It was a full house despite the inclement winter weather Tuesday night, Dec. 17, at Young Israel of Jamaica Estates, where an impressive gathering of political and rabbinic leaders, as well as prominent members of the local Jewish community, took place.
The dinner was a centennial tribute to Raoul Wallenberg, a Swedish diplomat who went above and beyond the call of duty during the Second World War, rescuing tens of thousands of Hungarian Jews from certain death at the hands of the Nazis.
Rabbi Tannenbaum, served as the evening’s master of ceremonies. Delivering the event’s keynote address was Michael Reagan, son of former U.S. president Ronald Reagan.
One of the first to address the crowd, Rabbi Tannenbaum, offered a summary of Wallenberg’s life and deeds. With numerous relatives whose lives had been saved by the Swedish diplomat, Tannenbaum testified to his “direct connection to the Wallenberg impact.” Tannenbaum went on to tell the harrowing true story of a man who frequently found himself on the wrong end of Nazi guns, and despite the constant threats and harassment (and even an assassination attempt!) “didn’t flinch.” This was a man, notes Tannenbaum, who was born into an affluent Swedish family, the equivalent of “a Rockefeller or a Kennedy,” who nonetheless abandoned a life of luxury and put his own neck on the line to save lives during the Holocaust.
Marking the event for posterity, Assemblyman Weprin presented a proclamation on behalf of the New York State Assembly. In it, Young Israel Chovevei Zion, the organization behind the gathering, was lauded as “an extraordinary organization … worthy of the esteem of the country, the community, and the great State of New York.” One of the evening’s highlights was the speech by media personality Michael Reagan. Reagan recounted how his father praised Wallenberg as a man who truly understood the meaning of human rights, being someone who was “willing to plant a tree knowing that he will never sit under it.” He went on to stress the need for “more Wallenbergs” in a world where so many are “planting trees” only for themselves.
Reagan went on to tie his father’s legacy as president to that of the Swedish civil servant, the former having posthumously granted honorary U.S. citizenship to the latter – a rare honor. Though the two had never met, Reagan notes that they were united by common cause, a fearless dedication to “freedom for all people” that led to extraordinary achievements in both cases.
Addressing the audience directly, Reagan declared that “My legacy is to make sure that people never forget Ronald Reagan. Your legacy is to make sure that no one ever forgets Raoul Wallenberg, and that this story is told beyond this room.” Indeed, this emphasis on education was a thread running throughout the evening’s proceedings. In a similar vein, Rabbi Tannenbaum declared that it was “our mission to make everyone a potential Wallenberg.” In a private interview, event co-chair Dr. Frager offers a bit of background on the event, as well as his own perspective on its ultimate purpose.
Describing his level of personal attachment to Wallenberg’s legacy, Frager notes that at one point he had intended to name his son “Raoul,” but that Mrs. Frager had vetoed the idea. “This was 31 years ago that we had this discussion,” says Frager, “so it’s not like this was an overnight event for me. “I’ve been wanting to do something to honor Wallenberg for a long time,” Dr. Frager recalls, but, being mostly preoccupied with Israel activism, he “didn’t have the right group to do it with” until recently.
When asked what his goals were vis-à-vis the Wallenberg centennial dinner, Frager said that he is “not trying to start a new foundation. Right now we’re working alongside the National Council of Young Israel.”
“I’m just trying to make sure that everyone gets to know who Raoul Wallenberg is; to reacquaint people with Raoul Wallenberg – a great man, a liberator who gave his life for our people.”