The lessons we learn from the past shape our lives and give us the strength — even in the face of tragedy, author, venture capitalist, and former professional basketball player Dan Grunfeld told the audience gathered to celebrate the 75th anniversary of Bryant’s chapter of Hillel. As part of the celebration, the university hosted a conversation between Grunfeld and university President Ross Gittell, Ph.D., about the former’s book By the Grace of the Game: The Holocaust, a Basketball Legacy, and an Unprecedented American Dream, which tells the multi-generational story of his family’s journey through adversity and triumph.
Gittell and Grunfeld, the grandson of Holocaust survivors, also considered important questions regarding legacy, resilience, and changing the world for all of us. “We all need to be part of the solution. We all need to speak the values we want into the world,” advised Grunfeld.
The anniversary event drew Bryant students, faculty, alumni, and staff, who gathered in the university’s Ronald and Kati Machtley Interfaith Center on April 19 to commemorate Bryant Hillel, which organizes Jewish-related religious, social, and educational activities and provides an inclusive and welcoming space for Jewish people on campus. A host of distinguished speakers — including Rob Goldberg ’94MBA, chief executive officer of the Jewish Foundation of Greater Buffalo and chair of Bryant’s Council on Jewish Life; Professor of History and Legal Studies Michael Bryant, Ph.D., an internationally recognized Holocaust scholar who offered important historical context for the discussion with Grunfeld; and Rhode Island Governor Dan McKee — offered their own reflections.
In his opening remarks, Rabbi Steven Jablow, Bryant’s Jewish chaplain, director of the university’s chapter of Hillel, and adjunct professor of English and Cultural Studies, praised the growth of Bryant Hillel, which has touched the lives of more than 90 students this semester, and noted the anniversary celebration’s proximity to Holocaust Memorial Day and Israel’s Memorial Day.
“This is how we honor those who are lost to us. We carry their stories forward. We live on in the face of acknowledged tragedy, and we celebrate the accomplishments of those who preceded us and so generously gave us the foundation to live today,” said Jablow. “We can change the world one conversation at a time.”
Throughout their keynote discussion, Grunfeld and Gittell examined the power of learning those histories and having those conversations — and the legacies they leave behind. Grunfeld, who played professional basketball for eight seasons in top leagues around the world and is now a vice president at Lightspeed Venture Partners, recounted his family’s own story: how his grandmother survived the Holocaust while working to save others, how his father, Ernie Grunfeld — a Hungarian immigrant and the only child of Holocaust survivors to play in an American professional sports league — rose to prominence as an NBA star and executive, and how their lives have shaped his own.
“My family's story is a version of a very familiar story, which, if you strip it down, is about overcoming adversity, dealing with hard things, and celebrating the great things. That is what life is about,” Grunfeld said.
Gittell, who is also the grandson of Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe and grew up in the same Forest Hills neighborhood as Ernie Grunfeld, praised By the Grace of the Game and noted that Grunfeld Sr. had been an inspiration to him growing up. “He gave the entire neighborhood such great pride to have one of our own recognized for something that Jewish kids from Queens weren’t often recognized for,” he remembered.
“What you did a particularly a wonderful job of with your book was connecting the past with the present and connecting family life with religion, with basketball, and, importantly, with education and careers,” Gittell told Grunfeld. “It takes unique reflection, thoughtfulness, caring and foresight to be able to do that — and it takes a particularly caring person to share it with others.”
Discovering his family’s history added new meaning to his own life, Grunfeld said. His grandmother wasn’t just his hero; she was a hero who worked to save dozens of other lives by distributing protective passports to others persecuted during the Holocaust. Knowing his ancestors were killed because they were Jewish emboldened him to share his story and be an ally for others, Grunfeld said.
“My grandmother says that, back when everything was happening, ‘We needed voices and there weren't enough,’” recounts Grunfeld, who stayed on after the talk for a book signing and reception. “When things are complicated, I believe in keeping it simple — and it really is quite simple. When people aren't being treated fairly, something is wrong and it's all of our responsibilities.”
The university marked the anniversary of Bryant Hillel in other ways, as well. Corey Levine ’80, a leader of Bryant’s Council on Jewish Life and Culture, issued a giving challenge to the Bryant community in celebration of the anniversary and Israel’s Independence Day, with an ambitious goal of $75,000 for 75 years. He personally committed $25,000 to Bryant Hillel, and offered to match additional gifts, up to $25,000, to fund student travel to, and internships in, Israel and augmenting Hillel staffing resources. Supporters rose to the occasion, securing a total of $75,250. Many donors chose to make gifts in multiples of $18, or “chai,” as it is commonly known in Judaism, to give the gift of life or luck.