Forty-five women with a clear vision of their roles as Jewish community leaders came together to hear family reminiscences of another strong Jewish woman, one who led Israel through turbulent times.
The late Golda Meir was the focus of the annual Lion of Judah, Crown of Esther, and Pomegranate event of the Women’s Philanthropy Division of the Jewish Federation of Greater Middlesex County. Dinner guests, gathering Oct. 26 at the East Brunswick home of Judy Steinweis, did not hear a historical overview of the life of the Israel leader, who served as prime minister from 1969 to 1974; they rather heard about “Aunt Goldie” from Alice Golembo, Meir’s great-niece.
They also heard from women who have raised money for Jews locally and around the world. In the last year, the federation’s Women’s Philanthropy division raised $1.1 million, or 46 percent of the total federation campaign.
“This year the need for social services is rising,” said Women’s Philanthropy director Audrey Napchen. “Therefore, our support is crucial in meeting those demands, and our women are sensitive to those needs and have already shown their ability and desire to bring positive change to our community.”
Four women were recognized as Lions of Judah in the last year by contributing $5,000 or more to the campaign: Debra Bermann of East Brunswick; Meryl Gonchar of North Brunswick; Laura Baron of Hackettstown, formerly of Highland Park; and Barbara Chernak of Monroe. In attendance were a number of Crown of Esther donors, those who contributed at least $3,600, and Pomegranates, who gave a minimum of $1,500.
Paula Saginaw, a member of the national Women’s Philanthropy board and UJA Campaign chair for United Jewish Communities of MetroWest NJ, addressed the funding responsibilities of Jewish women. “We all look out at the difficulties and needs of our communities as an endless ocean,” she said. “But endless does not mean hopeless.”
Wendy Friedman of East Brunswick, who went on the recent Mission Possible federation mission to Israel, gave an emotional recap of her experience.
“You really have no idea what federation does for people in Israel,” she said. “People there were so happy to see us. They thanked us wherever we went.”
Friedman told about the mission’s visit to Susan’s House, which teaches at-risk teens business and art skills.
“These teens now feel important,” she said. “Now they have a certain place in life.”
Friedman also said the visitors received a firsthand lesson in the difficult daily lives of Sderot residents, who have been subject to missile attacks from Gaza for years. While her group was visiting, warning sirens sounded, which meant they had 15 seconds to find shelter. She recalled meeting children “who don’t smile anymore, they are so afraid of the bombs.”
Golembo, a Westfield resident and development director for the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra, was closely involved in the 1977 Broadway play Golda. She played a number of supporting roles and was consultant to the playwright, William Gibson (who later wrote Golda’s Balcony).
She shared amusing stories of her aunt, with whom she briefly lived in Israel. Golda, the younger sister of Golembo’s grandmother, Shayna, was a frequent visitor to Golembo’s childhood home in Maryland during her many visits to the United States to raise funds in Israel’s early years.
At times impersonating her famous aunt while reading from actual speeches, Golembo also talked about her uncle, Morris Myerson — “such a nice guy” — who reluctantly moved to Palestine in 1921 with his Zionist wife, settling on the rustic and swampy Kibbutz Merhavia in the Jezreel Valley.
“Aunt Goldie used to tell me when I was living with her in the early ’70s that she came to clear the land,” said Golembo. “Despite the heat, disease, and flies, she was out there working shoulder to shoulder with the men.”
Because of Morris’ dislike of kibbutz life and a constitution that prevented his adjusting to its physical hardships, the couple moved to Tel Aviv, where Golda became a housewife forced to take in laundry to make ends meet. Golembo said her aunt — who described that period as “the lowest point in her life” — left Morris four years later with their two children and began her rise through Israeli politics. The two never divorced but never lived together again.
Aunt Goldie, said Golembo, had her shortcomings.
“She was a brilliant politician but not a very good mother — and she was the first to admit it,” Golembo said. “She was on a mission. But she made up for it by spoiling her grandchildren.”
There was one thing, however, she would not do even for her grandchildren — give up cigarettes. Taking on the persona of Golda at age 81, Golembo said, “I am not going to give them up now. It’s not like I’m going to die young.”