Questionnaire: An eternal optimist

'I see us striding forward culturally, scientifically and technologically,' says Ruth Bar-On.

Ruth Bar-On 521 (photo credit: courtesy)
Ruth Bar-On 521
(photo credit: courtesy)
From 1970, Ruth Bar-On was actively involved in the struggle to free Soviet Jewry.
As head of the Israel Public Council for Soviet Jewry, she encountered many new immigrants hit by tragedies with which they could not cope because they lacked a natural support system. In response, she founded SELAH Israel Crisis Management Center, which, since 1993, has extended emotional, practical and financial aid to over 22,000 new immigrants from across the globe hit by sudden crisis
What gets you out of bed in the morning?
I’ve always been an early riser. Dealing with issues I care about – giving meaningful help to immigrants in acute need, in real time – gives me a lot of energy for the challenges that lie ahead.
What keeps you up at night?
Thoughts of people in harsh situations, desperately requiring help. Trying to search for different ways we can help them, and looking for solutions to different problems, in view of a shortage of resources.
What’s the most difficult professional moment you’ve faced so far?
There have been many difficult moments, as we are a crisis response organization. The mass terror attack at the Park Hotel in Netanya on the eve of Pessah 2002, when my professional responsibilities intertwined with personal obligations in an especially wrenching way: My husband and I were having the Seder at our home, along with our children, grandchildren and my 90-year-old mother. With us was a 12-year-old immigrant boy from Russia whose sister had been killed in the Dolphinarium attack 10 months earlier and whose mother was now hospitalized. This was his first Seder. When the messages came through about the Park Hotel terror attack, I was torn between the need to leave immediately with the first emergency teams – and a desperate desire to carry on with the Seder, especially for the young boy who had just lost his own sister to terror. It took all my self-control to stay quiet and carry on. Once the Seder was completed, I went out and joined our volunteer and professional teams.
How do you celebrate your achievements?
I feel SELAH’s greatest achievement is our mobile network of dedicated volunteers and trauma experts that can reach people throughout the country. This I celebrate with gratitude.
Each time we see that a person or family in our care is moving forward after a tragedy, we celebrate life, however quietly. And when the people in our care later celebrate their own milestones and smahot [happy occasions], this is for all of us a time of true rejoicing!
If you were prime minister, what’s the first thing you would do?
Deal with our security threats and at the same time make far-reaching efforts to strengthen the resilience of the Israeli population, which we cannot take for granted.
Which Israeli should have a movie made about him/her?
Naomi Shemer, for reflecting us as individuals and as a society, in all our struggles and sorrows and joys. Her songs are bound forever to momentous national moments, which each one of us can still feel personally, through her words and music.
What would you change about Israelis if you could?
A SELAH volunteer from Ethiopia once said to me: “In Ethiopia people have big ears and small mouths; in Israel, people have small ears and big mouths.” If we Israelis could just listen and open ourselves to hear the views of others before we speak, that would be a good start.

iPad, BlackBerry or pen and paper?
Pen and paper, e-mail and Google.
If you had to write an advertisement to entice tourists to come to Israel, what would it say?
Come to this amazing country, where you can meet people, each with a unique life story. Where there is sea and sand and green pastures. Where you feel the Bible in every corner, yet you are free to worship whomever you choose. As well as have sun and fun.
What is the most serious problem facing the country?
The polarization of Israeli society. The growing educational, social and economic gaps. For a certain segment of the population, lack of a sense of belonging, meaning and hope. This manifests itself in growing violence and substance abuse, among other behaviors.
How can it be solved?
By a comprehensive national program, not forgetting the weakest links of society.

In 20 years, the country will be:
A vibrant, thriving democracy, with substantial immigration from the West and fewer economic, educational and social gaps. We will have a stronger collective identity, stronger togetherness and more connection to our roots. Our society will be more tolerant, more compassionate and more just. I see us striding forward culturally, scientifically and technologically.
For this to happen, all of us, young and old, must begin working hard for it, together, starting now. Lu yehi – let it be!