Wendy Dubow Polins, of Swampscott, has been deeply involved in Greater Boston’s Jewish organizations for more than 20 years and has held leadership positions with the Friends of the Israel Defense Forces, Our Generation Speaks, Combined Jewish Philanthropies and the Anti-Defamation League. She is married to Richard Polins, and the couple have two daughters, Sophie and Rosie.
Wendy, how was it to grow up in Montreal, and when did you first get involved with Judaism?
Montreal was a very cohesive Jewish community and a multi-generational one. I was able to see both sets of my grandparents at least once a week, and also my great-grandmother who I was fortunate enough to have as part of my life until I was 23.
As for my involvement in Judaism, I was involved from the moment I was born! My home was a traditional Conservative Jewish home and extremely Zionistic. I attended Akiva Elementary School, and then attended Herzliah High School in Montreal. I was steeped in the learning of Jewish history, Rashi, and the very tenets of what is Jewish education and what it means to be a Jew. I feel so lucky that I was actually able to study Talmud – and many of those lessons have stayed with me. The high school curriculum was also extremely Zionistic, and we traveled to Israel for three months as juniors to study and volunteer there. When my classmates left to return to Montreal, I stayed, as this was when my family made Aliyah and we moved to Rehovot.
Wendy, your family has a long history with Judaism and Israel. Could you tell us about your grandparents and your parents’ involvement with Israel and the Soviet Jewry movement?
My maternal grandfather was chairman of the United Palestine Appeal of Montreal in 1948. My mother recalls meetings in her home that were held specifically to figure out how to smuggle arms into Palestine from the landscape of Europe after World War II and before Israel was a state. Guns from German warehouses, ammunition and other items of war were bought from the Czech government then had to be smuggled past the British blockade entering Palestine.
My mom was one of the founders of the Soviet Jewry Movement in Canada – called the Group of 35. She traveled secretly into the Soviet Union and brought the information from Israel to Moscow for Anatoly Sharansky’s trial.
My father, an orthopedic surgeon, answered the call Israel sent out on the fifth day of the Yom Kippur War and traveled to Israel to join the IDF. He was in Israel for five weeks, operating on Israelis and Arab POWs. I remember how he would call us very late every night and my mom would speak to him until one night when he told her he would no longer be able to call. That was because he was going to cross the Suez Canal with the IDF and Ariel Sharon, Commander of the South when Israel retook the Sinai. When he returned and we went to the airport, newspapers were there taking photos of us meeting him. I believed that my dad was a real war hero.
We lived in Israel for nine months in 1974, and then in 1977 my family made Aliyah. I returned to the U.S. for college. I look at both my parents and my grandfather as fearless warriors taking action to express their beliefs. This has had a huge influence on me.
You met Golda Meir in 1974, and spoke with her. How was that experience and how did it influence you?
I remember that day so well. I remember being so taken aback by Golda’s appearance and especially her voice. She had a very strong American accent – I don’t know why it surprised me but it did.
I remember what my mom had said to her: “It must have been so difficult for you to come here in the 1920s and live in such hardship, leaving the comfort of Milwaukee. Right?” Golda’s answer surprised both of us. She said, “It wasn’t difficult at all. You come here because you’re selfish. Every day, when you live here, you meet someone interesting, who has done something interesting.” And I understood what she meant. So true, isn’t it? When I travel to Israel – and I go as often as I can – I can feel that energy. The power that people live there with so much purpose, making, creating, inventing the future as they have built this brilliant, miraculous country out of the desert, all while defending their right to exist and do so. Golda also told me to be very careful and always consider the choices I make – because what I value and how I choose to spend my time will determine the course of my life.
You went to Barnard and then to Columbia’s Graduate School of Architecture. What drew you to design and architecture, and which projects have you most enjoyed working on?
I consider myself so lucky. My parents gave me the most amazing gift – and that is the gift of my education. Attending Columbia Architecture School was an incredible experience – and being in NYC certainly drew amazing faculty and visiting speakers all the time. The education was definitely more philosophy and abstract thinking rather than anything that applies to real world construction and budgetary issues!
I was fortunate at the very beginning of my career. Richard and I bought and renovated a house in Dallas, and it was published in the magazine section of the Sunday newspaper. That really launched my career, and I established my own design firm then specializing in residential construction and interiors. I love the “before and after” part of my work. To be on a job site and see a space transform from an idea to a drawing to reality is very exciting.
Why did you choose to move to the North Shore and what do you love about it here?
We moved to Boston in 1999, and I knew I wanted the girls to go to Jewish day school. We had come to the North Shore over the years to spend time with close friends in Rockport and I learned about Cohen Hillel Academy. I remember thinking, “Where is Marblehead? What is Swampscott?” So we decided to rent a house here and give it a try, and I really fell in love with this community. I love so many things about living here: the history, the proximity to Boston, the ocean, people’s values and sense of community, and the fact that I really feel safe here.
You’re also a writer. Can you tell us about your book?
It was 2008 and the economy had really crashed, and my work as an architect had dried up. I hadn’t yet started teaching art history at Salem State and I really had more time than usual on my hands. Three things happened: I was studying Kabbalah and was going to MIT to have an interview. I arrived early and mistakenly walked into a lecture on Einstein’s theories. I sat there and listened and realized that whether you’re an ancient Kabbalist, a cutting-edge physicist, or an architect – everyone is asking the same questions: what is eternal? What lasts? And what exists outside of time? With these ideas I started writing my novel. It’s a long story – so many highs and lows, but I can say it was definitely the hardest thing I have ever done. It came out under one title, but then when I signed with a new literary agent it was pulled from the market and has gone through very intense editing and has a new title:
“The Architect of Time.”
You’ve been in a leadership role at many Jewish organizations: the Friends of the Israel Defense Forces, Our Generation Speaks, Combined Jewish Philanthropies, and the Anti-Defamation League. Why are you so dedicated to the Jewish community?
One of the core values that guides my life and commitment is that I know it was a random act of fate – that my grandparents chose to go left instead of right. That they chose to take a ship to America instead of Palestine.
This awareness of how fate affects everything is a driving force in my life. Some people might not agree with this but I truly believe that as Jew, I am not safe in the world unless there is a very strong State of Israel. So I do everything I can to try to dedicate myself to the security of the State of Israel and the strength of the community I live in.
Every day when I open my eyes, I remember that I am here because of choices and sacrifices made by generations that came before me. I ask myself: What can I do to make sure I live up to their dreams? How can I realize their hope for what they believed could be? And how can I honor the soul of the woman who I am named for – my great-grandmother – who was murdered in the Holocaust.
You teach art at Salem State. What’s the best way a teacher can motivate a college student these days?
It’s an interesting problem – teaching the history of art to young people today and showing them that the subject is relevant to them. I basically hold up my iPhone and ask them to look at the back. And I tell them – someone had to decide all of these things. We live in a visual world. This is what I try to convey to them. If I teach them to see things more clearly, to notice something that they might have walked by before – even to go to a museum for the first time, then I am happy.
You sent your children to Hillel and also to Gann Academy. Why is a Jewish day school so important to the community?
Jewish day school immerses families in the beautiful rhythms of the Jewish calendar: the big holidays and the small ones that we would otherwise miss. Jewish day schools have the ability to teach children the depth of Jewish history, culture and a love of Israel beyond what a family can do alone or a temple after-school and Sunday school program. The power of a Jewish day school education is immeasurable.
What’s your advice for young Jewish couples and parents who want to get involved with the community?
There are so many wonderful ways for a young couple to get involved in the community. The JCC, CJP, and temples offer many programs for different age groups and families. When I moved here, the first people I met were the other parents from Hillel, and they shared my values and desire to educate their children.