Janice Kamenir-Reznik doesn’t tend to get nervous before a speaking engagement, but her Sept. 12 address to worshippers at Mount Sinai Memorial Park and Mortuary’s Kever Avot service has her feeling a bit anxious.
It will be the first time Kamenir-Reznik, 58, will participate in Kever Avot, the ancient Jewish custom of visiting the graves of departed loved ones before Rosh Hashanah and during the 10 Days of Repentance culminating in Yom Kippur. It will also be her first time back at the Simi Valley cemetery where her father, philanthropist and community builder Edward Kamenir, was buried in June following his death at the age of 88.
“I’ve never thought of myself as going to Kever Avot,” said the former attorney and co-founder and president of Jewish World Watch, which aids victims of human rights abuses in Africa. “I’ve never buried anybody before. I don’t know what to expect about how I’ll feel when I get there. It’ll probably be one of my more emotional speaking experiences.”
For many Jews around the world, Kever Avot, literally “graves of our fathers,” inspires remembrance and reflection. Some people ask the souls of the departed to pray for a favorable decree for the living, while others contemplate their relationships with the living and dead and ask for forgiveness.
Kamenir-Reznik sees Kever Avot as an occasion to honor one’s past personally and collectively.
“Kever Avot is a good time to get in touch with what it means to be a Jew and to get in touch with the essential principles that have been passed down from generation to generation,” she said.
Calling each generation a link in the transmission of Jewish learning that began with the patriarchs, she said Kever Avot recalls the role of family members as a conduit of Judaism’s most important messages. When Jews commemorate Kever Avot, they honor the foundations upon which Judaism is based.
One of those foundations, she says, and the subject of her upcoming Kever Avot talk, is the imperative of tikkun olam, or repairing the world, which underlies the work of the organization she co-founded in 2004 with Rabbi Harold M. Schulweis in response to the genocide in Darfur.
“Fighting against indifference is the greatest way to honor our forefathers and foremothers and our personal relatives who are standing in their shoes,” she said. “The social justice component elevates Kever Avot to another level of purpose and mission.”
She learned that lesson from her father, for whom social action was a way of life.
“He always talked about the importance of taking care of the world and if you don’t really believe it, don’t say it,” she said of her father, who taught her that tikkun olam was a global concept that applies to anyone in need. “That’s consistent with the way we were raised.”
Throughout her life, she witnessed his commitment to others firsthand. A dentist, lawyer and general contractor, Kamenir was past president of Sinai Temple and was instrumental in building many Jewish community institutions. He remained equally committed to non-Jewish charities and causes, particularly in the area of public health.
As a child, Kamenir-Reznik saw her father treating low-income patients free of charge in his Westwood dental practice, where she worked during the summers.
“It was a time before dental insurance when people paid after their treatment,” she said. “He’d tell me, ‘This person doesn’t pay.’ He bartered with people who couldn’t afford service. It was very respectful. People who could afford it felt like they were paying something.”
In 1968, Kamenir and his wife, Charlotte, with cooperation from Israel’s Tel HaShomer hospital, established a mobile dental clinic to serve the Bedouin and Palestinian communities in the areas that had come under Israeli control.
“He would take a van out to the territories with just a chair and his bag of dental tools. A call would be sounded, and people would literally come up from the sand dunes,” said Kamenir-Reznik, who accompanied her father to Sharm el-Sheikh during one of his annual, month-long missions. “He would treat people with abscesses that were causing serious problems like deafness and blindness. It was before all these funded projects in the territories came about and there was a lot of anxiety regarding the Palestinians, but my father was not afraid of strangers. It was surely an adventure to them and the right thing to do.”
She evoked his commitment to helping others, even under unsafe conditions, when he worried last year about her then-forthcoming participation in a Jewish World Watch mission to the Democratic Republic of Congo, where years of war, mass murder and rape have devastated the population.
“He was scared,” she said. “He felt that [going to] the Congo was more dangerous than what he had done. I reminded him what he did going to the newly occupied territories. He realized that it was the same thing. He had put himself out there for a group of strangers who needed care. He knew it was a job that had to be done.”
Upon his daughter’s return, Kamenir became one of the first donors to Jewish World Watch’s Congo mobilization, which includes a burn center and economic development projects to help rehabilitate the local population.
Kamenir-Reznik sees the confluence of Kever Avot and her impending call to social action at the grounds of the cemetery her father helped build as the perfect tribute to his memory.
“He would just love that [Mount Sinai] asked me to do this,” she said. “When I think about my father, I see it as much bigger than [my relationship to him]. It’s the role each of us plays in finishing God’s work of creation. The purpose of Judaism, to me, is conscience to the world. That’s what I got from him.”