Keep Dreaming: Sitting shiva

Things I learned from my father.

By
August 5, 2011 16:21
Being a father is a stressful job.

Holding hands 521. (photo credit: Courtesy.)

This week I’m sitting shiva for my father. I wouldn’t feel comfortable writing about anything else, and I wouldn’t feel comfortable writing about him if he hadn’t taught me things I believe are worth sharing. But he did. So I will, with a nod to the wisdom of the fathers of us all.

“Say little and do much, for by your deeds shall you be judged.” Long before “start-up nation” was popularized as a concept, the entrepreneurial spirit it celebrates was a reality, epitomized by the pioneering efforts of extraordinary human beings who took an idea and, with their own hands, transformed it into reality, shaping this remarkable country of ours. Unpretentious and eschewing self-aggrandizement, the vast majority then lived inconspicuously – colorful threads woven into the fabric of this vibrant society barely noticed for their individual contribution to its vitality.

I think of my father as one of them. Forty years ago, after visiting Israel a number of times as a tourist, he began looking for a more meaningful way to come back. He knocked on the door of the Kibbutz Aliya Desk and volunteered his skills as a dentist. The shaliah bartered his services for modest accommodations on a kibbutz that had a rudimentary dental clinic. His wife would work in the communal dining room.

Hearing him wax enthusiastic about the experience upon his return, a number of his colleagues asked him to make similar arrangements for them. The rest, as they say, is history. Within a matter of months, he had established American Dental Volunteers for Israel (ADVI), which was soon sending 150 dentists and dental hygienists to Israel each year.

It is difficult to say who benefited most. For their part, the volunteers contributed not only their skills, but also a steady stream of supplies and equipment at a time when the field was in need of both. In return, they were warmly embraced by those among whom they lived, connecting to the human side of Israel in a way that bound them inextricably to the country, warts and all. Years before Project Renewal or Partnership 2000 were conceived of, ADVI was there creating people-to-people connections that would last a lifetime.

Without any infrastructure or budget – quietly and unobtrusively – my father created a framework that would ultimately bring more than 1,500 volunteers. His life was an example of the power of one – the power in each of us.

“Settling in the Land of Israel is equivalent to fulfillment of all the other commandments combined.”


Everyone knows that getting people to move to Israel is like pulling teeth. But no one knew it better (or took it more literally!) than my father. Though not conceived of as a platform for promoting aliya, ADVI did produce a good number of olim, my father among them. Moving with my mother to Kibbutz Tzora in 1983, for the next quarter of a century they would divide their time between their homes and family in Israel and the United States. With the metamorphosis of aerogrammes into Skype in the interim, the example they set of engaging fully with Israel while not abandoning relations and obligations across the sea might be more easily emulated now than ever before.

“If I am only for myself, what am I?”

Zionism was not my father’s only cause. He was also a dedicated advocate of civil liberties, and founded the Human Rights Commission in his home town. As a child, I’d be as likely to accompany him on a march on Washington on behalf of America’s Negroes as to a demonstration demanding the freedom of Russia’s Jews. In Israel, he’d continue reaching out to the disenfranchised, participating in efforts to communicate with our Arab neighbors while providing dental care to those who couldn’t afford it.

“Who is wealthy? He who rejoices in what he has.”

Early in his career, my father decided he was going to take two months off each summer to spend with his family, camping on the islands of Lake George, where we’d live without electricity or running water, sustained by the rhythm of nature and the splendor of glorious sunsets. We’d have had a lot more money if he had toiled through July and August, but I can’t even imagine how much poorer we’d have been.

When, in the prime of his career, he gave up his lucrative practice and moved to a kibbutz flat the size of his living room in Great Neck, he was motivated by the same intuition regarding what really matters in life. Had he kept working in his office instead, there’d be a lot more to inherit today, but so much less to pass on. Indeed, few can afford to take off the kind of time he did, but just as surely, few can afford not to strive to make do with less while appreciating more that which does come our way.

“The day is short, the task is great.”

One of my earliest memories is of driving with my father past a tall tower with a red light flashing atop it. I asked him what the light was for. He told me it was so that airplanes wouldn’t crash into the tower. I asked him what the tower was for. He told me it was to hold up the light.

Fifty years later I’m still scratching my head, trying to figure things out.

I think I finally have, the moral of the story being that we have to continually make sure we are really doing something meaningful with our lives, not wasting the precious time we have contributing to the senseless maintenance of existing structures simply because that is the way we found them. No doubt that our lives are littered with such towers just waiting to be identified.

“There is the crown of Torah, the crown of Priesthood, and the crown of Royalty, but the crown of a Good Name surpasses them all.”

The biblical account of the demise of King David states that “David slept with his ancestors.” Why “slept” and not “died”? Our sages answer that David left behind a son who continued the good deeds that distinguished his father’s life, thereby obscuring the finality we associate with death. I can only pray that my deeds, too, will give my father a measure of immortality.

More than that, at a time when our society is rife with protest, I can also hope that the example of his life might serve as an inspiration for others who, together with him, would keep dreaming of a better world to come. Enough incessant complaining about lack of leadership. Enough of blaming others for all that is wrong. The responsibility for making things right is ours. Each of us can make a difference. That is what I learned from my father – a lesson that just might help us make this state of ours a bit more livable, a bit more like what we’d want it to become.

May the memory of Robert S. Breakstone, who passed away peacefully last week at the age of 88, be a blessing for us all.

The writer is vice chairman of the World Zionist Organization and a member of The Jewish Agency Executive. The opinions expressed are his own.


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