[Archived from November 6, 2009]
by Shiela Steinman Wallace
Leon Wahba has been named chair of the Jewish Community of Louisville’s Community Relations Council. A long-time member of the group, he is well-versed in the many issues CRC addresses, stalwart about standing up for Israel, committed to ensuring that the Jewish community’s interests are safeguarded and already involved in engaging with diverse faith communities to foster understanding and work for shared goals.
Wahba succeeds Helene Kramer Longton, who in addition to her CRC duties, co-chaired last year’s Yachad Kadima Steering Committee which led to the merger of the Jewish Community Federation and the Jewish Community Center, forming the Jewish Community of Louisville.
“I very much enjoyed working with Helene,” Wahba said. “She is a very good leader who led by example and is very good at building consensus on issues. I am delighted that she has agreed to co-chair one of JCL’s main committees.”
Recruited by Peter Anik and Steve Shapiro, Wahba’s first CRC assignment was to work with Mark Isaacs and Linda Engel on improving Muslim/Jewish relations.
His next assignment was chairing the Jewish community’s participation in the Community Hunger Walk. Normally, this involves recruiting members of the Jewish community to participate; however, in October 2006, the Jewish community was faced with a dilemma. Each year, a quarter of the funds generated by the walk are channeled to an overseas partner. That year, Wahba explained, “The Jewish community decided not to participate because the beneficiary was an organization that had a strong anti-Zionist bias.”
Wahba led the effort to create an alternative drive that enabled the Jewish community to support local hunger relief agency Kentucky Harvest, rather than risk having dollars go to an anti-Israel organization through the larger community Hunger Walk.
Hunger is still an issue today, and this year, Wahba again chaired the Hunger Walk. The Jewish community participate fully in this year’s event, and together with other faith communities, volunteers from across the metropolitan area and many corporate sponsors, the campaign raised over $100,000.
“My vision of CRC,” he explained, “is to remain the eyes, the ears and the voice of the Jewish community. We want to strengthen our ties with those other communities and advance the cause of Israel. We want to remain alert and aware of anyone who tries to defame us or to portray Israel in a negative light.”
A passionate advocate for Israel, Wahba says a top priority today is the U.N.’s Goldstone Report on the war in Gaza. “To me at least, it is tantamount to a blood libel,” he said, “and I question the wisdom of any prominent Jew like Judge Goldstone who had agreed to lend his fame and his reputation to such a biased report.”
The Goldstone Report accuses Israel of war crimes during the Gaza War and mentions Hamas’ violations only as an afterthought. It does not take into account the almost daily rocket attacks on Israel before the war, nor the fact that Hamas stockpiled weapons in and launched attacks from civilian areas. Even Judge Goldstone says much of the report is based on testimony that has not been corroborated.
The report calls for Israel and Hamas to investigate these accusations, and if they fail to do so, threatens to refer the matter for prosecution to the world court. If upheld, Israel would be denied the right to defend its citizens. On Tuesday, November 3, the U.S. House passed a resolution condemning the Goldstone Report.
“That is not to say that Israel is beyond criticism,” Wahba explained, “but I have nephews in the IDF (Israel Defense Forces), one of whom is a lieutenant colonel who studied with the American military … in a program for foreign officers. I know the IDF to be very disciplined and that everyone is imbued with a sense of fairness. Some mistakes have been made, but usually the perpetrators have been punished as Israel has a very strong independent judicial system.”
Whenever there is an opportunity to support Israel, Wahba is there. He attends every pro-Israel and anti-Israel lecture, letting his voice be heard when biased anti-Zionist presentations are made. During the Gaza War, he helped lead and organize the counter demonstrations supporting Israel in downtown Louisville.
Wahba is prepared to speak out on other issues as well. “I view the Sudanese government’s actions in Darfur to be absolutely reprehensible, inexcusable and indefensible,” he said, “and I hold the Arab League in contempt for its lack of action on behalf of the people in Darfur.”
Holocaust education and awareness is another important CRC role. He praised Fred Whittaker and his St. Francis of Assisi students for getting the Ernie Marx Resolution passed by the Kentucky legislature and is proud of the support the Jewish community gave him. He also recognizes the importance of the CRC-sponsored trips that bring teachers to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., teaching them how to teach the Holocaust to their classes.
Wahba recognizes the importance of working with many different faith communities when interests and issues coincide. “I have worked closely with the local Christian Zionists,” he stated, “and I remain the principal liaison with them.”
When it comes to tikkun olam – undertaking projects to repair the world – he said, “Amy Benovitz is my hero.” On an ongoing basis, she creates opportunities for the Jewish community through Habitat for Humanity, the Merry Mitzvah program and more. “I’m delighted that she has agreed to chair a major CRC committee,” he added.
CRC must also “keep abreast of the developments in Frankfort and Washington,” he added, to make sure the Jewish voice is heard on social causes as well as issues that affect Israel.
Wahba is truly a success story for the Louisville Jewish community. He was born in Egypt to a Safardic family with roots that stretch back generations. When the State of Israel was established, “it became very uncomfortable for Jews to remain in Egypt” or in any other country in the Arab world, he explained.
Nearly a million Jews fled from Arab lands, making new homes in many places around the world. Wahba’s family scattered to Israel, Brazil, Venezuela, Belgium, France, Italy, Argentina, Uruguay and the United States.
With HIAS’ (Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society) help, Wahba’s family obtained a visa and was sponsored by Louisville’s Conference of Jewish Organizations (a predecessor to the Jewish Community Federation and the Jewish Community of Louisville). They arrived at the L&N Station in October 1959, where the family of four, his parents, Marcel and Rebecca, Leon, and his sister, Arlette, were met by National Council of Jewish Women representatives Selma Kling, Claire Judd and Frances Wolff.
Conference Director Al Erlen, Jewish Vocational Service Director David Dobson, Boris Pressma and Mrs. Kleinman were also very helpful.
“The first few weeks we were here, they were so kind and attentive,” Wahba said. “We had no idea what to expect.” The family was given a small furnished apartment on Sherwood Avenue, and a refrigerator full of food.
Within a month, Wahba’s father found a job as an accountant for Universal Container. “It was the one and only job he ever held in America,” Wahba said. His mother, although she spoke no English, worked in the perfume department at Stewarts.
Wahba attended Seneca High School, was active in Rauch AZA, and, with his family, belonged to Anshei Sfard. Wahba also singled out Rauch adviser Phil Schechter and Mrs. Kleinman as being very influential in his life.
He went on to the University of Louisville and graduated with a degree in business in 1967, then enlisted in the Army and was stationed in Germany.
In 1970, he returned to Louisville and got into international banking. That led to an assignment in Brussels, Belgium and later to a job with a bigger bank in Cleveland.
“Somewhere in between,” Wahba continued, “I got married to wonderful young lady, Helen Wirth, from New Albany, IN, who was nurse in intensive care unit at Jewish Hospital.”
After working in international banking for 35 years and traveling overseas extensively, he retired as head of the International Department at Sun Trust in April 2005 and headed back to Louisville, to be closer to Helen’s family and where they could enjoy the more temperate weather.
“I love being back in Kentucky,” Wahba said. “And I very much enjoy working on the CRC. It is an opportunity to repay the community for the immense assistance they provided us in our early days here.” It also gives him the opportunity to work on behalf of Israel.”
Wahba still maintains some ties with the Egyptian Jewish community, too. He has been back to the country at least five times, and remains in contact with Carmen Weinstein, the president of the Jewish community in Cairo, which now numbers less than 30. All of those who remain are elderly women, he said.
In addition to his work with CRC, Wahba served on the steering committee for Louisville’s year-long Israel@60 celebration.
Helen Wahba is a member of NCJW and volunteers with Jewish Family & Career Service.
The Wahbas have two adult children, Marcie Wahba, married to Josh Eppert, and Jeffrey Wahba.