Jerry and Anne Gontownik of Englewood, New Jersey, easily exemplify the motto, “you are what you do.” For close to three decades and running, this tireless duo has not only taken their nonstop concern about Jews and the Jewish future to heart, they’ve taken it to Washington, to Jerusalem, as well as to Senators, Congressman, and always–to the hilt.
“The [Gontowniks] are what the community would call the ‘go-to’ people,” says Dr. Ben Chouake, president of NORPAC (National Organization for Political Action Committee), the largest and most politically active PAC (Political Action Committee) in America working to strengthen the US-Israel relationship. “You just call upon Jerry and Anne, and they’re in.”
Fostering positive relations between the United States and Israel and making Jewish education affordable are on the top of their to-do list, and they’ve invested the bulk of their time and energy promoting these interests.
“There are people who go to meetings and just sit and listen,” says Fred Ehrman, an OU national vice president. “Jerry is a person who stands up and articulately defends Israel against any criticism.”
A former OU board member, Jerry, who has been involved in real estate for three decades, chaired several OU lobbying missions to Washington, DC. During his frequent trips there, he forged strong relationships with Senators and Congressmen, and made a connection with AIPAC.
”In more recent years, Jerry began serving as vice president of the Englewood-based NORPAC. In this role, he helped organize numerous missions to Washington, galvanizing participants from the New Jersey area. NORPAC’s annual mission numbered 850 participants in 2009, and its most recent boasted 1,000–its largest to date.
Jerry also recently launched EdPac of New Jersey, a PAC with the goal of influencing members of the state legislature to support programs and funding that would assist families who want to send their children to non-public schools. Tuition at special education yeshivot can cost more than $40,000 per student annually. One of EdPac’s goals is to obtain state funding for special education in parochial schools.
“We as a community give hundreds of millions of dollars in state property taxes and state income taxes, but we don’t receive the benefit of those funds,” says Jerry. “It is incumbent upon the state to provide as good an education as possible—for everyone. As I look at my children, who are now grown and beginning to have their own children, I wonder how they are going to afford the tuitions.”
Similar to her husband, Anne is determined to make a difference. When her five sons were young, she served as a board member of Moriah, the Bergen County yeshivah her children attended. When her sons went on to high school, she assumed the presidency of the parents association at The Frisch School in Paramus, New Jersey.
“I have vivid memories of being seven-years-old and going down to Washington to lobby.”
“From the beginning it was clear she was an absolute powerhouse,” says Dr. Kalman Stein, principal. Anne is currently on the executive committee of the school board. “She’s a constant source of terrific ideas and has the willingness to put in the work to make them happen. One of the most important things that she accomplished is making sure that the parents association is very supportive of the school and its needs.”“
Anne also pioneered a unique mentoring program, arranging for alumni currently attending college to meet with the eleventh graders to fill them in on the details of Orthodox life on campus. Currently, the school maintains files in its college guidance office with information on various campuses such as estimated number of observant students, the average number of students who show up for Shacharit, and the accessibility of kosher food and shiurim. “The program has been invaluable,” says Dr. Stein. “I can’t imagine a lay leader having a more direct and positive impact on a school.”
The Memphis Advocacy Prep-School
Using the right channels to make things happen was a message Jerry learned while growing up. After World War II, his parents, Holocaust survivors, were in a DP camp in Germany, awaiting their turn to leave to America, but their names were on a long list of survivors slated to immigrate. Jerry’s great uncle, a furrier in Little Rock, Arkansas, received a visit from the governor’s wife, requesting a special fur for her husband’s upcoming inauguration. He asked if her husband would write a letter to the secretary of state to move his cousins to the top of the list. The governor wrote the letter, his wife got the fur, and Jerry’s parents were on the first boat of Jewish refugees out of Germany. “I saw the good politics can do,” he says. “I thought it was worth spending time on.”
Jerry says growing up in Memphis, Tennessee, also inspired him to become a leader. “There were so few Jews in the South compared to the New York area,” Jerry says.
“Everything is done for our kids here; the shuls and schools are established; you don’t have to have input into creating the kind of Jewish life you want; it’s all set up. In Memphis, every individual viewed himself as a representative of the community. When you’re in the frontier, you take a more active role.”
At twenty-one, Jerry learned the importance of cultivating connections. He attended his first OU national dinner, where he met the two movers and shakers who would give him entry to the world of Jewish advocacy: Harold Jacobs, the then president of the OU, and Congressman Harold Ford, one of the honorees. Jacobs played an instrumental role in Jerry’s acceptance to NYU Law School, and helped him meet his future wife, while Ford offered him a position as an intern, which he held for two consecutive summers in his hometown.
Soon after, Jerry went on to serve as chairman of the OU’s Institute for Public Affairs’ Congressional Internship. “He was always a leader,” says Dr. Mandell I. Ganchrow, a former OU president. “He’s the kind of person, if you ask him to get involved in a task or campaign for any good cause, he’ll accept–and you know it’s not just lip service; you can count on him. Jerry picks up the ball and runs with it.”
Anne, who grew up in Brooklyn, also learned the value of activism at home. In 1984, her father, Robert Jacobs, a real estate developer and champion of Jewish causes, arranged for Jesse Helms, the then Senator of North Carolina who was infamous for his anti-Israel voting record, to join him on a group visit to Israel. Subsequently, the Senator became one of Israel’s staunchest supporters.
“I grew up in an environment that made me realize that individuals can make a difference,” Anne says. “I was inspired to try to continue that legacy.”
Inspiring the Next Generation
The Gontowniks’ nonstop community action couldn’t help but rub off on their sons. When Zev, who is now twenty-five, became a Bar Mitzvah, he spent the money he received to purchase hundreds of toys for Emunah’s children’s homes in Israel.
“Our opinions were always valued at home,” says Ari, twenty-six, the eldest son. “I have vivid memories of being seven years old and going down to Washington to lobby.” By the time Ari reached the fifth grade, he was briefing bus participants on a mission to Washington. “I had a month to research the various Congressmen they were planning to speak with,” says Ari.
With their sights toward a robust Jewish future, the Gontowniks feel most at home on the “frontier” of what still needs to be done for the community.
“There was never a point in time that our parents were not deeply involved in something having to do with the Jewish community,” says Ari. “How the community was doing was something intimately related to how our family was doing.”
Bayla Sheva Brenner is senior writer in the OU Communications and Marketing Department.