After Almost A Century, This Comet Is Still Soaring
Ted Comet, who turns 98 this month, is being honored for his remarkable, and ongoing, contributions to American Jewish life.
“Israel used to be the unifying force in our community,” says Ted Comet. “What upsets me is that the miracle of Israel’s existence is getting lost.”
If the organized Jewish community had a Hall of Fame, Ted Comet would surely be its first inductee.
But not yet.
According to the rules of Cooperstown, baseball players have to be retired from the game for at least five years to be eligible. But Comet, an iconic figure in Jewish communal life whose 98th birthday is later this month, is still in the game.
Last month, for example, he produced an Israeli folk dancing festival in New York – a program he launched 71 years ago. He regularly conducts virtual tours in his New York City apartment of a remarkable series of five Holocaust-related tapestries, each six-feet high, that his late wife, Shoshana, wove in dealing with the trauma she suffered as a Holocaust survivor.
Tomorrow evening (May 3), Comet will be honored with a distinguished service award by J Pro, a network of Jewish communal professionals where he serves as an advisor, at their 1,000-attendee conference in Cleveland.
I’ve known and admired Comet for many years for his accomplishments in transforming American Jewish life through his various professional roles over the last seven decades, from helping to organize the first major U.S. rallies for Soviet Jewry to founding the Israel Day Parade in New York to creating a young leadership division within the federation movement.
On a more personal level, I have marveled at Comet’’s compassion, thoughtfulness and wisdom, undiminished over the years.
We had several lengthy conversations over Zoom last month to discuss his career, his thoughts about the changes in Jewish life over the years, and his dedication to the tapestries project dear to him in honoring his wife’s memory.
There were two persistent themes in those discussions. One was Comet’’s commitment to Clal Yisrael (the Jewish people), in large part by instilling Jewish wisdom, values and engagement in all of his communal work. The second was his emphasis on viewing Jewish history as a force for optimism and inner strength, looking to our past to propel us to a more hopeful future, both as individuals and collectively.
“I’m a big proponent of resilience – personal and in other ways,” he said in assessing his career and on spending much of the last two years of the pandemic in isolation in his apartment. “I think of a friend who spent two years in a basement during the Holocaust, so how can I complain?”
Despite his age, Comet has a fresh and expansive outlook on living a life of meaning. I came away from our time together newly inspired by his crisp, insightful and eloquent observations and responses on a range of issues.
Here are a few examples.
On a special and lasting friendship:
Comet was a student at Yeshiva University when, in 1946, he volunteered to go to France and serve as an intern for the Joint Distribution Committee. He worked at a home in Versailles for Jewish orphans, many of them Holocaust survivors. It was there that he met and befriended a reserved teenager, Elie Wiesel – a friendship that carried over to the U.S. and never ended.
On broadening the scope and deepening the Jewish component of federations:
“When I came to work at the Council of Jewish Federations and Welfare Funds,” the central body of the federation movement, now JFNA, in the mid-1960s, “the emphasis was on ‘welfare funds.’” The leadership primarily consisted of successful businessmen who focused on sustaining institutions like hospitals and caring for the indigent and elderly.
“There was no real Yiddishkeit, and I wanted the mission to emphasize Clal Yisrael and for the organization to become partners with Israel in nation-building.” Comet convinced the leadership to look more to the future, creating a young leadership division, and transforming the organization’s annual General Assembly into the premier conference on the national Jewish agenda. Through his efforts, it featured substantive Jewish content, Shabbat services, kosher food and first-rate scholars in residence like Leonard Fein and Rabbis Harold Schulweis, Yitz Greeberg and David Hartman.
“We had our stumbling blocks,” Ted said of his many years with CJF, “but overall we achieved our goals.”
On creating the Israel Day Parade, now the biggest celebration of its kind in the world:
In 1966, the young State of Israel was almost “invisible” to American Jewry, Comet recalled. “I wanted to show support so we held an Israel Independence Day event in Central Park.” Very few showed up. “We were talking to ourselves,” he said of the attendees, a number of whom were colleagues of Comet at the American Zionist Youth Foundation.
The following year, at a critical moment of deep concern about the outbreak of an Arab attack on the Jewish state, Comet helped organize an Israel Independence Day rally on Riverside Drive that attracted a very large and enthusiastic crowd. The Six-Day War began a few days later, and Israel’s dramatic military success spurred a generation of tremendous support for and identification with Israel among American Jews.
One of the problems during the early years of the annual parade, Comet noted, was that some committed Jews were uncomfortable with the format, complaining parades are “too Irish,” while others, less committed, were not comfortable with “parading their Jewishness in the streets.”
On the current relationship between American Jews and Israel:
“There’s a weakening of Jewish identity among young people” that is related to “a weakening of the relationship with Israel” for many, Comet said. “Where there is Jewish depth, there’s a connection” to Israel because “your Jewishness allows you to see the miracle of Israel. Life is messy and running a country is messy. But it’s the creation of the Jewish state that should be our role model.”
On the increase in anti-Semitism in the U.S. in recent years:
“It’s shocking to see the rise in anti-Semitism long after we thought the Holocaust would put an end” to such behavior. “But there has been a great change in the American Jewish condition” over the last several decades. “We used to feel as Jews here that we were guests in someone else’s home. But now we’re part-owner of the house and we have a right to make demands that meet our needs. We have clout and respectability. That’s an enormous change.”
Healing through art: Comet has hosted, in person and online, more than a hundred tours of his late wife’s tapestries.
On Shoshana Comet’s tapestries: At the age of 40, Ted’s wife, Shoshana, a Holocaust survivor, bought a loom, took up weaving and produced five large tapestries in as many years. Her work represented a progression of Holocaust experiences, from tragedy to a sense of hope in the future. When the tapestries were completed, she put away the loom, focused on education and became a psychotherapist, primarily working with Holocaust survivors and their familiels.
After his wife died 10 years ago, Comet began to invite people to his apartment to see and discuss her art, and over the years he has conducted more than 100 tours, in person – and, more recently, virtually – on the theme of “Healing, Hope and Resilience Through Art.”
Comet explains that Shoshana “leveraged her pain as a survivor to heal others, turning her trauma into creative energy.” He said the experience “freed her to use her pain to heal others,” and he has adopted her outlook in his own work.
“We best heal ourselves by using our pain and our trauma to heal others,” he said.
On what inspires him today:
Despite all of the hardships he has witnessed and lived through, Comet remains an optimist. “There is a saying that we are ‘the ever-dying people,’ but we have survived the Greeks, the Romans and Hitler, and we are still here.
“What we all have in common is the search for meaning. So it all comes down to one question: What does it take to live a meaningful life? I believe it’s possible for any one of us to make a difference in other people’s lives. I get inspiration from working with people who seek to do good. That’s a power we should use to make the world a better place.”