One Yom Tov afternoon, when Rabbi Moshe Turk (Founder and Co-Director of the Jewish Heritage Center) and his wife made a sidewalk visit to check on JHC alumnus Melissa (Maisel) Rabb, she mentioned how she had recently participated in a Zoom reunion from a program she attended several decades ago. “What a great idea,” Rabbi Turk immediately thought. “That is exactly what the JHC alumni need to have!” With that, the idea of last week’s JHC Alumni Reunion was born. Reunions have taken place in the past at hotel retreats, dinners, etc., but this first Zoom reunion would enable alumni of this highly-respected kiruv organization from throughout the country and all over the world to easily attend, “see” each other, and share together.

An email was sent out to students and alumni of the JHC, and the idea was a hit. Soon, more than 100 alumni, guests, and JHC staff were registered.

At 3:00 p.m. Eastern Time, the computer screens began to fill with JHC students from all over the world. From Israel to Arizona, Santiago (Chile) to Florida, Arizona to Massachusetts, and numerous points in between, almost 100 JHC alumni comprising three and a half decades of Center students joined together for a touching and often humorous family reunion.

The program opened with Rabbi Naftali Portnoy, Co-Director of the JHC, who poignantly spoke about how much the students and alumni of the JHC have inspired the rabbis of the JHC. This was an understood reference to the way in which these individuals, along with more than 2,000 others who became religious with the help of the Center, succeeded in traversing that difficult journey to lead Torah-true lives. He stressed that while he knows that the alumni have tremendous hakaras ha’tov to all of the rebbeim, he wanted the alumni to know how much the lives of the JHC rebbeim have changed for the better because of their students, and thanked the alumni for making such a difference in their lives and the lives of their families. Rabbi Portnoy’s beautiful message brought tears, as well as applause, to everyone, and reinforced that while this Zoom session may look like a session with rebbeim and their students, in reality it was a JHC family get-together.

The first speaker was alumnus Cindy S. She spoke about her experience with COVID-19 and how not only did it change her life physically but also spiritually. After a serious and long hospitalization with the virus, Cindy described how she has a new, more meaningful perspective on life, appreciating so much more the things that she took for granted prior to being sick. Alone and fighting fear and despair, she felt incredibly uplifted by the wave of support from the JHC and others, in many ways, but especially by learning and praying for her recovery. She credited this support with giving her the strength to maintain hope and fight the illness. Baruch Hashem, she won the “war” with the virus and recovered.

The next two speakers, Sandy K. and Cheri L., spoke about their experiences of making Pesach living alone in quarantine and, in one case, it was doubly daunting being the first Pesach at home and not by others. While many expected to hear how hard and unpleasant it was, to the contrary we heard about how meaningful and enjoyable the Sedarim were. It was amazing to hear how people’s acts of chesed made the Yom Tov so much better for them. Whether it was doing the shopping, phone calls, or opening apartment doors so Magid and Mah Nishtanah could be said together, the message that “You are not alone” made a world of difference to these women.

Next, a photo montage was shown spanning the years of the JHC. As we “walked” down memory lane together, we reminisced, laughed, and cried at seeing ourselves and others together at JHC events. The video reminded the alumni and staff of the deep and meaningful times they shared together.

Many alumni spoke about their fond and loving memories of Rabbi Dovid Schwartz z”l, a JHC Senior Rabbinic Educator for almost two decades, who sadly passed away two years ago. His wife Sima yblc”t, and some of their children, were on the Zoom and were able to hear how Rabbi Schwartz z”l touched so many lives at the JHC. The impact and effect he made on so many Center students continues to make a difference in their thoughts and actions each day.

The next part of the program included many alumni speaking about their memories of times spent with Rabbi Turk and Rabbi Portnoy, their families, and other Center families. There was a clear and repeated theme in everyone’s words: The JHC has deeply affected and changed the lives of its alumni. The relationship between the alumni and the rebbeim and rebbetzins does not end; it is lifelong as all of the alumni know first-hand that the rabbis and their wives are always there for them and their families. As the author related on the Zoom session, “It is so frustrating to try to tell others what the JHC is. The only ones who really know and understand are fellow alumni. The JHC is one big family, and its alumni are like ‘siblings’ with a special bond that only they know – and that bond is the JHC.”

The reunion lasted for close to two hours. So many wanted to express their appreciation and try to describe what the JHC has done for them and what it continues to do 24 hours a day, seven days a week. As they sang “L’Shanah HaBaah BiYerushalayim,” the JHC family waved good-bye until they see each other again. Having cried and laughed together over Zoom, the JHC alumni and staff know that while apart in distance, they are always together in heart and mind.

 By Lorey Friedman