By Harriet P. Gross
I’m basing this column on something not actually written for publication. Walter Levy, who was executive director of the Jewish Federation of Greater Dallas for 13 years, prepared it for oral presentation at a session during LearningFest 2012.
The difficulties I’ve had walking since my major, leg-breaking fall Dec. 2 kept me from attending all but one of this year’s LearningFest offerings. But last year, a session had been scheduled with three federation executives — Levy, the also-retired Moe Stein and current president/CEO Susan Kramer. I was there early, prepared for eager listening, but the discussion was called off when only a handful of folks as interested as I showed up to hear what the trio had to say.
Levy had prepared written remarks and was kind enough to give me a copy. When no similar session appeared on this year’s agenda, I decided to share his memories with our TJP readers.
“On June 1, 1973, I became the federation executive,” he wrote, “succeeding Jack Kravitz, who had served in this position for 30 years. Two weeks later, on Thursday evening, June 14, over 600 attended the federation’s annual meeting, held in Temple Emanu-El’s Tobian Auditorium. The community paid tribute to Jack and welcomed me …
“Jake Feldman and Gloria Jacobus co-chaired the event and obtained the generosity of our wine merchants, who donated champagne for this occasion. And the hors d’oeuvres were very heavy … ”
He continued with a happy report on the first Dallas Teen Tour, when 34 10th- and 11th-graders left just two weeks afterward for Israel. This initial group represented four different congregations plus some unaffiliated families.
“This activity was planned and organized by the federation’s Jewish Education Committee, chaired by Aaron Klausner,” Levy recalled. “Federation’s board granted a $300 scholarship to each participant.”
The teens took part in pre-tour study programs, became involved in community activities after their return and sent two members of the group to say a special thank-you at a federation board meeting. He called the success of this first Teen Tour “ … a harbinger of an evolving federation role in Jewish education.”
Then came Oct. 6, 1973 — the Yom Kippur War. “The news made us realize that this was no mere military skirmish: Israel was in a life-and-death struggle,” Levy wrote.
Although the 1973 federation campaign was long over, and plans for 1974 were well under way, “The next day, Sunday, we went to work,” Levy said. Volunteers were mobilized for public relations efforts as well as an early, enhanced campaign.
“Tough times tend to bring out our best,” he said. “In 1973, we raised $3.9 million. The 1974 campaign raised $7.2 million — the largest amount in the then-63 year history of the Dallas Federation.”
But bad things do happen to good people, as reflected in newspaper headlines.
“Tragedy Befalls Dallas Federation,” Levy remembered. “It was Saturday afternoon, July 11, 1975 (when) a five-alarm fire gutted the building at 11411 North Central Expressway.” The work of an arsonist turned to ashes virtually everything: records, histories of every Jewish organization, biographies of Jewish community leaders.
“At closing time the day before the fire, “ he wrote, “the offices were brimming with campaign literature, new pledge cards, everything that would officially open the 1975 campaign the following Thursday. But open the campaign we did, on schedule, with Yosef Tekoah, Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations, as keynote speaker. No, we didn’t get the expected attendance of 500. Over 1,200 people came … to make sure the disaster we had experienced would not diminish our dedication to the future.”
So the federation appointed Shirley Tobolowsky to join with Ginger Jacobs and Ruth Kahn in their fledgling archival effort, which was to become today’s Dallas Jewish Historical Society. And the fire became the impetus for planning today’s federation headquarters.
Thanks for the memories, Walter Levy. And thanks for giving me your own words and the opportunity to share them with today’s Jewish community.