By Daniel Perez –
Leonard’s of Great Neck was filled to capacity Monday night, August 26, as CHAZAQ celebrated the completion of a Torah scroll at their inaugural gala. A Queens-based kiruv (outreach) organization founded in 2006, CHAZAQ works with Jews of all backgrounds, with a special emphasis on public school students from New York’s Bukharian community, many of whom immigrated from the former Soviet Union. It was fitting, then, that the evening’s keynote address was delivered by none other than noted political commentator Michael Reagan, son of former president Ronald Reagan.
Monday night’s event was chaired by CHAZAQ founder Rabbi Ilan Meirov, and Rabbi Yitzchok Oelbaum, with entertainment provided by popular Jewish vocalists Michoel Pruzansky and Avi Peretz. Words of inspiration were delivered by Rabbi Zecharia Wallerstein, founder of Ohr Naava, and Rav Gideon Ben Moshe, a Rabbinical judge from Jerusalem. The evening’s guest list was a veritable who’s who of local community leaders, and included noted Israel activist and CUNY trustee Jeffrey Wiesenfeld, State Assemblyman David Weprin, and New York City Council Members Karen Koslowitz and Peter Vallone Jr.
In a private interview, Assemblyman Weprin described how CHAZAQ has, through its outreach work, given program participants “an appreciation for Yiddishkeit and for Am Yisrael and Medinat Yisrael, and is involved in many activities throughout the Jewish community.”
“It’s a wonderful organization,” he added, “and I’m very proud to be a supporter.”
Perhaps more representative of the direct beneficiaries of CHAZAQ’s programs are Shalom and Victoria Zirkiev, who were on the dinner committee. “CHAZAQ does such amazing work in our community,” said Mrs. Zirkiev. Describing how CHAZAQ works with children and adults alike, putting them “on the right track,” she noted “People like us—we’re from the Soviet Union—we were so lost [to] the Jewish religion, and our traditions, and they help bring us back.”
Expressing admiration for the “amazing job” done by CHAZAQ, Mr. Zirkiev stressed the importance of the idea that “whatever they do, it’s important that a person does it from the bottom of their heart.” Expounding by way of analogy, he explained that, just as a Jewish woman who enjoys the mitzvah of baking challah, putting her heart and soul into it, will end up with a vastly superior product than a woman who suffers through the same physical task, so too, “[CHAZAQ founders] Yaniv and Rav Ilan [Meirov] and everybody that they’re associated with give so much of their heart into the organization that it spreads out to everyone else, and I think that what they’re doing is amazing.”
The evening’s honorees included State Assemblyman Michael Simanowitz, who was presented with the Community Service Award. Philanthropists David and Rivka Meirov were “crowned” with the Keter Torah (lit. “crown of Torah”) Award. Isaac Abraham, Esq., and his wife Yael were recognized both for their financial contributions and volunteer work with public schooled Jewish teens, receiving the Youth Leadership Award. For their support of CHAZAQ’s outreach work, local entrepreneur Benny Yunatanov and his wife Adina received the Chesed Award. Rabbi Rafael Baruch Zavulunov of Congregation Ohr Hatorah in Kew Gardens Hills was honored for “his commitment to Torah causes and CHAZAQ’s mission of building a stronger future” with the Rabbinic Leadership Award. Richard Harris, Esq., and his wife Lena, promote the cause of Jewish education both through their support of CHAZAQ and as the founders of the Richard and Lena Harris Family Foundation, and were given the Hakarat Hatov (“gratitude,” lit. “recognizing the good”) Award.
Last but certainly not least, Drs. Joseph Frager and Paul Brody both received the Israel Leadership Award, in appreciation for their work on behalf of the Jewish state. The Brodys and Fragers are well-known for their work with the annual Israel Day Concert in Central Park, with Dr. Frager serving as its organizer for the past 20 years, and Dr. and Mrs. Brody chairing the event for the last eight. It was also Frager and Brody who helped facilitate Mr. Reagan’s appearance at the dinner.
Recognizing the importance of outreach to less affiliated Jews, Dr. and Mrs. Brody have been longtime supporters of Chabad, and have more recently embraced CHAZAQ. “This growing organization, CHAZAQ, does so much for the community,” said Dr. Brody, “and also has a strong affinity for Eretz Yisrael.
“For them to invest the kind of capital to bring [Michael Reagan] shows that they are very strong when it comes to the defense of Israel, the future of Israel, and the relationship between Israel and America.”
Dr. Frager was equally enthusiastic in his praise for CHAZAQ, calling it “a great organization.” In discussing the keynote speaker, Frager explained how “his father, Ronald Reagan, was responsible for freeing Soviet Jews, and this is his legacy. These are his ‘children of freedom.’ ” Dr. Frager described Mr. Reagan as more representative of his father than any of his siblings, noting that the late President Reagan deserves great “hakaras hatov” for his role both in liberating Soviet Jewry, and in freeing the world from the tyranny of the Soviet Union.
In addition to a lavish multi-course meal by Royal Caterers, the evening’s highlights included the auctioning off of a handful of letters in the newly dedicated sefer Torah, which had already been partially written by some of Israel’s top sages, to be completed by the lucky donors. It was certainly a testament to the work of CHAZAQ, and indicative of the caliber of individuals drawn to the organization, that attendees pledged thousands of dollars just for the privilege of filling in a single letter written by a respected Torah scholar. The final letter in the scroll, a lamed started by Rav Chaim Kanievsky, was purchased for the staggering sum of $13,500 by Hakarat Hatov Award recipient Richard Harris. Dedicating this impressive display of charity to his wife (whose name starts with the same letter), Harris extolled the unity on display at the CHAZAQ Dinner, drawing parallels to his own marriage. “We represent what can happen when Sephardim and Ashkenazim get together,” he said, “and the possibilities are endless. So I just wish, and I pray to Hashem, that we have more of these types of events where Sephardim and Americans get together with a common cause … and that we should all be united … because we are all Jews, and we all need to stick together.”
Rounding out the evening’s presentations was Michael Reagan, the oldest child of President Ronald Reagan and outspoken supporter of Israel. Reagan, who was himself adopted, started out by commending CHAZAQ for its work with at-risk youth. “I really appreciate what your organization does,” said Reagan.
Attempting to draw a connection between CHAZAQ and his illustrious father, Reagan declared “I love talking about [my father’s] legacy, [and] one of those legacies is this: That many of you are here tonight because Ronald Reagan stood tall back in 1987 in front of the Brandenburg Gate and said to Gorbachev ‘Tear down this wall!’ ”
Over the course of his address, Reagan offered some amusing, heartfelt anecdotes involving his father, and told about how his own perspective on Israel was based on wisdom imparted by him. He also discussed the importance of a strong U.S.-Israel relationship that he felt was being undermined by the current administration. Referring again to his father’s legacy, he spoke of the SDI (Strategic Defense Initiative) or “Star Wars” program, created to counter the threat of nuclear ballistic missiles from the USSR. President Reagan’s refusal to compromise with Russia on this program, the younger Reagan maintains, enabled these technologies to eventually form part of Israel’s missile defense systems.
Declaring—to resounding applause—that the United States and Israel are “brothers in arms,” he stated that “A strong Israel makes America safer. A strong America and a strong Israel make the world safer.”
In keeping with the spirit of unity generated by the first Annual CHAZAQ Dinner, Reagan reaffirmed his support for the Jewish state in the strongest of terms. He argued that while Israel’s friends in the American political arena approach the issue as if they were “playing golf,” Israel’s enemies are “playing hockey,” and he urged those assembled to support U.S.-Israeli relations with the same vigor as those who seek to hinder them. He ended his speech with a gesture of solidarity not just with the Israeli government, but with the Jewish people as a whole, “I’ll just say this,” he announced, donning a yarmulke, “When it comes to the Reagans, this Reagan is a Jew.”
Daniel Perez is a freelance writer, editor, and media consultant based in New York City. He can be reached at Daniel@PerezConsulting.org.
For more information about CHAZAQ, visit www.chazaq.org or email firstname.lastname@example.org