The night of March 21, 2001 was historic. Hapoel Tel Aviv was playing in the San Siro, home of AC Milan (and Inter) – one of the most iconic football stadiums in the world. It was the second leg of the UEFA Cup quarter-final and the first time ever an Israeli team had reached such an advanced stage of a major European competition.
It was also the height of the Second Intifada. The security situation in Israel was so bad that UEFA, European football’s governing body, decided that Israeli teams would have to play their home games outside of Israel. Anyone who follows sport will understand how important it is to have home advantage, and losing what is termed the “12th player” is a mortal blow.
As a result of this decision, that night became historic for a different reason. I, and many other Brits in Israel don’t follow the local football scene, but once UEFA made that decision, we all became very interested. So much so, that we wanted to make the enforced-exile home legs into genuine home games. We traveled to Cyprus to watch Maccabi Haifa play (and beat) Manchester United and a group of us decided to make the trip for the away leg of the quarter-final in Milan.
With us that night was David Geffen who, to be fair, being from Bournemouth (long before they became a Premier League team), was not much of a football fan. However, adventure, doing something new, supporting Israel and living life to its absolute maximum was how David lived his life.
Jews (football fans and many who were not) traveled from Israel and across Europe to see the game (we lost, but nobody really cared by the end). It was the most amazing night of Jewish solidarity, and by the end, the terraces were more like a shtiebel with multiple evening prayers breaking out.
This was one of many special moments that David and I shared over the years of friendship and partnership.
David was cruelly taken from Naomi, Chana, Tehilla and Yonatan last month far too young. We always used to joke that the lads from Bournemouth and Newcastle, growing up in traditional British-Jewish families ended up together in Beit Shemesh, all focused on the unity of the Jewish people.
For David, his years of studying Torah, becoming a rabbi, teaching in Aish Hatorah and as a disciple of the great Rabbi Noach Weinberg – part of an amazing group who built Aish in the UK and then founded Common Denominator – were just preparations for his life’s mission: “The Loving World.”
ONENESS transcends cultures and societies
David believed that by using basic Jewish ideas of morality and relationships, he could change the world. Not just the Jewish people or Israel, but the world. Ultimately, he saw in these ideas universal truths that connected all human beings. For David, echad (number one) was not just a number, but also a deep philosophical idea – oneness. God is One and humanity is one. In terms described by moral psychologist Laurence Kohlberg, David might be described as post-conventional in his moral thinking. In Kohlberg’s definition, such an individual’s commitment to moral principles is sustained independently of any identification with family, group, or country.
This is not to say that one doesn’t remain authentically committed to his own tradition, as David remained throughout his life, but one’s moral drive goes above and beyond his own background, tribe, religion or nation. Kohlberg described figures like Gandhi, Mandela, and Rosa Parks with this type of universal morality.
David being David, thinking was never enough. His obsessive drive was to create and educate. Although in the last years of his life, he reverted to his life before he became a rabbi. David was a trained engineer, and he reached a stage in his educational philosophy where it was actually possible to structure an educational process that cause people to love each other. It can be analyzed, dissected and engineered.
Of course, in order to achieve this, you have to be a love engineer, which, as the founder and creator of Loving Classroom, is exactly how David defined himself. In 2013, together with Naomi (his life partner in so many ways), he started building a global organization training people to deliver the Loving Classroom program in schools in Africa, the UK and Israel.
Tens of thousands have already benefited. Better relationships, less school tension or violence and even better academic results can be achieved if we treat one another with love and compassion. So simple, yet so difficult.
In its own tribute, the Dallas-based Memnosyne Institute said, “the brilliance behind Rabbi David Geffen’s work is that it did not proselytize, was eagerly embraced by those of all religious and cultural backgrounds, and gave people the tools to rediscover their common humanity.”
As partners with David, they commented that the program created an “85% reduction in bullying and violence in South African schools and with an even higher rate of increase in the reduction of prejudices and rise in empathy and compassion.”
In a de-globalizing world with increased tribal and national tensions, David has shown us the way to break down barriers and empower us all to become love engineers. His inspiration and unending love will be sorely missed.
The way for us all to honor his legacy is to take up the challenge and see, as David did, good in literally every single human being. In today’s world, finding something to love in humanity is no longer a luxury but an obligation.
The writer is founding partner of Goldrock Capital and founder of The Institute for Jewish and Zionist Research. He is a former chair of Gesher, World Bnei Akiva and the Coalition for Haredi Employment.