefsky empowered a generation of Jewish immigrants via the theater, the Smuklers have ignited passion among hundreds of other Jewish philanthropists and activists through their own dedication to tikkun olam.
"We need more people in the community like the Smuklers," said Dr. D. Walter Cohen, who attended Central High School with Joe, and who has partnered closely with Connie and Joe in supporting the Jewish community for decades.
"They're a gift not only to the Philadelphia Jewish community, but to the worldwide Jewish community," he said.
Despite having both grown up in the Philadelphia area and sharing an outstanding dedication to the Jewish people, Connie and Joe Smukler originally came from disparate worlds.
"I didn't know there was anyone other than Jews," said Joe of growing up in the Strawberry Mansion section of Philadelphia. "We were all immigrants, we all spoke Yiddish. Everyone was Jewish."
Joe, whose parents came to the United States in 1924 and who was born four years later, went to school with only Jewish children. "What else would I do, what else would I be other than Jewish?" said Joe, who was inducted into Central High School's Hall of Fame, and later went on to attend Kenyon College, Harvard Law School and the University of Oxford in England.
Connie, on the other hand, "never saw another Jew other than cousins until I was a teenager. I grew up in a totally non-Jewish neighborhood. My parents were assimilated. I was an only child and the only Jew in my elementary school. Not only my classmates, but also my teachers were anti-Semitic. They made it very unpleasant for me. I never understood what the issue was, until many years later."
"I always felt this void," she acknowledged. "Once I got out of that school, however, things started to move along."
When Connie began dating, she only dated other Jews and one of these, a blind date, was with Joe.
"Joe was supposed to come to the house at a certain time," said Connie. "He called me once and said, 'I'm going to be late.' He called me again and said, 'I'm going to be late.' He ultimately got there and where was he? At a Jewish Federation meeting. I should have known. The handwriting was on the wall for our lives."
"They are true leaders as a couple," said longtime friend and fellow philanthropist Dr. Bernard Dishler. "Whether it's Holocaust Remembrance or a demonstration for Israel, they're the two faces you know are going to be there. Joe was on one of the first planes to Israel during the intifada."
Igniting the Flame
When Connie and Joe got married in 1958, Joe was already deeply involved in Federation as chairman of its Young Men's Service Committee and a number of other community organizations, including Family Service of the Main Line and the Association for Jewish Children (precursors to Jewish Family and Children's Service), Hillel of Greater Philadelphia and the Jewish Community Relations Council.
"I had gone away for 11 years, at schools, in the Air Force. When I came back, I went to work as a young lawyer and my mentors said to me, 'You need to be involved in the community.' They really got me involved in the organizations of the Jewish community, and I haven't left them since. It was the best advice a young man could have received."
Connie's Jewish communal involvement was sparked by reading Leon Uris' book Exodusin 1959. "It was the first time for me experiencing Israel as strong, heroic and beautiful. It got me thinking that there's this country out there I really didn't know about."
Amazingly, Connie had the opportunity to return the favor. During a Simchat Torah service in a Moscow synagogue, some 20,000 people were in the street outside, and thousands more were inside. When they learned that Uris was in attendance, there was stunned silence, followed by wild cheering for the Zionist writer who had deeply touched the lives of so many Soviet Jews.
Uris was asked to carry the Torah around the synagogue, but overwhelmed by the congregation's reaction, he declined.
He was sitting next to Connie and Joe. Connie turned to Uris and said, "Leon, just because you didn't write it, doesn't mean that you can't carry it." So Uris agreed, and, holding the Torah, "walked into the crowd. Hands reached out to touch the scrolls and Uris, kissing both, and crying.*
Two years after the Six-Day War in June of 1967, though Old Jerusalem was still in rubble and without electricity, Connie and Joe decided they had to go to Israel.
"It was late at night and the pilot said, 'You are now flying over Tel Aviv,' said Connie. "We looked out the window and started crying, and I've been crying ever since. Joe said that there was something in me that needed to be ignited. Once it was, it caught on fire. Going to Israel in 1969 played a powerful, powerful role in our Jewish lives."
The couple would return to the Jewish homeland multiple times over the next few years, and would spend a memorable summer vacation there with their three children. Therefore, it was fitting that, in 1973, Israel would be the location where the couple's involvement in the Soviet Jewry movement — a cause for which they are best known — would begin.
* From A Treasury of Jewish Inspirational Stories (Jason Aronson Inc.) by Lawrence J. Epstein.