Focus on Families | Local

New skills, old values: next generation enriches community

Nathan Bacal holds a photo of his great-grandfather, Harry Bacal, the Tucson Jewish Community Center’s first board president. (Julie Zorn/Tucson Jewish Community Center)

In many Jewish communities, the phrase “l’dor v’dor” (loosely translated as “from generation to generation”) is used to highlight the importance of passing values, education and history from one generation to the next. Scholars and community organizations often speak of the importance of teaching children as a way to ensure the future of the Jewish people. For three college-aged Tucsonans, this teaching has instilled a passion for Jewish peoplehood and the importance of working for the future.

Marlee Jacobs, left, and Isaac Swimmer, interns at the Jewish History Museum, are the grandchildren of Holocaust survivors. (Courtesy Jewish History Museum)
Marlee Jacobs, left, and Isaac Swimmer, interns at the Jewish History Museum, are the grandchildren of Holocaust survivors. (Courtesy Jewish History Museum)

Looking for a job so he could save money for college, Isaac Swimmer was driven by the values passed down to him by his family. “My grandmother, Klara Swimmer, was very involved in the Tucson Jewish community over the last 20 or 30 years, so I got to know a great deal of the community through her, and my father, Gary Swimmer, worked on the original exhibit that eventually became the Holocaust History Center,” says Swimmer. “I started working at the Jewish History Museum because I needed a job, but what has kept me there is that through the renovation and growth, it’s turned into something bigger than it was.” Although he says he does “a little bit of everything” at the museum, as a technical consultant Swimmer has helped to build the JHM website and continues to do maintenance and supervision on a contract basis.

The grandson of two Holocaust survivors, George and Klara Swimmer, Isaac grew up watching the profound impact his grandmother had when she would speak to community groups and schools. “My grandmother came and spoke in my middle and high schools. In middle school, we were studying Elie Wiesel, and she came in and had such an emotional impact on the class. After she spoke, there were eighth graders coming up to her crying, and hugging her, and saying that they never understood both the level of pain that had been inflicted on the victims, and how remarkable it was that she could survive and tell her story to others,” says Swimmer.

Remembering his grandmother as someone who always sought to look for the good in people, Swimmer tries to do the same. “I’ve always found that people develop most from their hardships, and to be able to see someone recover from an unfathomable position helped me understand that you can get through anything. Her way of coping with stress, through seeing the good in everything, taught me that I could cope with anything,” he says.

Swimmer sees the work of the JHM as a way to memorialize the stories of the past and preserve them for the future. “By documenting the experience, especially with video testimonials, you can retain the actual emotions. Besides having a one-on-one conversation, documentaries and testimonials are the best way to continue telling these stories.”

Marlee Jacobs, a third-year history major at the University of California Irvine, also sees her work at the JHM as a way to connect with her grandparents, Murray and Anita Jacobs, who were Holocaust survivors. “I grew up with my parents telling me that my grandparents were Holocaust survivors, but I don’t think I fully understood the gravity of what that meant until I was much older.” Spending the last two summers as an intern at the JHM, Marlee helped create a digital timeline for the museum website, and also worked on some exhibits that will be displayed at the Tucson Jewish Community Center.

Interning at the museum began as career exploration for Jacobs. “Originally I was interested in potentially getting into museum work,” says Jacobs. “I thought it would be a good way to experience a new museum and see what that entails.” However, as time passed, her reason for her work at the museum became more personal. “It’s important that people keep learning about the Holocaust and are educated about it, to try to prevent something like this from happening again.”

Working toward a career focused on maintaining human rights, Jacobs hopes to help with domestic issues. “Growing up and hearing what my grandparents went through, helped me realize that there are still a lot of human rights violations going on today. Understanding that there are still things happening today that happened to my grandparents in the past played a big role in my wanting to pursue justice.”

The idea of pursuing justice is also important to University of Arizona junior Nathan Bacal. Double-majoring in law and history, Bacal has political aspirations. “I can really see myself running for office after law school. I started volunteering for the Fred Duval campaign in 2014 when he ran for governor, and that really sparked my interest.”  Bacal is currently running a political campaign for Dustin Williams, a candidate for Pima County superintendent of schools. “It’s really exciting. I met Dustin through our precinct committee member meetings, and he was really awesome. He asked me if I wanted to be a part of the campaign, and then he asked me if I wanted to run the campaign.”

Bacal’s interest in politics took him to the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia this summer as a pledge delegate. “It solidified my passion. I was in a huge auditorium, but it felt like all of these heroes of mine were speaking to me. Heroes like President Obama, Michelle Obama, Joe Biden, Hillary Clinton, Bill Clinton, Elizabeth Warren. It was all of these people that I watch on the news and admire, they were speaking to me,” says Bacal.

While he works toward his political career, working at the Tucson J in the children and youth department is a way for Bacal to connect to the Jewish community, and to his great-grandfather, Harry Bacal, who was the first board president of the J.

“I love my coworkers and appreciate all of my bosses. I was volunteering at Handmaker, and then began working at the JCC,” he says. “Now I’ve been working there for four years.”

In the Mishnah, the written embodiment of the oral tradition of Jewish law, there is a story of Honi, a scholar of the first century BCE, and the carob tree. In the story, Honi sees an old man planting a carob tree, which will take several generations to grow before it bears fruit. Honi asks the old man why he would take the time to plant the tree, when there is no way he will live long enough to enjoy the fruit. The old man responds that his ancestors had planted trees so that there would be fruit for his generation, and he, in turn, is doing the same for future generations. Isaac Swimmer, Marlee Jacobs and Nathan Bacal have all benefited from the dedication of their forebears, and now they are doing their own work to benefit the future.

Laura Wilson Etter is a freelance journalist, grant writer and artist in Tucson.