President Reuven Rivlin, February 15, 2016.
(photo credit: Mark Neiman/GPO)
Winners of the seventh Yuri Stern Prize for the Arts, which is granted to artists by the Immigrant Absorption Ministry in recognition of their assimilation into Israeli society and their contribution to its cultural development, met on Monday with President Reuven Rivlin and his wife, Nechama, at the President’s Residence in Jerusalem.
The prize is named for the Moscow-born member of Knesset, who died of cancer in January 2007 at the age of 56.
While the overwhelming majority of the artists, members of the adjudicating committee and representatives of the Immigrant Absorption Ministry spoke Hebrew with strong Russian accents, there were a couple of exceptions.
One was Dejen Sileshi, who won in the music category and sang an Ethiopian song in a mix of Amharic and Hebrew about the peace and beauty of Jerusalem. This caused Rivlin to remark that for Ethiopian Jews, Jerusalem was Israel. Sileshi lives in Beit Shemesh and came to Israel in 2002 at age 15. He said he never imagined he would be invited to the President’s Residence.
A similar sentiment was expressed by Gideon Levin of Herzliya, who won in the photography category.
“It’s very exciting,” he said. “It’s not something to be taken for granted that I should be in this place to receive this prize.”
Arina Belozor, winner in the dance category, said she had come to Israel 25 years ago with the dream of establishing a music and dance theater for children and youth in Jerusalem in order to enrich their lives – and now she had received a prize for realizing her dream.
In praise of the award, she added that “a society that in invests in the art and spiritual awareness of a child cannot be a violent society.”
Vladimir Friedman, a prize-winning stage and screen actor from Netanya who was a member of the adjudicating committee, said he had been in St. Petersburg doing a Russian TV series about half a year ago and was thrilled to hear the Russians making positive comments about the quality of Israeli films.
“That was really high praise from the Russians,” he said.
To illustrate the extent to which Russian Jewish determination had altered the course of history, Friedman sang the Arik Einstein favorite “You and I will change the world.” Rivlin sang along with him.
Yuri Stern, who had a profound interest in the arts and personally encouraged immigrant artists, spent 10 years as a lecturer on Moscow University’s Faculty of Economics.
He also was a fervent activist in the Soviet Union’s underground Zionist movement.
After coming to Israel in 1981, he was a founder of the Soviet Jewry Education and Information Center, the Council of Immigrants Association and the Soviet Jewry Zionist Forum.
He was also an adviser to the Knesset Immigration and Absorption Committee and a director of the Department of Absorption and Entrepreneurship of the Israel Federation of Chambers of Commerce.
He was elected to Knesset in 1996, and even though he changed parties, he retained his seat. At one stage, he served as a deputy minister in the Prime Minister’s Office. During his time as a lawmaker, he also helped found the Knesset Christian Allies Caucus.
Following Stern’s death, his widow, Lena, and their two children also established the Yuri Stern Holistic Care Center for cancer patients. Lena told the gathering that her husband received more honors in death than he had ever received in life.
Rivlin described Stern as an exemplary politician who threw his heart and soul into all he was doing, particularly regarding the environment.
Nechama Rivlin, who has a great fondness for the arts, said she had frequently bumped into Stern at the Israel Museum and had always been impressed by the range and depth of his cultural knowledge.
The president quipped that Stern had caused so many problems for the Soviet authorities that they had been only too glad to get rid of him.
Immigrant Absorption Minister Ze’ev Elkin said he had learned a good deal from Stern before entering politics, and even more as a politician.
“Stern was great at finding solutions for pressing issues,” Elkin said, adding that he was very pleased the Stern Prize had become a tradition. He said he hoped the winners’ trip to the President’s Residence would also become a tradition.
Rivlin assured him that for as long as he remained in office, it would.