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
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.
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.
the Land of Israel is equivalent to fulfillment of all the other commandments
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.
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
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
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.