“It’s like Uber but for paramedics and first responders. You gotta meet the founder, Eli”.
My friend Joe shared some version of this with me early last year. Shortly thereafter, I met with Eli and then my family decided to donate an ambucyle. It was an easy decision.
However, we wanted to take it a step further…
But first, quick context…When I was young, maybe six or so years old, I remember seeing these heroes on the ski mountain wearing red jackets, with white crosses, skiing around helping to save lives. I thought they were real-life superheroes. Twenty-plus years later I still try to make it to Vermont to volunteer as a member of Ski Patrol.
Back to Feb 2022…
I thought maybe we could recreate that feeling for kids to inspire a sense of wonder and adventure. We asked the United Hatzalah team if we could donate the bike at a school, with all the kids there. They were of course happy to do so. Little did we know the bikes would be in the field responding to the worst atrocity against Jews since the Holocaust.
The bike reads:
“Whoever saves one life, saves the world entire.”
And that’s the point: all it takes is one act and one person to change the world.
Maybe that will be you today… stepping up, getting out of your comfort zone, and doing even just one thing that can make a small but massive impact.
This week, my family and I were honored by my childhood school for the work we’ve done over the years to give back to the school and to the community.
I gave a speech and made another commitment.
Both are below…
**** The speech ****
Next week is Passover.
It’s a time in the Jewish tradition when we talk about how we escaped bondage, oppression, and persecution and were freed from slavery in Egypt.
Growing up every year, when my grandparents were around, we would go to their house for this holiday. I would sit next to my grandfather at the head of the table, watching him tell the story about how, we, as Jews, were freed from slavery.
As some of you may know, my grandparents were Holocaust survivors. And like the Jews from Egypt, my grandparents managed to survive their own Pharoah and discover freedom on a small farm in Toms River, New Jersey.
To sit next to my grandfather, and listen to him talk about Jews being persecuted and freed, thousands of years ago, was quite surreal to me.
Even in my eulogy about him, I remember remarking about how these moments felt like a window into the past, through his eyes and his narration of the Sedar, with his Yiddish accent.
At a young age, I could appreciate this relationship between Passover and the Holocaust. The Hebrew Academy certainly had a role to play in helping me understand these chapters of our past.
But I remember one year in particular.
I was sitting at the head of the table and my grandfather had a few more cups of wine than usual.
Out of nowhere, for the very first time in my life, he began to tell me stories about his experiences during the Holocaust.
These weren’t stories about the six million Jews.
These were stories about Sam. About his friends. About his siblings. About his parents. About his family.
About my family.
One story he told me was about the time when he was a prisoner of war, he went without eating his bread rations for a week, so he could sell those rations to enemy soldiers and bribe his way out of the camp to work as a carpenter, which he was not.
You could imagine the irony of listening to him tell me about the importance of bread and how it saved his life while starting at a matzah plate in the middle of the Sedar table.
These stories, and others like it that night were the first time that I really internalized the fact that he lost everything, yet, we were here.
We were free.
We had opportunities he never had.
We have opportunities 6 million people, and their children and their grandchildren and their great-grandchildren never had.
This is something I think about every single day of my life.
“In every generation, every individual must feel as if he personally had come out of Egypt”
This visceral understanding gives me perspective and encourages me to make the most of this gift that each one of us has.
The gift of life.
Back at the Passover table, and after he shared his war stories, he then proceeded to give his young grandson some life lessons.
They were simple.
Work hard and go to school. Get a good education.
I think he understood that our kids are our future and that his kids and grandkids were his future.
I think he also understood how education played a central role in it all, especially when he himself was not able to pursue it due to the war.
This is something, as a parent myself, I now really understand but more importantly, it’s something I feel and connect with every time I look at my own kids, Michaela and Brayden.
It’s something my parents understood too when they sent me to school at The Hebrew Academy.
My grandparents and parents knew that if that little boy at the Sedar table worked hard in life and got a good education, he might be ok. And maybe, just maybe, he could help pay it forward and do the same for his family and for others.
And here we are.
I’ve worked hard, had a great upbringing thanks to my parents and The Hebrew Academy, had a little success and a lot of luck, and now recognize that it’s my turn to help ensure our Jewish family carries on for future generations.
That is why, tonight, I am excited to honor the memory of my grandparents, Sam and Betty, by rededicating my childhood school, formerly the Solomon Schechter Day School and currently The Hebrew Academy.
Moving forward, it will forever be known as “The Reich Hebrew Academy”.
I can truly think of no better way to express my love and appreciation for my grandparents and their legacy.
Today more than ever, this is especially important with the backdrop of what’s happening in Ukraine. Once again, people are fleeing Europe to save their lives as my grandparents did from their small towns in Poland years ago, which are now part of Ukraine.
This commitment ensures that my generation and future generations will be afforded the same opportunities that were afforded to me. Opportunities that were not afforded to my grandparents and millions of others.
So here’s my ask to all of you…
Please consider joining me and my family, Joe and Maxine Macnow, and recent others like David and Vanessa Wise, Randy and Laurie Pearlman, in stepping up in a big way and helping ensure this school gets built.
Joe, Maxine, and Yoti told me they had a dream about this project. As an entrepreneur, I too love to live in the clouds and try to invent the future.
And their dream is an amazing one where the past present and future exist concurrently. It’s an exciting vision and we would not be here without them.
Joe, Maxine, Yoti, thank you.
So please, help us make it a reality and help us ensure the path to the future is secured for our kids and future generations.
And now, I’d like to introduce you to the funnier, better-looking Reich, my brother Jeremy.
My grandfather recently turned 96ish…and that will be the last birthday he ever has.
This morning he passed away.
But the days leading up to this morning he was able to spend time with his 3 children, 8 grandkids, cousins, oldest friends from Europe and newer friends from America.
That’s what mattered most to him. Family and friends.
And he worked hard for it.
After the Holocaust and before his immigration to America, he moved back to Munich, Germany and opened a textile store. He sourced fabrics from all over the world and sold them to people looking to make dresses and suits.
He hung out with a couple of guys over there who were also hustling trying to make a buck and rebuild their life. Eventually, they decided to come to America and leave the dark memories from Europe behind. They landed on the Jersey shores. In Toms River to be exact.
He started a farm because my grandmother thought that producing food and raising chickens was a good endeavor. After all, they just escaped Nazi brutality and had to steal, beg and borrow to survive. So food made sense. So did eggs. He would get up at four in the morning to drive his egg route to NYC all the way from Toms River… which is easily a two-hour drive each way.
He did that every day.
Exhausted, every day.
Startup life in the 50’s I suppose.
But he did it for his family.
Shortly thereafter, his pals from Munich told him to join them in the building industry. Given the way the farming and building industries were going, it was an easy decision.
And so build he did.
He built his house and the homes of many others. If you live in NJ, chances are you’ve driven by something he’s been a part of.
And so when I say he came here after the war to “rebuild” his life, I mean it. He literally built.
And the thing he is most proud of is the family he built.
“Make sure the family stays together,” he said.
He might have lost everything as a kid. But in the end, he gained more than most could ever hope for.
And that was my grandfather, Sam.
He was a survivor.
He was a builder.
A 96ish year old builder who built the best home of all.
My grandfather recently turned 96ish. I say 96ish because he doesn’t really remember his age.
When he was a teenager he had to flee Poland from the German invasion. That was only after he narrowly escaped a Nazi firing squad.
He did escape and obtained a fake identity to fight on the Russian front. That was his only way to survive and survive he did.
But shortly thereafter he was captured by German allies, held as a POW and forced to take on a fake identity. He lied about his name and his age while struggling to stay alive under impossible conditions. That was his only way to survive and once again, survive he did.
He came to America with very little but he rebuilt his life and started a family. A family that is able to celebrate his birthdays with him even if he doesn’t remember his age.
So ya, my grandfather recently turned 96ish.
His 5 or so brothers never made it past 20 years old.
6 million others didn’t make it all.
Today is Holocaust Remembrance Day.
For me, that is every day.
I’m sure for my grandparents, and many others, that is every day too.
There were at least 30 of them just standing there, listening to the tour guide talk about the room they were about to walk into.
Some of them looked between 60 and 70. Some of them looked much older. All of them however were speaking very heavy German. I’ve been to Germany before but this was a sort of different German. It was the type of old, rustic, 2 generations ago German that I’ve only heard a few times in my life. One time when my grandparents said a few words in the language and another time when I was visiting Frankfurt Germany for the 2006 world cup.
This group was about to walk into the room that I had just left. A room that left me with a sharp pain in my throat and no matter how many times I would go back into this room, I knew that sharp pain would always come back.
These were some of the names of the death camps that Nazi Germany built and used to kill over 6 million Jews, many of which were my relatives.
(I don’t know if the picture above are actual relatives of mine, but with the same last name they must have been related to me at some point in time, right?)
The names of these camps were also engraved on the floor of this remembrance hall. It was a special room of Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem, Israel.
As I walk out of this remembrance hall, I can hear the elderly group very softly asking the tour guide questions in German. It was refreshing to see a group like this visiting the museum in hopes of learning more about those horrible years. Inquisitively asking questions. Looking upon their tour guide and consuming every word as if they wanted to imagine what it would be like to actually be there.
..actually be there..
They were probably about the same age as my grandparents both of which are holocaust survivors.
And that’s when I stopped to turn around.
Then my brain started to fire off questions..
Were they Nazi soldiers?
Did they help the Nazis?
Were they civilians?
What did the see?
What did they hear?
What did they do?
What didn’t they do?
These questions kept bouncing around in my mind. I walked away and concluded that they were probably just innocent bystanders of the war having little or no involvement.
And that is precisely the moment when I felt the worst.
How is anyone innocent when they silently stand by while pure evil or injustice is happening around them? How is anyone innocent when people are packed in to cattle cars only to be shipped off to death camps?
And that brings me to today.
Our world is fucked up. Although we think the world is a better place, which it is, there is still a lot of hate and injustice floating among us. Bullying, antisemitism, racial stereotyping. Even at a lesser degree we see injustice happening in places like work, school, and politics.
And yet many of us including myself sit by and do nothing.
Today we have Facebook, Twitter, blogs (like this one), and it is extremely easy, physically speaking, to take a position and speak out against something you disagree with even if it is only 140 characters long. This is happening all over the world today. It is the cause of new revolutions and uprisings from places like the middle east to places like China. This past week alone we saw a 14 year old girl stand up to Al Queda using her blog.
During the Holocaust there wasn’t an easy way to share information and stand up for something at a large scale. There were many German civilians, and even Jews, that stood by and did nothing.
I’m rounded up with 12 others and we’re being escorted to a church. The others are quite. They don’t know why they were just abducted from their daily routine and I don’t know either. It looked like some were only on their way to the market and some were on their way to school, like me. I’m only 15. What could they possible want from me? The soldiers are bringing us to a church on the other side of town, but what for? It wasn’t too long ago that they occupied our town and disrupted our lives. I don’t understand. Why are we going to a church? Something is off. This doesn’t seem right. I need to get out of here. I need to run. I must run. I have to run NOW.
I take off in a sprint and I know the soldiers are running after me. Chasing me. Hoping they can round me up and bring me back with the others. I don’t look back though because I’m afraid it will slow me down. I keep running. I make my way back to the center of town and look for a place to hide but I’m not really sure where to go. I need to get off of the streets. I need to be inside. Houses!
I start knocking on the doors of the locals. The first house is white with a red door. I hear people inside but they won’t let me in. I move on to the next house. They open the door at least but also won’t let me in. House after house I’m rejected. Is it because of my age? My clothes? There is still nowhere to hide until finally someone welcomes me into their home. I can see the fear on their face though. Their mild reluctance to let me in. Their hesitation. How could they not be afraid? I’m out of breath and desperate for a place to hide. I would fight them right now if they won’t let me in, but they do. They finally let me in and I sit on the floor to catch my breath.
Hours go by. I haven’t returned home from school and my family must be worried. They don’t know where I am but I can’t go home. I can’t leave yet because it’s too dangerous. I must stay here for the night at least until the soldiers have given up on my search. If they are even searching for me at all. Yes, I need to stay here and I’ll go home in the morning.
When the sun rises I know its safe to make my way back home but I’m compelled to go back to the church first. I need to see what they wanted from us and what awaited for us at the church.
The earth is bright red and there is a giant, fresh mound of dirt. I have never seen anything like this before. A mass grave. I was just with these people. I was one of these people.
I feel sick. Confused. Lucky.
I run again, but this time I run home and when I get there I know my life will never be the same.
It’s 1940. Germany has invaded our small town in Poland I’m terrified of what will be next….
Yesterday was Holocaust Remembrance day and this story is one of many my grandfather has from the Holocaust. There is one saying that all holocaust survivors and family members have engrained in their DNA and that saying is “never forget.” I know I will never, ever forget.