VOLUNTEERING – MAKING IT WORK – BY ELLIN CURLEY

When I lived in New York City in the 1980’s, I did volunteer work for AIPAC – the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. They are not a PAC, despite those letters in their name. They are a lobby group, dedicated to promoting a strong American-Israeli relationship and supporting pro-Israel policies in the U.S. Congress. As part of that larger mission, they strive to keep Americans and their government informed about issues relating to Israel and the Jewish community all over the world.

The point of this story has nothing to do with AIPAC’s overall purpose. It has to do with my little area of influence – volunteers in the New York City office. My job was to organize the volunteers and find something for them to do. No one before me had figured out what to do with these interested and enthusiastic people.

I came up with a brilliant idea. I decided to provide educational programs in the form of discussion groups. So I started planning social evenings, usually at my home but sometimes at the home of another volunteer. I always had a few other volunteers working with me on the logistics for these evenings.

AIPAC and I provided the food and drink for the event and the speaker. I managed to find interesting speakers with expertise in a wide range of issues. It turned out to be a very popular format. The interactive discussions were very lively, enjoyable and informative.

Some of these subjects involved specific issues faced by Israel and the Arabs in the Middle East. Some involved the plight of Jews being persecuted in other parts of the world. I remember there was a crisis in Ethiopia that resulted in a mass emigration of poor Ethiopian Jews to Israel. This caused serious assimilation problems in Israel, which we talked about. Another major topic was antisemitism in the U.S. One evening focused on Louis Farrakhan, a charismatic black religious leader and activist who praised Hitler. We had a video of a speech he gave saying that Hitler’s main failing was that he didn’t do a thorough enough job on the Jews.

I kept these events going for about two years. We got good turn outs and rave reviews. This was the only ongoing AIPAC program in the entire New York area.

I was proud that I created a successful format that got people involved and educated. But sadly, I couldn’t find anyone to run the program when I left. I’m afraid it just died out. But I took what could have been a pro forma, nothing job and turned it into something. And I had fun doing it.

A FAMILY OF ACTIVISTS – BY ELLIN CURLEY

I am a passionate progressive. But I am not an activist. I don’t get out and protest in the streets. Twice in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s I did volunteer work for the Presidential Campaigns of Eugene McCarthy and then Ed Muskie, both liberal. That’s the extent of my hands on involvement.

My grandmother, on the other hand, was a serious political activist. She was a socialist in tsarist Russia in the early 1900’s. Being a socialist at the time could be dangerous, so the socialists had to meet secretly to plan and organize. One meeting my grandmother told me about was in rowboats on a lake in the middle of the night. That’s John Le Carre territory!

My grandmother, Sarah, as a young woman in Russia

At one point, the government allowed a large socialist rally near where my grandmother lived, in Minsk. My grandmother talked her sister and mother into going with her. They didn’t tell her father, who was a staunch tsarist. The rally did not go well. A large crowd gathered and was listening to speeches, when the Russian police, — Cossacks — plowed into the crowd on horseback. They shot or clubbed anyone they could reach. The whole thing had been a set up by the government.

My grandmother was literally saved by a dead body falling on her and shielding her from the police. She managed to get her mother and sister home safely. But her father was furious that Grandma had put his beloved wife and favorite daughter (her sister) in danger. This father daughter fight precipitated my grandmother’s move to America in 1908.

In America, Grandma maintained her enthusiasm for left-wing politics and causes and she expected me to follow in her footsteps. I had the opportunity during college. I went to Barnard College from 1967-1971. Barnard is part of Columbia University, the epicenter of the campus protest movement of the late 1960’s and early 1970’s. The Movement was born at Columbia with the formation of the radical SDS (Students For A Democratic Society). The campus was ‘occupied’ regularly by the radicals and they got a lot of press. It quickly grew into a national protest movement.

Grandma and me around the time I went to college

I didn’t believe in the goals of the movement. I felt that the SDS-ers were negative and destructive. They wanted to tear down ‘the system’ but had no plans for what they wanted to put in its place. My grandmother was furious with me because I wasn’t on the barricades fighting for the revolution. She said that if the young didn’t protest and rebel, then who would fight to change things and make them better?

Grandma had been more successful radicalizing her daughter than me. My mom became very active in the left-wing labor movement in the 1930’s and 1940’s. She helped make unions the powerful force they were in America for decades. She worked with actress and teacher Stella Adler and stripper/celebrity Gypsy Rose Lee to organize fund-raisers for the incipient labor unions. She also marched in the streets for the cause with these ladies and others. One day, she was almost attacked by angry counter protesters. But the police stepped in to protect her.

My mom as a young woman

Mom’s first husband was also politically very active. He was actually a member of the Communist Party in America. He was also a doctor. One of the things he did was give physical exams to young Americans who wanted to go to Spain to fight the fascist Franco and keep them from getting a foothold in Europe. He certified that men who were healthy enough to join the Spanish Freedom Fighters. I think what he did was illegal. I know he risked losing his medical license, if not his freedom. He was brave as well as committed.

So I was a political disappointment to my grandmother. But she adored me anyway. I was active in a few Jewish organizations over the years and always gave to charities and liberal organizations. I was always a socially conscious person, partly due to her influence. Grandma would actually have been proud of me as I got older. I was 26 when she died. She wished that I had manned\ a few barricades while I was young, as she had.

The way things are going with Trump in this country today, I may yet end up on the barricades!