Washington - Chasidic Jew Instrumental in Preserving European Cemeteries Honored by Members Of Congress
Washington - A special congressional tribute held yesterday in the United States Senate paid homage to the memory of a Chasidic Jew from Williamsburg who was instrumental in the creation of a commission, that for the past thirty years, has preserved and protected cemeteries, houses of worship and monuments throughout central and eastern Europe.
Rabbi Zvi Kestenbaum, a noted community leader and a Holocaust survivor, was the driving force behind the creation of the United States Commission for Preservation of America’s Heritage Abroad.
He passed away in 2013 at age 92.
A staunch advocate for the reconstruction of cemeteries, synagogues and other religious sites, Rabbi Kestenbaum’s efforts resulted in the drafting of a bill that would maintain these sites as a service to millions of American immigrants, giving them the ability to visit the graves of family members and connect with their ancestral roots.
Members of both the House and Senate leadership gathered in the Senate’s Kennedy Caucus Room to pay tribute to Rabbi Kestenbaum as well as current chair Lesley Weiss and former commission chairs Warren Miller, Michael Lewan, Rabbi Arthur Schneier, Israel Rubin and Betty Heitman.
Several speakers throughout the event spoke about Rabbi Kestenbaum’s tenacity which enabled him, in his broken English, to successfully lobby powerful officials to create an official federal agency that would protect neglected cemeteries that were facing potential destruction.
While Rabbi Kestenbaum’s 1979 bill passed the Assembly easily, it took years find a Senate sponsor. At yesterday’s tribute, Michael Lewan, former chief of staff to Congressman Steven Solarz, told how Rabbi Kestenbaum managed to get the bill introduced in the Senate.
“Thanks to another rabbi, Morris Sherer, and a third rabbi, Chaskel Besser, we were able to get the attention of Senator Kennedy, who was already a revered figure in American politics,” said Lewan. “I remember as if it were this morning, Solarz and Rabbi Kestenbaum and I walking over from the House side to this very building to meet with Senator Kennedy to convince him.”
Lewan related that Solarz instructed Rabbi Kestenbaum, whose English was less than perfect, to remain silent while he spoke to Senator Kennedy, but his impassioned pleas failed to elicit the desired response from Kennedy.
“I guess I could say that Kennedy was interested but not convinced,” said Lewan.
As the trio rose, Rabbi Kestenbaum took note of the many pictures of the Kennedy family that adorned the Senator’s walls and despite Solarz’s admonitions, addressed Kennedy himself.
“Just yesterday I visited Arlington cemetery and saw the magnificent graves to your brothers who are great American heroes and deserve the honor,” said Rabbi Kestenbaum. “Don’t all G-d’s children deserve the same honor?”
Those words moved Kennedy who agreed to sponsor the bill, which was signed into law by President Ronald Reagan in 1985 who appointed Rabbi Kestenbaum as deputy chairman of the committee.
Despite Rabbi Kestenbaum’s limited command of the English language, Lewan described him as “A great man, a great communicator and in my life, the finest person I’ve ever met.”
Louis Kestenbaum, who continues his father’s legacy and recently restored and preserved two Jewish cemeteries in Poland and the Ukraine and is currently pursuing the restoration of a Jewish cemetery in Czechoslovakia, accepted a plaque honoring both his work and that of his father to preserve American heritage abroad.
In his own remarks, Louis Kestenbaum, shared how his father lost his entire family during World War II and felt that his life must have been spared to serve a particular purpose.
“There was nothing he could do to bring back the millions of lives that had been lost during the war, but their legacy, the cemeteries and holy places that had been destroyed this could be recovered, restored and preserved,” said Louis Kestenbaum. “He felt that it was his moral duty as a Jew to see that this was done.”
Rabbi Zvi Kestenbaum returned to Hungary in 1976 and set about restoring the Jewish cemetery in his hometown.
“My father did not understand the meaning of the word no,” said Louis Kestenbaum. “He pushed and flattered and convinced local officials to cooperate . He built relationships with police to make sure that the graves would be watched.”
In his lifetime Rabbi Zvi Kestenbaum was instrumental in restoring over 50 cemeteries in Hungary, Poland, Romania, Russia, Czechoslovakia and Egypt.
Photos below of invited Guests who participated at the event:
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