Grapevine May 19, 2023: A president who does his homework

Movers and shakers in Israeli society.

 DORRON KLINE (left) and Robby Hilkowitz present a historic book to President Isaac Herzog. (photo credit: Brian Specror)
DORRON KLINE (left) and Robby Hilkowitz present a historic book to President Isaac Herzog.
(photo credit: Brian Specror)

One of the admirable qualities of President Isaac Herzog is that he does his homework. Herzog happens to be blessed with a remarkable memory for names, faces and detail, and is not afraid to admit that a piece of information imparted to him in the course of a meeting is something he didn’t know before. But considering the number of meetings he has on any given day, plus the fact that he’s an avid bookworm, it’s quite amazing to sit in on any random session with him, be it with diplomats, rabbis, doctors, academics or organizations of different kinds and hear the extent to which he is familiar with what they do and with what their leaders have done and are doing. He knows how to discuss the politics and history of any country when talking to a head of state, a prime minister or an ambassador.

This week, he managed to open a window in his overcrowded calendar to meet with the leadership, professional staff, veteran immigrants and fairly recent immigrants who are all part of Telfed.

Among them were former Vice-chairs Shely Cohen and Gabey Cohen, former director Sydney Shapiro, and former chairpersons Batya Shmukler and Dave Bloom.

The date, May 15, was important, said Telfed CEO Dorron Kline, because that was the date in 1948 when the newly declared State of Israel took its first steps. When Herzog asked Telfed chairman Robby Hilkowitz about Telfed’s mission, the reply was that Telfed’s main purpose is to support South African olim. Bloom, a resident of Kochav Yair-Tzur Yigal who has lived in Israel for half a century, said that Telfed was created to support South Africa’s 800 Mahalniks, who came to fight in the War of Independence, “so we have been here since the very beginning.” Mahal is a Hebrew acronym for Mitnadvei Hutz L’Aretz (volunteers from abroad).

Bloom, who was born in Harare, Zimbabwe, recalled that when he was 12 years old, the president’s father had visited there.

 FROM LEFT: Prof. Uriel Reichman, founding president Reichman University, Dr. Chelsea Clinton and Oudi Recanati, chair of Reichman University. (credit: ELAD GUTMAN) FROM LEFT: Prof. Uriel Reichman, founding president Reichman University, Dr. Chelsea Clinton and Oudi Recanati, chair of Reichman University. (credit: ELAD GUTMAN)

Many of the South Africans who came in 1948, stayed, and some were instrumental in the creation of the Afridar suburb of Ashkelon, which resembles a South African neighborhood and was built with money raised by the South African Jewish community. For the first decade of its existence, it was also managed by South Africans.

Herzog, in his spontaneous remarks, obviously knew a lot about South African Jewry and was also familiar with the names of various South African Zionists as well as immigrants who had impacted the country in one way or another. In particular, he mentioned the late Mendel Kaplan, a South African industrialist who had been the Chairman of the Board of Governors of the Jewish Agency and Honorary President of Keren Hayesod.

Herzog was very touched to read in a book about the history of Telfed that was presented to him by Hilkowitz and Kline, a letter that his father former president Chaim Herzog had written in 1992, in which he lauded South African olim.

“What have South Africans not touched and developed? They are agricultural pioneers in the classic Kibbutz model and middle-class pioneers in industry. They have given Israel excellent physicians and veterinarians. They are sportsmen and influence others to engage in sports. They have enriched Israel by their concern with the arts, their splendidly organized volunteering, their innovations in medical care.”

The letter is somewhat longer, but the above excerpt conveys the message of the esteem in which South African immigrants are held.

Following the formal meeting, which was informal due to the personality of the present President Herzog, there was an official photograph, followed by a lot of selfies of the president with individual olim, who were simply thrilled to have this opportunity.

■ DIPLOMATS AND other officials of foreign diplomatic, economic and cultural missions stationed in Israel, are increasingly becoming involved in humanitarian aid projects. Abby Ya-Ping Lee, head of the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office in Tel Aviv, together with other representatives from the Office, visited Pitchon-Lev’s Humanitarian Aid Center in Rishon Lezion last week and assisted volunteers in distributing food to aid recipients.

This is part of the meaningful collaboration between Pitchon-Lev and the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office in Tel Aviv. Pitchon-Lev has gratefully acknowledged the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office’s support of Program 7, which works to develop the potential and advancement of youth from Israel’s social and geographic periphery.

■ WHILE HIS fellow countrymen at home were wondering about the eventual outcome of the Turkish elections, Turkish Ambassador Sakir Ozkan Torunlar attended a ceremony at Bar-Ilan University’s Salti Institute, which marked its 20th year of working toward the preservation and teaching of the Ladino language. Following the expulsion of Jews from Spain and Portugal more than 500 years ago, many such people settled in Turkey where they continued to practice their traditions and to preserve their Ladino heritage.

At the ceremony, Naime Salti was honored for her contributions to maintaining Ladino as a living language with the Special Award of BIU President Prof. Arie Zaban.

■ THIS COMING Sunday, May 21, at 7 p.m., the Association of Americans and Canadians in Israel (AACI) will honor the fallen and both commemorate and celebrate Jerusalem Day in a meaningful livestream ceremony.

As part of the program, AACI will introduce the new AACI Remembers website ( to enable all in Israel and around the world to learn about and honor each of the fallen members of AACI and those from English-speaking countries. Chaired by Miriam Barth, this year’s program includes an inspiring address by Deputy Mayor of Jerusalem, Fleur Hassan-Nahoum on The Unity of the Jewish People, plus greetings from outgoing-US Ambassador Tom Nides and Canadian Ambassador Lisa Stadelbauer, along with stories from family and friends of the fallen.

The ceremony will conclude with a sensitive violin rendition of “Hatikvah” by Judy Amsel, daughter of philanthropists, the late Jenny and Max Weil who came to Israel from the US.

In other AACI News, the generosity of many members enabled 20 families selected by the Ashkelon Welfare Authorities to escape the fear of rockets from Gaza and to spend last weekend in a hotel in Herzliya. The group included families in need and families whose children have special needs. The Ashkelon municipality arranged and paid for transport to and from the hotel, while all the logistics were handled by AACI Director David London and his wife Karyn, a social worker with the Ministry of Social Services. The two worked tirelessly to ensure that everything would run smoothly without a hitch.

■ KNOWN AS the greatest builder of Jerusalem since Herod, it comes as a surprise to learn that Teddy Kollek actually had reservations about his ability to properly fulfill the role of mayor of the reunited city of Jerusalem. Yediot Aharonot’s Gilad Cohen in perusing the minutes of a June 8, 1967 Jerusalem City Council meeting, read that Kollek had stated that he did not feel equal to the task. Some people can be wrong about themselves. Kollek certainly proved to be more than equal.

■ LAST DECEMBER, former US President Bill Clinton received an honorary doctorate from the University of Haifa at an awards ceremony in New York. His honorary degree was in recognition of his longtime commitment to the State of Israel, for promoting coexistence in the Middle East and for the Clinton Global Initiative’s involvement in social and economic sustainability.

Less than six months later, his daughter Chelsea received an Honorary Doctorate from Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. Even though both Bill and Hilary Clinton are out of office, the Clinton name has lost none of its magic, and awards keep coming in for various members of the family.

Chelsea Clinton received her honorary doctorate for her work as a global health advocate. In voicing her pride in her own work and that of BGU researchers, Clinton described her work as having “a fierce quality of purpose,” which she said was also true of many of the academics, researchers and students pursuing their purpose at BGU.

Chelsea Clinton’s stay in Israel was not confined to BGU. She also participated in a Reichman University event in which RU collaborated with the Clinton Global Initiative and the Aviram Foundation. The event celebrated the accomplishments of the local ecosystem of sustainability entrepreneurs recognizing their commitment to environmental stewardship and innovative solutions. In attendance were industry leaders, academics and aspiring entrepreneurs.