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July 2001

Lana Benatovich
...and Justice for All

by Vince EVANS

They drew a circle that drew her out...

She cried for those who were victims of injustice. She was angered by those who were cruel to others. Her family was respected, though as a young girl she saw others not afforded the same. Values, priorities and ethics were learned at an early age, as if a rite of passage. And each phase of her development seemed to hold another lesson from the book of humanity. In Queens, New York, from the courtyards to the courthouses, Lana Dubin observed life, lived life and absorbed life experiences - the ones you will always remember...and the ones you can never forget.

For Lana Dubin Benatovich it seemed life was a series of classes in advanced human relations and it may be said that she was destined to be Western New York’s social justice valedictorian. As Executive Director of the National Conference for Community and Justice, Western New York Region, Lana describes her position as a ‘bridge builder,’ assessing issues of bias and bigotry, racism and injustice and helping communities gain a deeper understanding of prejudice and of the changes necessary to bring communities closer. A formidable task but one that Lana had been preparing for ever since she can remember.

Lana was welcomed by her parents and older sister Marilyn one April 9th and lived in the same apartment off Queens Boulevard in Forest Hills until Marilyn went off to college. That sense of family and environmental stability helped Lana carve out her own individuality and caring nature. “I have the best memories of growing up in Queens,” states Lana, who shared a bedroom with her sister and occupied the bottom berth of their bunk bed. Lana learned much about sharing and about compromise as a roommate and both sisters learned important lessons from their parents. “Their priorities were love, caring, family and people; material things were not important even though we were well-provided for by my parents.” Bernard and Bess Dubin are revered for giving Lana the greatest gift she ever received - unconditional love. “It’s the driving force behind my sense of self-esteem and my love for other people,” she points out. How ironic that the greatest gift ever received in her life is the one thing she so desperately fights for in her life’s work.

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Lana’s sister, Marilyn Kaplan; dad, Bernard; Lana and mom, Bess.

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Bess and Bernie Dubin, Sam and Minnie
Benatovich, Howie, Amy, Marnie and Lana.

Lana recalls wonderful experiences growing up and the influences they had on her as an adult and parent- the close-knit relationships of the neighborhood in Forest Hills south and the Sunday trips to Brooklyn to visit her maternal grandparents, Morris and Fanny Moskoff. “My grandparents were adoring and we adored them; with loving parents and grandparents and a neighborhood full of friends, what could be better?’

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Lana at age 3 1/2, determined and strong-willed.

Bess Dubin earned a law degree and was a fourth grade school teacher. Her mother’s example taught Lana that women can work, be good mothers and handle life well. “I walked seven blocks to school every morning and loved it; I’m so much a city girl. And I remember all the names of the teachers I had in grade school from first through sixth.” Her father, Bernard Dubin, was a lawyer with a private practice in Queens and worked closely with the Democratic Club; he was appointed to head the office in Queens for the 1950 national census. He ran unsuccessfully for the New York State Assembly his first time out. “I was more devastated by the loss than he was,” says Lana, who at 7 years of age worked her father’s campaign by walking Queens Boulevard with a sandwich board that read ‘Dubin for Assembly.’ But the next election proved you can’t keep a good man (and his strong-willed daughter) down when Bernard Dubin won an assembly seat from Forest Hills. After several terms, he accepted an appointment as City Court Judge and later went on to serve on the New York State Supreme Court for twenty years.

Lana looked so much like her father that family and friends called her ‘Little Bernie.” They also shared a similar sense of humor, similar values and a great love for people. “My father was an honest, committed judge and well-respected by everyone. I learned a lot about people, justice and doing right by watching in his courtroom.” Lana remembers several of his tougher assignments, when Judge Dubin presided over the famous Kitty Genovese murder trial as well as a Black Panther case. Whatever the issues before him, her father the Judge tried to give the very best of his jurisprudence and of himself.

...heretic, rebel, a thing to flout...

Lana assumed new roles too, attending the small private high school, Kew Forest. She wore a uniform, enjoyed her studies and had an interest in drama, appearing in several productions including “Women of the Jury” in which she played a jurist. Her grandfather died while she was a sophomore in high school and from that year until she graduated, she again shared her bedroom, this time with her grandmother. “I learned about taking care of people, about accommodating, about sacrifice.” Lessons not found in the classroom. There were 42 students in her graduating class and the quote under her picture in the school yearbook read: ‘A little bit of heaven with a dash of deviltry.” That’s quite a character recipe, especially for someone who grew up in an Orthodox synagogue and whose great-grandfather was a rabbi. “I never learned Hebrew but I learned to love my religion and my place within it - so much so that my husband and I belong to two temples, an Orthodox Synagogue (B’nai Shalom in Williamsville) and a Reformed Temple (Beth Zion on Delaware Avenue). When we travel we try to find synagogues to learn more of Jewish history and heritage because they always make you feel welcome wherever you are.” For those who know Lana, that statement is very much understood.

During the summers in Southold, Long Island, where her parents bought a house on the beach, Lana learned to love the simplicity of life - potato farming, walking along the pebble strewn beach and just being herself. “There’s a city me and a country me and they co-exist.” Perhaps no other place on earth is more satisfying or holds more memories for Lana than near the water. “It’s the one constant and connecting link between what was and what is, the memories and memories to come.” Its tide reminds her of the strength of relationships, its ecosystem of her well-developed respect for people; its common environment for life holds lessons about being inclusive, where everyone belongs at the table.

And it was during one summer that a most memorable experience brought home the lesson of the equality of people. On a return trip from California by car, the Dubin family stopped in Independence, Missouri at the Harry Truman house and museum. Her father asked if the former President was available to meet with him and his family. Not only did Harry Truman come out to meet with the family, but he also sat down at the piano and played tunes for them, all along smiling and having a wonderful time with Lana and her family. She still has a copy of the Truman biography that he autographed for her family that day, and in her mind’s eye she still sees a gentle, smiling world leader entertaining like a lovable family uncle.

After high school, Lana attended Tufts University, majoring in early childhood education and it was there that she met and began dating a student named Howard Benatovich. During her years at Tufts, she worked hard to understand the needs of children and was elected President of the Special Studies Student Council. She graduated from college, having made the Dean’s List and the Honor Society, with a Bachelor of Science degree in Early Childhood Education; she then enrolled in graduate school at Columbia University and earned a Master’s Degree in Educational Psychology. Armed with her state teacher’s certification, Lana began teaching second grade in the same school that her mother was teaching at. During this time, Howard was enrolled in dental school at Georgetown University - but soon the teacher and the student were engaged and in 1966 Lana and Howard Benatovich were wed.

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Dr. Howard Benatovich and Lana - near the water.

The couple moved to Arlington, Virginia; Howard continued his dental studies at Georgetown University and Lana took a teaching position at an elementary school. This was the Washington D.C. area - ground zero for the “Vietnam 1960’s.” Lana was living and learning history at the same time and the events of that era helped shape her perception and sharpen her position toward respect for differences.

Howard, interested in specialization, applied to Columbia’s periodontal school and, once again, Lana found herself back in New York, this time, for the first time, living in Manhattan. The culturally diverse environment was a refreshing experience for Lana but it wouldn’t last long - Howard graduated and wanted to start his dental practice in his hometown of Buffalo. Unsure of what her new life in her new city would bring, Lana had some uncertainties about relocating upstate in 1970, but soon found Buffalo to be to her liking. With her husband running a very successful dental practice and her in-laws (Sam and Minnie Benatovich) running a very successful supermarket (Park Edge), Lana found herself in another loving family, with close friendships, in a city that held promise.

Over the next several years, Lana and Howard would welcome their own two daughters (Amy and Marnie), buy their first (and only) house in the city, and learn more of their traditions and heritage together in travel.

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Amy, Bess, Marnie and Lana.

In the late 1970’s, Lana took a position with the Griffin Administration in the city of Buffalo’s Division for Youth. “It was a tremendous opportunity in that I learned about the city, its youth and the support and services they needed most. I was home!”

But another learning opportunity was on the horizon and her life was about to change...in a very profound way.

...But she and love had the will to win...

In 1980, Lana and Howard traveled to Israel on a Young Jewish Leadership Mission sponsored by the Jewish Federation of Greater Buffalo. It was a moving, humbling experience in many ways. While praying and studying, Lana also planted a tree in memory of her grandfather. Though she didn’t know it, she was also planting the tree in memory of her grandmother - the one with whom she shared her bedroom as a teenager - who died while Lana was in Israel. The houses of worship, the Holocaust museum, the history, the bonding and the experiences - changed the course of her life and strengthened her resolve to advocate for human rights and to bring all people closer together. It was her first trip to Israel, but not her last.

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Lana visiting a salt mine in Jordan on one of her trips to the Middle East.

Lana chose to position herself near the epicenter of human relations work and was appointed director of community relations for the Jewish Federation in 1982 - working to broaden community interfaith and intercultural programs, promote advocacy and develop insight. During the next ten years she would travel nine times to the Middle East, several on interfaith missions, to drive home the importance Israel holds for everyone. She also led a trip to the Soviet Union and visited with ‘Refusenik families’; it was a special trip for her since all four of her grandparents were from Russia.

After eight distinguished years at the Jewish Federation, Lana was sought out for the executive director position by the NCCJ and was named to the post in May 1991. She was now truly at home. As Executive Director of NCCJ, Lana is responsible for developing and promoting year-round programming that addresses the organization’s mission to fight bias, bigotry and racism through understanding and respecting all people of different races, classes, religions, cultures, abilities and sexual orientations. “We are blessed with an extraordinary board and staff that work very hard in supporting the organization’s ideas and vision.” One of 65 offices across the country, the NCCJ, founded in 1927 as the National Conference of Christians and Jews, opens minds through advocacy, conflict resolution and education. Western New York programs and initiatives reach adults and youth throughout the city, suburbs and rural areas. It takes hard work and funds to transform communities and the NCCJ welcomes gifts from individuals, corporations and foundations. On July 28th, the NCCJ will hold its third annual ‘Walk As One’ walk-a-thon, which will bring Western New Yorkers together and raise funds to help further intergroup relations, youth leadership training, inclusion and prejudice reduction programs, community advocacy in the face of hate crimes and convening institutional leaders to work across the divides.

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Finley Cooperwood; Lana Benetovich, 2000 Walk Chair; Bill Swan of First Niagara Bank and Anne Swan at the “Walk-as-One” walk-a-thon.

For her vision, work and leadership, Lana has been the recipient of numerous awards including an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters from Canisius College, the President’s Award from the Women’s Bar Association, the Gaudete Award from St. Bonaventure University where she now serves on the Board of Directors and the Ebony and Ivory Award from Erie Community College. A graduate of Leadership Buffalo, she is also active in community service including chair of the Erie County Coordinating Council on Children and Families, a member of the City of Buffalo Commission on Citizens Rights and Human Relations, and a board member of the Network of Religious Communities.

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Work in progress...Cheektowaga Chief of Police Bruce Chamberlin. Assistant Chief Shaller and Reverend Jeff Carter, Jr.

Her father passed away in 1996 and her mother in 1998. But the Judge’s sense of justice and the Teacher’s unwavering love have been passed on to yet another generation in Lana’s two daughters. Amy Benatovich Janay lives in New Jersey with her husband, Michael, and works as Director of the Work Opportunity Center for the non-profit organization League Treatment Center in Brooklyn, serving developmentally disabled/mentally ill adults. Marnie lives in Cape Elizabeth, Maine, working as a Case Manager for Sweetser Childrens Services, and is pursuing a master’s degree in social work at the University of New England.

Lana will tell you that she hasn’t changed much but has grown through the experiences in her life. Her inspiration for being came from her parents and sister and continues on with her family and friends, particularly her wonderful husband, daughters and son-in-law. They own a beach house on the Canadian shoreline that brings Lana happiness and memories. It seems as if the circle is complete in her life and in her work to which she is so devoted. The young girl who couldn’t tolerate cruelty to others continues to be intolerant of inhumanity, but will communities learn to become inclusive as she learned through her experiences from Queens to the Queen City? Perhaps the quote on the wall she vividly remembers seeing at the Museum of the Diaspora in Tel Aviv reflects her passionate hope: “Remember the Past, Live for Today, Trust the Future.”

...She drew a circle and drew them in.

Vince Evans is a freelance writer.


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