Bob and Diane Abrams: Seeing Israel strong and growing

Bob Abrams continues well into his eighties to spread his love for Israel by bringing influential leaders from America to see the miracles of the Start-Up Nation for themselves.

 BOB & DIANE ABRAMS: Cheerleaders of Israel. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
BOB & DIANE ABRAMS: Cheerleaders of Israel.
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)

It’s not easy for Bob and Diane Abrams to live halfway around the world from their two daughters and their families. But come Friday. New York time, they have created an enduring routine in the best of all worlds. With Rachel and Becky living in Jerusalem, the phone gets transferred around for a couple of hours until they’ve spoken with the entire family, both sons-in-laws, and eight grandchildren before the onset of Shabbos.

Bob Abrams is the author of a memoir recounting his stellar life in politics, The Luckiest Guy in the World. As four-term New York State attorney general and one of the most well-known attorney generals in United States history, he continues well into his eighties to spread his love for Israel by bringing influential leaders from America to see the miracles of the Start-Up Nation for themselves.

Diane Schulder Abrams, too, is the author of the forthcoming memoir My Grandmother’s Candlesticks: Judaism and Feminism, A Multigenerational Memoir. She is a renowned pioneer in the academic field of women and the law, a course that she pioneered, prompting her Columbia Law School classmate Ruth Bader Ginsberg to initiate classes of her own.

Sitting down with The Jerusalem Post during a recent Passover-visit, reunited with their extended families, they were happy to share the Jewish values and support for Israel, which is at the heart of their lives.

“In a way, it’s been a bittersweet time in our lives. Sweet because the inculcation of Jewish values and love of Israel has successfully brought both our children to Israel, to want to live here. Bittersweet because we want them close to us. We miss them. The physical separation isn’t easy,” Bob explained.

 WITH THE Lubavitcher Rebbe: ‘You promised you would write a book of memories about your grandmother.’ (credit: Courtesy Abrams family) WITH THE Lubavitcher Rebbe: ‘You promised you would write a book of memories about your grandmother.’ (credit: Courtesy Abrams family)

He feared that when Rachel and his son-in-law, Rabbi Ian Pear, made this move 21 years ago that their future grandchildren would never know them. “The fear was eliminated because the bond is so close. Through those phone calls and visits two to three times a year to Israel, we know what’s going on from the most micro to the most significant.”

A shidduch, ’70s New York style

Bob and Diane Abrams came from polar opposites of the Jewish spectrum. Bob was the son of assimilated Russian émigrés who ran a luncheonette in the Bronx. Diane was from a prosperous Orthodox family in Manhattan. They were introduced through a rabbi friend when they were both 36 and as Bob recalls, “there were interesting intersections – anti-war activities and Jewish community activities.”

Bob was the chairman of the New York Conference on Soviet Jewry, which organized the largest demonstration in the world. Some 250,000 people strong would march down Fifth Avenue and assemble at Dag Hammarskjöld Plaza in front of the United Nations. Ministers from Israel and members from Congress would come. Menachem Begin spoke and there were leading refuseniks who had recently got out.

A graduate of Columbia Law School at a time when women were still very much in the minority in her class, Diane created the first course on women in the law in 1969 at the University of Pennsylvania, before taking it to NYU Law School, where it eventually spread to most US law schools.

This too is recounted in Bob’s engaging memoir of his distinguished service as New York’s attorney general – and how it intersected with the observant home Diane created. While he was penning The Luckiest Guy in the World, in one of their Friday pre-Shabbos meetings, his elder daughter, Rachel Pear, the rebbetzin of Shir Hadash synagogue in Talbiyeh, prodded her mother to recall a promise she had made to the Lubavitcher Rebbe.

“The Rebbe worked in the day and saw people at night. We had an appointment at midnight. We arrived at 770 Eastern Parkway to his office waiting room and at 2 p.m., Jan Peerce, the famous opera singer, and his wife came out and we walked in. There’s the Rebbe. A simple office. A desk. The kindest looking face you see. Kind blue eyes. You feel like he’s a member of your family.

 “We spoke briefly and he gave us a blessing for our marriage. As we left – he’d never heard of us – I decided to send him a copy of an article that had been printed in the OU magazine in the summer of ’74, ‘Grandma Lives.’” The Rebbe acknowledged receipt of her article by urging her to write a book.

“The reason I wrote this was that I found some Jewish feminists had written denigrating articles about the Jewish religion and put women in an inferior place,” she said. “I wanted to write a response because my grandmother Rose Schulder had always lived a traditional life, but was a strong, intelligent woman with a fine character, who made a tremendous contribution, not only to her family, but to her community. She had immigrated with her mother and siblings in 1897 from Lizhensk when she had been about 18. Her father had been the shochet [ritual slaughterer] and he had come earlier to America to raise money. He stayed in order to raise the standards of shechita, in America according to strict rabbinic law.”

The Rebbe never forgets

Diane Abrams was juggling her busy career in New York City as an attorney and Jewish community leader when she gave birth to Rachel. She recalls how the couple would be invited to a weekday farbrengen (hassidic gathering) at Lubavitcher headquarters and over the years would meet with the Rebbe periodically.

On a Sunday in August 1991, when the Abrams’ younger daughter Becky was five, “the Rebbe handed us some fresh dollar bills, but instead of turning to Bob to discuss the Crown Heights situation – the riots – he turned to Diane and said, ‘You promised me some time ago to write a book of memories about your grandmother. What happened to the book?’”

“I was caught off guard. The Rebbe’s memory was astounding. I didn’t know what to say. He said, ‘it takes you too long.’ ‘You are right,’ I said nodding.

“He saw I was a little uncomfortable. You’ll have many other things to do after you finish that. Then he said, ‘May God Almighty bless you with good news.’”

Thirty years have passed since that conversation and My Grandmother’s Candlesticks is scheduled to be released at the end of 2022 by OU Press.

“One of the issues I researched for this book was the Rebbe’s view of women’s place in the world and in Judaism. I loved my grandmother very much, but she didn’t speak much about herself. She was concerned with others. So, I took an oral history course. I interviewed family members about their recollections, went to the YIVO library and discovered that cemeteries are good places to do research.

“After the fall of the Soviet Union, I went back to her shtetl in Poland, Lizhensk, as part of a trip Bob had organized for US attorneys general to meet their counterparts in Hungary, then Czechoslovakia and Poland, and to discuss how to create democracies out of newly freed countries.

“I saw the place where my grandmother was born. Lizhensk was also the hometown and gravesite of Rabbi Elimelech Weisblum, one of the great founding rebbes of the hassidic movement. It was a Jewish shtetl, where the shochet, her great-grandfather, was one of three people in the beit din to litigate issues.”

When Diane’s grandmother was born in Lizhensk, a woman couldn’t dare to dream of playing a role in any court of law. As she points out, “The Lubavitcher Rebbe brought about the seismic shift in the hassidic world by emphasizing that for women to study Torah in depth was not merely a right or privilege, but an urgent priority for our nation.

“The Lubavitcher Rebbe’s mother was Chana Schneerson, whose story is told in a wonderful book, A Mother in Israel. I recommend it very highly.”

Chana Schneerson worked hand in hand for 30 years with her husband, Rabbi Levi Yitzhak Schneerson, the renowned kabbalist and Chabad leader of Dnipro (formerly Yekatrinoslav), one of Ukraine’s largest cities and still home to one of the largest Chabad centers in the world. The Rebbe’s parents continued to teach all aspects of Torah and Judaism when it was considered a subversive crime, punishable by death.

“The influence of Rebbetzin Chana – my analysis – is that the way the Rebbe’s parents worked hand in hand teaching Judaism may have been the model for shluchim, because they were modeling equality between the two.” The thousands of Chabad emissaries that the Rebbe sent out after he became the head of Lubavitch, similar to his own parents, opened their homes to teach Torah, the Jewish traditions and the Hebrew language.

“In one of the chapters, what I try to portray in the influence of women in Judaism is continuity and how we become particularly aware of it at Passover. It’s in the merit of the righteous women that our ancestors were redeemed from Egypt.”

Bob and Diane sent both their daughters, Rachel and Becky, to the Modern Orthodox and Zionist Ramaz School in Manhattan. Still, it came as a surprise 20 years ago when Rachel, an archaeologist, newly married to Rabbi Ian Pear, announced they were making aliyah.

It was very emotional for them. New York is where Bob and Diane had built their careers, their home and friends, and until a year ago, they had their younger daughter Becky and her family close by.

When Becky and her husband, Dan Greenwald, both lawyers, decided to move to Israel in 2021, Bob and Diane made their decision to buy a home in Jerusalem with one important stipulation: It had to be within a five- to seven-minute walk of the beautiful newly built Shir Hadash shul in Talbiyeh. It was built by the community that their son-in-law and daughter have cultivated over the past 20 years.

Their children establish Shir Hadash

“Ian and Rachel’s vision was to create a shul where everyone is welcome. You see a person with a tie, and a person with sandals and no socks. When they were living in Nahlaot, Ian founded a synagogue in a bomb shelter and brought in the Shlomo Carlebach melodies and people gravitated toward the young couple because of their accepting nature. Then they moved to Katamon and brought the shul members with them, growing their community in five different locations before their dream was realized. Their shul was built from the ground up.”

The Jerusalem mayor’s office granted the Pears use of a parcel of land adjacent to Moon Grove, a beautiful nature reserve. With considerable support from Bob and Diane in New York and Ian’s parents in Phoenix, Arizona, Shir Hadash realized its dream in 2020 with the opening of a building named in honor of J.J. Greenberg – who established Birthright Israel, and many more highly successful programs to instill a love of Yiddishkeit and Israel in a younger generation.

“I’ve been bringing attorneys general from all over the US here for 25 years. I do it under the auspices of the America Israel Friendship League and the Israeli Foreign Ministry.

“We jointly sponsor groups – important opinion makers – coming to Israel, and each time the group comes and we’re in the bus coming from Ben-Gurion Airport, you look out the windows and see orchards and forests. You see homes and you see infrastructure. Nothing was here. These were arid stony desolate hills and it was through the hard work, determination and ingenuity of the Jewish people that the Jewish homeland, with its great institutions, was built. So, I feel a source of tremendous pride and commitment to the survival and strengthening of Israel,” Bob said.

“There’s a lot of anti-Israel propaganda to overcome, and my experience is that once a person comes here and see this place and feels it, lives it, then without the filter of the media, they are overwhelmed by the beauty and openness of the society, the vibrancy of the democracy, and come away huge fans of Israel, indeed Zionists. I consider myself the cheerleader of Israel whomever I talk to, because I know once a person comes here and sees it, they understand. They appreciate it.”

One of the highlights of these trips, guests have often said, has been the Shabbat farewell dinner at the Pears’ house. Bob recalls their pleasure to experience a Shabbat service and dinner. And perhaps even more, to be asked, each and everyone in attendance, “Tell us who you are. What’s the best thing that happened this week? Give us a piece of wisdom.”■

The writer is the author of The Wagamama Bride: A Jewish Family Saga Made in Japan. In 1982 she was notified by then-district attorney Robert Abrams that her landlord had illegally been overcharging her. The roll-back in her rent allowed her to take the trip of a lifetime to Japan, where she would eventually settle for 30 years.

Meeting Robert and Diane Abrams by hashgacha pratis (Divine providence) at Shir Hadash synagogue in Jerusalem, led to the one of the most exciting interviews of her life and a chance to thank Bob Abrams directly.