(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Two weeks after my 22nd birthday the Lubavitcher Rebbe sent me to Oxford University to be the first rabbi in residence in several decades. It was a strange place to send a young, newly-wed rabbi. Oxford had, at most, 800 Jewish students and a small community of perhaps double that size surrounding the university.
Was it really worth Chabad opening a major operation in a city with such a paucity of Jews, given that many larger communities were still not served by a full-time emissary?
But what the Rebbe understood was the influence that students at elite universities would later have. As he expressed it to a supporter of mine five years into my tenure there: "He [Boteach] is influencing a large group of people who will in turn influence orders of magnitude more."
The Rebbe's prediction was, of course, borne out, and many of our students went on just a few years later to great positions of influence, some of the standouts being Cory Booker, the mayor of Newark, who is widely expected to play a significant role in US national politics; Noah Feldman of Harvard, who in his mid-thirties was chosen as the American consultant for the Iraqi constitution; and Eric Garcetti, president of the Los Angeles City Council.
BUT OF ALL the thousands of students I met in my 11 years as rabbi at Oxford, the one that stood out the most in his singleminded devotion to Israel was Ron Dermer, who today serves as Israel's minister of economic affairs to the United States, based in Washington at the Israeli Embassy.
Ron and I actually knew each other as kids growing up in Miami Beach, Florida, where his father was mayor years ago (his brother is the current mayor). But by the time he arrived at Oxford in the mid-1990s, Ron was a brilliant young political science superstar from the University of Pennsylvania who had worked, in his early twenties, as a consultant on New Gingrich's "Contract with America."
At Oxford he shone as a leader and as one of the university's most charismatic students. I don't believe that, at that time, there was any thought in his mind of making aliya and devoting his life to Israel. To be sure, he loved the Jewish state and helped me bring leading Israeli leaders to lecture to Oxford's students. But his political prospects in the US were just too bright to contemplate giving up the world's superpower as a place in which to make a name for himself.
But as his commitment to Judaism and Israel deepened (a development in which I hope I played some small role), Ron informed me that he had decided to make aliya. I was astonished. But Ron's love for Israel could not be quenched, and he felt that whatever gifts God gave him would have to be used to benefit the Jewish state.
Sure enough, right after moving to Israel, Ron was noticed by some of Israel's leading politicians such as Binyamin Netanyahu and Natan Sharansky, both of whom adopted Ron's counsel as friend, speechwriter and aide. Ron co-authored Sharansky's 2004 best-seller The Case for Democracy and was rewarded with a one-hour meeting in the Oval Office with President Bush, who widely praised the book as required reading for every American.
Ron's budding career was then capped by being chosen as Israel's third-highest ranking diplomat to its greatest ally, the United States. The choice to accept the position was one of the hardest Ron had to make, seeing as it involved giving up his American citizenship in order to serve as a diplomat for a foreign country.
Ron bears a great love for America and forfeited his citizenship only with the greatest of pain, but he readily accepted the sacrifice necessary to serve the Jewish state.
Israel's choice was a wise one. Through all the thousands of students I taught at Oxford, none had such a keen political sense as Ron, a young man of outstanding insight, integrity and intelligence.
I was therefore shocked to my core to read in The Jerusalem Post that Dermer's term of office as minister of economic affairs had not been renewed - as is the custom - by Finance Minister Avraham Hirchson. This move is largely perceived as playing petty politics because Ron is very close to Netanyahu, the previous finance minister, under whom he was appointed. Hirchson's decision is an outrage, which should be opposed by all who believe that those who have dedicated their lives to Israel should be rewarded rather than punished.
A YOUNG MAN from a prominent American political family with the most promising future in American politics gives up that future and makes aliya. He surrenders his American passport in order to bring his considerable expertise and unparalleled eloquence to bear on representing Israel in the halls of Washington. But because Netanyahu is perceived as the political adversary of the current government, a young man who is his close friend is quashed.
Just imagine how sacking a brilliant young Oxford scholar, whose ideas are publicly praised by the president of the United States, will be perceived by those who may contemplate making aliya in the future. The action insults all rabbis like myself who worked our guts out to get young and talented Diaspora Jews to love Israel and devote their talents to its future.
To be sure, Israel's reputation for integrity is suffering terribly today around the world, with much of its senior leadership being investigated for corruption. That is a bad enough blow for those to whom Israel must appeal ideologically. To Diaspora Jewry, Israel is a country built on an idealistic dream, and we are justifiably dismayed by the never-ending scandals.
At the very least, let Israel not put the nail in the coffin by punishing those who have devoted their lives to the pursuit of that idealistic dream by making them pawns in the cutthroat Israeli game of petty power politics.