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Behind the Headlines; Move from 515 Park Ave. Signals End of an Era in American Zionism

Thirty years of Zionist history will come to an end Friday, when World Zionist Organization officials close the doors to 515 Park Ave. for the last time.

Truckloads of cartons and file cabinets filled with the detritus of three decades of Zionist history will be moved to the new headquarters of the WZO-America Section and other Zionist groups at 110 East 59th St.

The debt-laden Jewish Agency sold the building at 515 Park Ave. 18 months ago to the Zeckendorf Co. for $38 million. The ubiquitous New York real estate development firm currently has no plans for the property, according to a Zeckendorf spokesperson.

The sale raised desperately needed funds for the Jewish Agency, which are going to repay loans and fund housing and services for tens of thousands of new Soviet immigrants in Israel.

After a long search for another building to buy, the WZO settled on leasing two floors at the new address, with about 40,000 square feet of space, one-third less than at 515 Park Ave.

While Zionist leaders acknowledge that the Jewish Agency had a pressing need to raise the money, people at 515 Park Ave. are mournful about the sale.

“This building has been more than an address, more than an asset,” said Bernice Tannenbaum, chairwoman of the WZO-America Section. “To me, it has been the American Zionist home.”

The building has been the bustling center of American Zionist activity for the past 30 years, serving 150 to 200 visitors on an average day, with a large number and range of programs.

A PLACE TO STUDY AND CAMP OUT

It became so synonymous with Zionist activity and organizations that all over the world, people knew the location as just “515 Park Ave.” No further explanation was needed. Everyone knew what that address meant.

Young people passed through the doors seeking information about American Zionist Youth Foundation programs. Older people often came to hear speakers at the Herzl Institute. People of all ages have studied Hebrew in the ulpan programs and have planned their aliyah in the offices of the Israel Aliyah Center shlichim.

Every year, New York’s Israel Day parade, with its dozens of floats and marching bands, has been planned and organized from offices at 515 Park Ave.

Teen-agers on their way to programs in Israel have been known to camp out in the lobby, resting on their duffel bags. In some years as many as 11,000 people passed through 515’s doors on their way to programs in Israel. These days, that number is more like 5,000 a year.

Other WZO departments and organizations that have made their home at 515 Park Ave. include the American Zionist Federation, the Department of Torah Education, Midstream magazine, the Herzl Press, the United Israel Appeal and the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. All but the Herzl Press are moving to the 59th new location.

The extensive library, a valuable resource for students and researchers, is being moved to the new offices. But archives containing historical documents that date to the days before Israeli statehood are being transferred to the Jewish Agency archive building in Jerusalem. Microfilms of the documents will be kept in New York.

A MAGNET IN TIMES OF CRISIS

In times of crisis, 515 Park Ave. was a magnet for concerned Jews. During the Six-Day and Yom Kippur wars, hundreds camped out on the doorstep for days, Tannenbaum recalled.

Some boarded airplanes to volunteer in Israel, some donated money and, for some people, the paperwork and red tape of aliyah were expedited so they could go to their new homes as quickly as possible.

“Suddenly Israel was at peril,” Tannenbaum reminisced, “and the American Jewish community was frightened and wanted to help in any way possible. They didn’t go to the (Israeli) Consulate,” she pointed out, “they came to us at 515.”

The Park Avenue building’s penthouse has held many gatherings of world leaders, who often have addressed the organized American Jewish leadership from that site. Just about every prime minister, president and head of state from countries friendly with Israel has spoken there, according to Tannenbaum.

And of course, so has every major Zionist leader, starting with Nachum Goldmann, as have all of Israel’s prime ministers.

The sale of the building and the move to a new location reflects, perhaps, the evolution that has taken place in the relationship between the American Jewish community and Zionism.

Today’s priority is funding Operation Exodus and working to make sure that the latest aliyah, of Soviet Jews, is successful. While thousands of American Jews travel to Israel each year to participate in programs, only 2,000 to 3,000 make aliyah. By contrast, over 10,000 Soviet Jews are now arriving in Israel each month.

But it would be a “mischaracterization to say that this represents the end of the Zionist movement in America,” said Malcolm Hoenlein, executive director of the Conference of Presidents. “Perhaps it is part of the maturation of the relationship between the American Jewish community and Israel.

“We look forward,” he said, “to continuing the tradition, activities and involvement of the American Jewish community at our new location.”

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