Grapevine: October 14, 2020: Shades of black

The movers and shakers of Israeli society.

President Reuven Rivlin, flanked by Social Equality Minister Meirav Cohen and Yehuda Meshi-Zahav. (photo credit: CHAIM ZACH / GPO)
President Reuven Rivlin, flanked by Social Equality Minister Meirav Cohen and Yehuda Meshi-Zahav.
(photo credit: CHAIM ZACH / GPO)
To the uninitiated, haredim (ultra-Orthodox Jews) are all cut from the same black cloth. In reality, while their attire may be similar, their traditions and customs are not. They are Ashkenazi, Sephardi, Middle Eastern, Ethiopian – and then some. They are hassidim and non-hassidim, frequently referred to as “Lithuanians” because they are followers of Eliahu ben Solomon Zalman, more commonly known as the Gaon of Vilna.
Rabbi Israel ben Eliezer, better known as the Baal Shem Tov or by the acronym “Besht,” was the founder of Hassidism. His descendants spread out in many directions, as illustrated in an extensive family tree that was displayed at the Israel Museum in 2012 as part of an exhibition called “A World Apart – Next Door,” which at the time brought many haredim to the museum to see how their history and lifestyle were conveyed by a secular institution. If they complained at all, it was that the exhibition was too small.
For those who want to be better informed about the haredi communities, their similarities and their differences, the Ben-Zvi Institute will on October 28 introduce a six-lecture weekly Wednesday series, from 6 p.m. to 7 p.m., in which Prof. Benjamin Brown, a researcher of Judaism and Jewish thought, specialist in Orthodox Jewry and lecturer in the Hebrew University’s department of Jewish thought, will discuss “Shades of Black – Haredi Jews.” The cost of participation is NIS 160 for all six lectures. For additional details and registration, telephone 073-215-4540 or access act.ybz.org.il
■ COMING UP next week, on October 21, is the 71st birthday of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who might be hoping that participants in demonstrations against him will step back for 24 hours and allow him to celebrate his birthday in peace. Just another example of wishful thinking – or maybe not, given his unusually conciliatory address in the Knesset on Monday. Then again, a lot can happen between October 13 and 21.
■ CELEBRATING A milestone birthday this month is retired diplomat Moshe Yegar, who on October 30 will turn 90. Yegar was instrumental in the upgrading of diplomatic relations between Israel and India from consular to ambassadorial. Perhaps when the Indian community of Israel celebrates the Diwali festival of lights next month, it might care to honor Yegar for his role in bringing the two countries closer together. Yegar traveled to India in July 1991, and despite some internal political difficulties, India opened an embassy in Tel Aviv on January 29, 1992.
Less than a week earlier, Yegar was in Beijing to attend the ceremony marking the establishment of diplomatic relations between China and Israel. He had a finger in that pie as well, although other Israelis before him – such as politician turned diplomat David Hacohen while ambassador to Burma (now Myanmar) in the mid-1950s – made overtures to China. Curiously, Hacohen was also born in October. The 122nd anniversary of his birth is on October 20. A colorful character with an amazing personal history, Hacohen fought in the Turkish army in the First World War, and was an officer in the British Army in the Second World War.
■ IN THE immediate aftermath of the debate fiasco between US President Donald Trump and Joe Biden, who is running on the Democratic ticket in the presidential election, Yona Bartal, the president of the Commercial and Industrial Club, hosted a mock debate between the two, using local stand-ins Alon Pinkas, a former consul-general in New York, and Itamar Rabinovich, a former ambassador to the US. Rabinovich, who was playing Biden, said that he was glad to see that his opponent was wearing a mask.
Actually, it might have been more exciting if the stand-ins hadn’t come from the same side of the political fence. The last ambassador to the US to serve an Israeli left-wing government was David Ivry, who completed his term in 2002. He was preceded by right-wing ambassador Zalman Shoval, and followed by Danny Ayalon, Sallai Meridor, Michael Oren and present incumbent Ron Dermer. Any one of them, other than Dermer, could have played the role of Trump.
■ THE LIST of groups, business enterprises and individuals who have suffered deprivation in one form or another or more, resulting from coronavirus restrictions, is seemingly endless. Some receive a lot of publicity which helps to create public awareness, but others are less known. For instance, who thinks about children missing out on sports club activities?
One person who does is President Reuven Rivlin, who is a keen sports fan. On Wednesday, Rivlin will participate in the launch of an emergency fund for children at sports clubs. The fund, chaired by Nurit Dabush, is a joint initiative of the Israel Basketball Association and Values in Sport, with the support of the Sylvan Adams Foundation and the Culture and Sport Ministry, and will operate under the auspices of the President’s Office. Also attending the launch will be chairman of the association Amiram Halevy.
The joint effort aims to establish emergency financial and social support for children and young people active in basketball clubs during the fight against the coronavirus pandemic, so that they can continue their sporting activity.
■ LAST WEEK, Rivlin met with Social Equality Minister MK Meirav Cohen and with ZAKA chairman Yehuda Meshi-Zahav, to whom he is distantly related.
Although ZAKA had its beginnings as a search and rescue organization, it has expanded its activities in other directions, especially in caring for senior citizens and people living alone. Long before the pandemic, Meshi-Zahav expressed concern after learning that some senior citizens who lived alone had died without anyone being aware for several days until the stench coming from their apartments permeated the corridors of the buildings in which they lived. Meshi-Zahav then asked people to knock on the doors of their lone neighbors to check, first and foremost, if they needed anything and, secondly, to ensure that they were still alive.
Isolation has weighed heavily on those senior citizens who live independently. Cohen’s ministry regularly puts out a message on social media with an emergency number, *8840, which people can call for help or information about anything that pertains to senior citizens. There are also organizations, some affiliated with municipalities, that telephone senior citizens on a regular basis. Rivlin told Meshi-Zahav that the staff of the President’s Office would participate in the latter initiative by making regular phone calls to elderly people living alone.
Various municipalities have come up with a variety of ideas in caring for their older populations. The Jerusalem Municipality, for instance, offers free courses in social media so that seniors will feel comfortable using Skype, Zoom, email, Facebook and other social media platforms. The Tel Aviv Municipality has a 24/7 hotline at its municipal services center. Residents and visitors to the city can call 106.
The Ra’anana Municipality probably has one of the best solutions of all. For those senior citizens who live independently, especially those within easy walking distance of a park, the municipality has recruited volunteers to walk and talk with them, while observing rules such as social distancing and wearing masks.
Although not specifically related, this idea is an offshoot of one that was promulgated as far back as 2012 by American immigrant social entrepreneur Jay Schultz, who founded Adopt-A-Safta, whereby young volunteers are trained to “adopt” a Holocaust survivor grandparent whom they undertake to visit at least once a week, sometimes just for conversation, sometimes to do chores around the apartment and sometimes to do a little shopping or to take the adopted grandparent for a walk. It has been a rewarding experience for both the older and the younger generation. Schultz has devised several other programs for people in different age groups and professions, including programs for new immigrants, some of which are run in conjunction with the Tel Aviv Municipality.
■ IN 2012, Shimon Peres – mindful of the fact that several other countries, especially the United States, have civilian awards that are conferred not only on citizens of those countries but on individuals, organizations and institutions from anywhere in the world that are deemed to have made a valuable contribution to the country bestowing the award and/or to humanity in any number of fields – felt that Israel should follow suit. These awards, such as America’s Medal of Freedom and France’s Legion of Honor, are among the highest civilian awards given by various countries, and inspired Peres to establish The President’s Medal of Distinction. Peres did not attach his name to the award, because he thought that this would detract from its purpose.
Among the first honorees was former US secretary of state Henry Kissinger, who was honored for his “unique contribution to Israel and to peace in the Middle East; and for being a statesman with foresight, creativity and vision.” The recipient of many awards, including the controversial Nobel Peace Prize in 1973, for negotiations that he held in Vietnam, Kissinger, who married out of the faith and who socialized mainly with non-Jews, proved the old Yiddish saying that the pintele Yid (essential Jewishness) never disappears.
In an emotional address, Kissinger told Peres that his parents would have been proud. This award meant more to him than any other, he said, adding that he wished his parents could have been there to see it.
Some of the other recipients of the award during Peres’s term as president included Zubin Mehta, Barak Obama, Bill Clinton, Angela Merkel, Italian President Giorgio Napolitano, rabbis Avraham Elimelech Firer, Adin Steinsaltz, Yitzhak David Grossman and Israel Meir Lau, Ruth Dayan, Lia van Leer, Kamal Mansour and Elie Wiesel. Conspicuously absent from the list is World Jewish Congress president Ronald Lauder.
It’s possible that he was deliberately omitted so that he could be a starting point for Rivlin. The problem is that Rivlin has never conferred the award on anyone. Maybe he thinks that the Israel Prize, the EMET Prize, the Wolfe Prize, the Dan David Prize, the Guardian of Zion Award and the Genesis Prize are sufficient for a country as small as Israel. The point is that, with the exception of the Israel Prize, which is a state award, the other prizes, albeit highly prestigious, were established by wealthy individuals.
The President’s Medal of Distinction is a state award. It is still not too late for Rivlin to make up for the lacuna. Many billionaires and millionaires have given much to Israel and the Jewish people, but few, if any, can equal Lauder.
Long before he was chairman of JNF-USA or president of the World Jewish Congress, Lauder, in 1987, established the Lauder Foundation, which was dedicated to rebuilding Jewish life in Central and Eastern Europe. The foundation established kindergartens, schools and community centers, and brought teachers from the US and Israel to help restore the heritage of people who for too long had been hidden Jews, unable to openly practice their faith and not sufficiently knowledgeable to be able to pass on to the next generation the remaining vestiges of what had once been a rich, vibrant Jewish cultural life.
In Israel, he invested heavily in the communications industry, providing scores of jobs and losing more than $130 million in the process. This did not deter him from doing his best to fulfill David Ben-Gurion’s dream of making the Negev bloom. When he learned from Ben-Gurion University of the Negev that many of the students, after graduating, leave the Negev, he decided to create a reason for them to stay, and five years ago founded the Lauder Employment Center in Beersheba. Through JNF-USA, he has been involved in numerous Negev projects. He has also built a home in Beersheba.
Over the years he has undertaken diplomatic missions for Israel, traveling inter alia to Syria, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority. His meeting last weekend with PA President Mahmoud Abbas lasted three hours.
As president of the World Jewish Congress, he fights antisemitism on all fronts, and is not afraid to challenge a president, prime minister or influential business leader over antisemitic remarks, legislation or incidents in that person’s country.
This is only the tip of the iceberg in Lauder’s civic, philanthropic, arts, business, political and diplomatic activities. He certainly deserves the highest civilian award that Israel can give.
■ MEANWHILE, FORMER Likud MK Yehudah Glick, who has set his heart on becoming Israel’s 11th president, is busy campaigning, and was this week interviewed on KAN’s Reshet Bet radio. Glick, who will turn 55 next month, is the youngest of the people whose names have been circulated as possible candidates.
In his interview with Kalman Libeskind and Yossi Liberman, he said that he feels at home with all sectors of Israeli society, he is sick of the divisive hatred and vulgarity, and he believes that he is the right person to bring about unity and solidarity. While declaring that all the potential candidates would make good presidents, he believes that he is the most suitable because he has the motivation and the energy. A president does not need to be an elder statesman who represents the moral compass of the nation, he said, implying that the moral compass is determined by the people of the nation.
■ THE OLDEST of the would-be presidents, and the only one to have formally announced his candidature, is former minister and MK Prof. Shimon Shetreet, 74, who is an internationally renowned legal expert.
On Monday, during the opening of the winter session of the Knesset, Shetreet issued a statement urging political leaders to refrain at all costs from another round of elections, and to guarantee a stable administration at a time when the coronavirus crisis and the economic crisis require intensive treatment. Another election at this time would result in the depletion of valuable human resources, which would be diverted from the uncompromising struggle against coronavirus and its impact on the population to the management of political campaigns, which in turn would lead to even greater rifts in society than those that already exist, he said.
■ THE DANCING may have been subdued on Simhat Torah, but the singing of the Chabad of Rehavia congregation in Jerusalem could be heard more than a block away. As was the case on Kol Nidre night, attendance in both the men’s and the women’s sections on Friday night was overflowing to the edge of the pavement, with screens separating small clusters of worshipers.
Even though Yizkor was recited on Saturday, there were fewer congregants than there had been on Friday night, and there was a whole new concept to the notion of wandering Jews.
For the first half of the service, congregants sat in the passageway between the World Mizrachi headquarters and the Great Synagogue. The intention was to move into the Great Synagogue Plaza for hakafot, but the area was serving the needs of the Sephardi congregation which has its own synagogue on the ground floor inside the Great Synagogue building. Its service was not yet over, and certainly not as lively as that of Chabad, but it had a charming old-world decorum.
To pass the time, Chabad Rabbi Yisroel Goldberg began auctioning off the privilege to be hatan Bereshit. He did much better this time as an auctioneer than on Yom Kippur, when he auctioned off maftir Yona for NIS 7,000. This time he was able to get NIS 12,000 for hatan Bereshit.
Eventually, the congregation moved next door, each person carrying the plastic chair on which he had been sitting. An improvised mobile ark containing the Torah scrolls was wheeled in from Chabad of Rehavia headquarters two doors away, and Goldberg, who has an unflagging source of energy, led the dancing, making sure that adults did not touch each other, but allowing fathers to hoist their children onto their shoulders.
Goldberg hoisted two of his younger children onto his own shoulders. An attentive father as well as an inspiring rabbi, Goldberg is constantly interrupted by some of his many offspring while leading prayers, delivering a sermon or auctioneering. He never ignores them or gets angry with them, but always gives them a hug or a pat on the head.
Considerate of everyone regardless of their financial or social status, he made sure that every man present could get an aliyah to the Torah if they so desired, but urged them all to put on gloves before handling the Torah and to desist from kissing it.
A table by the ark contained a box of surgical gloves, a bottle of sanitizer and a package of masks for people who came without or wanted to get a fresh mask so that they could discard the one they were already wearing.
There were also notices advising worshipers who were in violation of the Health Ministry’s guidelines that after they are asked twice to abide by them, and continue to ignore them, they would be asked to leave.
Goldberg, who is very good dancer, introduced what he called the corona dance, which instead of the usual mass shuffle, allows dancers to be creative and devise their choreography for solo expressions of joy. There were similar dances in other congregations, as shown that night on television during the Second Hakafot, but none of the dancers on screen could emulate Goldberg’s joyful body language. At one stage, he danced down the street with a Torah scroll, with many of the males in the congregation following him. Although this Simhat Torah was not as exciting for children as it had been in years gone by, the youngsters present were happy to keep returning to the refreshments table which inter alia was loaded with bags of marshmallows, potato chips and large rocket-shaped bags of assorted candies.
The incredibly energetic Goldberg, who personally greets congregants, is unfailingly courteous and polite, prays at services for sick relatives and friends of congregants, naming each sick person, and has a great sense of humor, which he injects into his brief sermons. He has reached the conclusion that three or four very brief sermons are much more effective than one long one.
Near the conclusion of the service, a group of men gathered behind Goldberg, grabbed him and flipped him in the air into a backwards somersault. He had not yet concluded the prayer that he was leading, but didn’t miss a beat or rather a word – and he wasn’t the least bit angry.
■ OPPOSITION LEADER MK Yair Lapid has written to Netanyahu, asking him to reconsider appointing former minister and MK Effi Eitam to the chairmanship of Yad Vashem, following the retirement of Avner Shalev, who after 27 years will conclude his tenure at the end of this year. Noting that in his military career Eitam was involved in the mistreatment of a Palestinian, Lapid suggested that such a controversial figure was not a suitable person to head Yad Vashem. Acknowledging that his late father, Tommy Lapid, who served as chairman of the Yad Vashem Council, had also been a controversial figure, Lapid noted that his father had been a Holocaust survivor from the Budapest Ghetto, whose own father had died in a concentration camp.
Lapid suggested that instead of Eitam, Netanyahu appoint Adi Altschuler, the founder of Krembo Wings which brings youth with special needs and mainstream youth together in joint projects. Altschuler is also the founder of Memories in the Living Room whereby Holocaust survivors sit in the living room of someone’s home and share their memories with an audience of not more than 50 people, and usually far fewer. This intimate environment creates a closeness between speaker and listeners.
Another suitable candidate would be Rabbi Benny Lau, whose father and uncle were both Holocaust survivors, but he might be ruled out, as his uncle Rabbi Israel Meir Lau is the current chairman of the Yad Vashem Council.
■ LEADING ISRAELI pop star in Noa Kirel, though only 19 and currently doing her mandatory army service, is one of the youngest ambassadors in the world. No, she’s not with the Foreign Ministry. She was named last week as an international ambassador for Make-A-Wish Israel, an organization that seeks to fulfill the wishes of critically ill children. The title was conferred on Kirel by Make-A-Wish Israel founders Denise and Avi Ben-Aharon.
Kirel joins fellow Make-A-Wish ambassadors such as Justin Bieber, Beyoncé, the Rock (Dwayne Johnson), Michael Jordan, Lior Suchard and other celebrities who help to grant wishes for sick children and participate in fundraising campaigns and other Make-A-Wish events in Israel and abroad.
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