This piece is part of the The Wisdom Project: An ongoing series of inspirational conversations with wise people who have been fortunate to live long lives.
At age 98, Ted Comet has served the global Jewish community for more than 70 years. He has no plans to stop.
A New Yorker by way of a Cleveland childhood, Comet’s contributions have been legendary: He was key in organizing the first major rallies in the United States for Soviet Jewry, New York City’s first Israel Day Parade on Fifth Avenue in the 1960s and the city’s annual Israel Folk Dance Festival. At the Council of Jewish Federations (CJF), he created a young leadership division to help nurture the Jewish community’s next generations of talent.
His career affiliations are a “Who’s Who” of American and global Jewish macher institutions— aside from the CJF, he’s held leadership positions at the World Council of Jewish Communal Service and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), where he is honorary associate executive vice president.
Comet discovered his life’s work as a Yeshiva University student volunteering for the JDC in France at the end of World War II. While caring for Jewish war orphans at a home in Versailles, Comet met a teenager named Elie Wiesel. Their warm, lifelong friendship catylized an affinity with Holocaust survivors which has informed the rest of his life: Comet’s late wife, Shoshana, was also a Holocaust survivor and an inspiration for his work.
Shoshana wove five six-foot-high Holocaust-related tapestries, and Coment conducts tours of the series (both virtual and in person in his upper West Side apartment) to honor her memory and celebrate the art that grew out of her trauma. Their two children, a daughter and son, are both in helping professions, social work and clinical psychology, respectively.
Moment recently visited with Mr. Comet to listen to his words of wisdom.
What have you learned in your long life?
The notion of resilience. Connected to that is the insight I gleaned when I was developing young leadership at the Jewish Federations: If you remove the outer layers that distinguish one person from another and you get to the inner core, you find a shared yearning for a sense of significance, a hunger for meaning and purpose. We respond to that by becoming connected to causes that are significant and meaningful.
What is your purpose?
To be an instrument for the creative continuity of the Jewish people.
How do you do that?
Well, I used to joke when I was 95 that I looked at my age through dyslexic eyes, but at 98 it doesn’t work. About aging: First, The Poet said that at night you can see stars that are not visible during the day. Age brings perspective and understanding that help you distinguish between what is and isn’t significant. What’s not significant is not worth getting upset about. The second point is, never think of yourself as a finished product but always as a work in progress. If you achieve that, you will retain a sense of awe and wonder that are the underpinnings of youth.
What do you think of the state of the world today?
My historical perspective is that no matter how bad things are now, they don’t compare to the way things were in the 1930s and 1940s. When the pandemic started, and people complained about being locked in and isolated, I thought about my friend who for two years was hidden in a basement during the Holocaust. I said to them, we have Zoom and the phone—what are we complaining about?
That said, having gone through so much, I’m just stunned by what I see as a reversal. I thought the world was moving into a more coherent humanistic, liberal way. To see what’s happening now is so disappointing and hurtful. All my life, my focus has been on how to make people more sensitive, more responsive, more creative, more active—to build a sense of community. I do feel that we have the capacity to pass through this and move on to the better aspect. So, I’m sad, but not depressed.
Who has inspired you?
My wife. She was a Holocaust survivor, and at the age of 42, suddenly she became an artist. She worked out her trauma through her art, creating tapestries. It freed her. And a couple of years later, she got her degrees and became a psychoanalyst. Her tapestries illustrate the transmutation of trauma into creative energy.
You’re well known for your tours of her tapestries. How do people, and especially the hundreds of kids who see them and hear her story, react?
After a tour, I always ask everyone individually, what’s your takeaway? A seventh grader told me, “I never knew that paintings and tapestries had feelings.” A 16-year-old girl wrote to me that she was inspired seeing trauma transformed into beauty. I don’t want these kids to leave with visions of death and destruction. I want them to understand that you can end up with something positive. I want them to know that trauma is a human condition and the challenge is what you do with it. That so many leave with a better sense of self is such a source of naches (pride) to me.
Can anyone heal themselves from pain and anguish?
The most effective way to heal yourself is to use your pain to heal somebody else. Helping people is where the good feeling comes from. As the old saying goes, “you make a living by what you can get. You make a life by what you can give.”
Is that true for you?
My oldest brother died when I was four years old and that was traumatic. My father died when I was 11. My childhood was filled with loss and abandonment. I once thought I helped others out of altruism. I realized as an adult that I’m conquering my inner sense of loss and my desire to have an intact family. That’s been extended to try to create a global Jewish family. My work has been self-healing.
Has there been anything over the years about which you changed your mind, or evolved your thinking?
The biggest issue for me was understanding the Divine.
How did you come to that?
It began in a kind of fulsome un-questioning. And then I was confronted with the Holocaust and then my wife having Alzheimer’s for 15 years, and now I’ve got a brilliant son who, at the age of 60, has Alzheimer’s. One could ask, “What did I do to get punished this way?”
And yet on the other hand, I can’t intellectually make sense of a world that just came up from nothing. When you look at the beauty of the world, it can’t have come from nothing. I have twelve great-grandchildren and one great-great granddaughter. I never knew my grandparents. I had no living past. And so now to be head of five generations? I’m blessed.
Top photo of Ted Comet by Perry Bindelglass