By George Castle, Special to Chicago Jewish News
Fran and Bernie Alpert came to maturity smack dab in the middle of the “Silent Generation” of the 1950s when the mainstream of America liked Ike and craved a respite from world and police-action war, a Great Depression only 15 years in the rear-view mirror. Consensus and conformity were craved.
Now octogenarians who married in 1957, the Alperts want to arouse today’s Silent Generation. Fearful about the political climate generated by what they term a “corrupt” White House, the Highland Park couple are co-founders of a new organization, Alliance for Responsible Leaders.
“We have been American citizens for more than 80 years,” said Bernie. “We’ve seen it all. And we’re concerned.
“We have lived through depressions, recessions, culture wars, political wars, austerity and abundance. We’ve seen dust bowls and rising oceans, booms and busts, wars and peace and prosperity. In our lives we have witnessed assassinations, impeachments and scandals that gripped the country.
“And yet through it all, we have had comfort in knowing that our nation is built on a set of values that can withstand whatever crises or changes come our way.
“But we’ve become concerned. We are no longer confident that the leadership in Washington shares those American values of hard work, integrity, equality, and self-sacrifice. We fear too many have forgotten the meaning of public service and we believe they threaten our cherished democratic institutions.
“We now have no choice but to raise our voices, assert our values and refuse to accept what is unacceptable.”
Aiming their brickbats at Donald Trump and his supporters in Congress, the Alperts are fighting mad, unmindful of their age – and undaunted by any pushback. After all, Bernie Alpert was in Selma, Ala., as sheriff’s deputies clubbed civil-rights demonstrators in full view of network cameras in early 1965.
Six years later, Alpert knew he’d risk the full wrath of the KGB in Brezhnev-era Russia by blowing a shofar in front of a Soviet synagogue to protest the treatment of Jews desiring to emigrate.
The goal of their new organization, the Alperts say, is to restore American values to Washington.
“We were brought up with a set of values, American values, that we raised our children with, and are trying to pass on to our grandchildren,” said Bernie. “These values are in danger.”
Bernie lists the values his group is fighting for as
- Dignity. “The preamble to the US Constitution calls on us to provide for the welfare of the general public. This is difficult to do when there are cuts to healthcare, education, Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security and more. We have an administration without respect for the dignity of our citizens who have lived their entire lives giving to America.”
- Honesty and integrity. “Honesty is a timeless value. As we hear more and more about fake news, when dissembling and downright lying is coming from the White House, we must never lose sight that we are an honest people. There was a time when honest queries resulted in honest answers. We must reclaim that way of carrying on the world.”
- Compassion. “Our country depends on a fundamental compassion for others. If we don’t care for one another as neighbors, friends and communities, then we fall as a nation. We cannot survive as a democracy if our leadership is more concerned with self-interest than the greater good they were elected to protect.”
- Equality. “America is built around the rights of the individual. With each successive generation, we have grown and extended more rights to more individuals, recognizing the full personhood of those in previously oppressed or marginalized groups. We must continue to expand – and not roll back – everyone’s right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness and ensure equitable access to education, employment, housing and health care.”
- Honor. “The fifty-six men who signed the Declaration of Independence wrote, “We mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor.” The belief that we are all in this together has historically informed politics and policy. Let us get back to electing leaders with honor, integrity and the public’s interest at heart.”
The group’s first major effort will come on March 15 when the Alperts hope to lead at least 1,000 on a march in Washington, D.C. to protest the move to roll back benefits and rights for those of Social Security age.
It will take place about a week before a march of teen-age activists from Parkland, Fla. who survived the recent high-school mass shooting, to protest gun violence and the ready availability of assault weapons.
In that youth march, the Alperts see a reflection of their own youthful idealism that went on holiday in recent years, yet was galvanized by Trump and the surrounding chaos.
“Go for it, kids!” Fran Alpert, 81, said. “It’s about time. The thing I find most empowering is I see their parents backing them. It makes me feel good about our country. They are the America we want to see.”
The couple wants seniors’ voices to be heard just as loudly.
“When we talk about the Silent Generation of the 1950s, they’re a silent generation now because they are in their 70s and 80s,” said Bernie Alpert, 85. “They’re somewhat silent because many are not capable physically. We want to give our generation a chance to be heard.”
Said Fran Alpert: “They call us the Silent Generation, neither as great as the Greatest Generation (World War II veterans) nor as loud as the Baby Boomers. But we just can’t stay silent anymore. Too much is at stake, and time is running out.”
“People our age are also worried about our own futures,” said Bernie Alpert. “We played by the rules and looked forward to safety and security in our later years, but we are very worried about Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security given the current budget and deficit crisis.”
Entitlements such as Social Security and Medicare used to be the kryptonite of the U.S. budget – untouchable under pain of a political price to pay. The Alperts, though, believe a sea change has arisen between a bait-and-switch president and Republican congressional leaders.
“This administration features a lot of people who look at entitlements as something people should not have,” said Fran Alpert. “They believe there are better places to spend money. They think people who reach a certain age are not important, believe you don’t have to worry about them because they will die soon.”
The Alperts did not have to reach their 80s to develop passionate views about social issues.
Born August 13, 1932, Bernie Alpert grew up in a “secluded Jewish life” in Albany Park, but likely witnessed some deprivation as a youth on the back end of the Great Depression. He graduated Von Steuben High School in 1950, and became more socially active in college at the University of Illinois.
Fran Alpert also spent her childhood in a Jewish bubble in Rogers Park. “Everything was closed on the High Holidays,” she said.
Both planned teaching careers, but discovered new callings when they became a couple. “I met Bernie, and I found a partner in activism,” Fran said.
Bernie Alpert established a manufacturer’s representative business in the Merchandise Mart. Fran Alpert, after initially staying home with their four children, served as co-director of Kohl Jewish Teachers Center in Wilmette.
Bernie Alpert combined business with social activism. “I was tear gassed in the front line at Selma,” he said. Added Fran: “I was a big follower of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. When he said get up and march, we got up and marched.”
While participating in civil rights demonstrations, Bernie also joined the growing opposition to the Vietnam War. He co-chaired Business for Peace in Vietnam.
Putting themselves in real peril, the couple went right to the heart of the problem to help Soviet Jews in 1971.
“We more or less understood we’d get in trouble,” Bernie said. “I blew a shofar (on the synagogue steps). We were taken to jail and kept overnight. We were released the next day, and made headlines all over. We then were put on a Soviet plane to Paris, without passports.”
Seven years later, Alpert, 47 and with a successful Chicago business, picked up and moved his family to Israel.
While chairing the Association of Americans and Canadians in Israel organization, he began a new family business.
“My first degree was in agriculture,” he said. “I had friends going on excavations and I thought that sounded interesting.”
The couple co-founded Archeological Seminars, both going to Oxford University in England to obtain master’s degrees in classical archeology. Once established, they hosted people from all over world wishing to learn about Jewish history in the Jewish homeland.
“We developed a program of ‘dig for a day,’” said Bernie. “Our archeological business just grew.”
Alpert lectured throughout Israel and the U.S. on archeology. The couple eventually authored a book, “Archeology and the Biblical Record.”
The Alperts returned to the Chicago area in 2002 when Bernie was stricken with leukemia, which since has been treated successfully. Fran went back to teaching for a four-year stint through 2017 at the Board of Jewish Education in Chicago.
If their social activism had been in semi-retirement through their diggings and return home, the truth-is-stranger-than-fiction election results of 2016 called them back to the protest lines.
“One day we wake up, something’s not right, it’s not acceptable,” said Fran.
Bernie minces no words – just like the chief object of his protests.
“The first order of business is to get a change in leadership in Washington,” he said. “Our tweeter-in-chief is a disgrace to the country and single-party rule has never been a good thing.” The Alliance has a two-part mission: (1) advocate for a change of administration, bring in leaders that will uphold the American values we hold dear; and (2) ensure these leaders are advocates for the elderly and the issues that are important to us (Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security).
“What we’re doing is all part of the same concept – tikkun olam, try to fix the world,” Bernie said. “With the president, if it wasn’t for his connection to his son-in-law and daughter, he’d be an ant-Semite. He’s anti-everything. His mind works in that direction.”
Sometimes the best work gets done on a deadline. Bernie knows the clock is ticking for the activism he and his wife have shared since the middle of the last century.
“We want to fix things that are wrong in America,” he said. “That’s the incentive for Fran and me. We don’t have much time left. We want to see what we can accomplish in the time we have.”
“My grandchildren learned in Jewish day school that you’ve got to stand up for what you believe in,” said Fran.
“Bernie and I have been standing up for what we believe in since the day we met.”
For more about the organization and its upcoming march, visit www.allianceforresponsibleleaders.org.