Some might ask: Why Israel? Why did you and your wife, Aviva, drop everything and move to Israel as a newly married young couple? Why have your first child there? Why did you choose to teach at Hebrew University, in Hebrew no less, when the alternative teaching in English was so much easier? Why, now, years later, was your first novel – My Brothers’ Keeper – an Israeli spy thriller delving deep into the Israeli military, culture, and people?
Why? I’ll tell you.
Growing up in New York City’s Washington Heights in the 40’s and 50’s put me at the heart of a melting pot that was only beginning to simmer. Lines of demographic enclaves were invisible markers that were as well defined as international borders. Jews, Italians and Irish, west of Broadway, which dissected Manhattan south to north for miles; Hispanics, one or two city blocks east of the avenue; and African Americans relegated far east of the dividing line.
My primary school years, first through eighth grade, passed ingloriously as a student of noted mediocrity at a modern orthodox Yeshiva, in upper Manhattan. I don’t recall, during my eight-year stint, that Israel was ever mentioned, except for selling tickets for tree planting in the remote and exotic area called Israel.
My second and third grades were especially noteworthy, for the absence of even occasional recognition of one of the most profound occurrences in the millennia of Jewish existence: Israel’s birth as a nation.
The puzzling silence of the Jewish institution’s lack of acknowledgement, and seeming unconcern for the terra-firma lifeline created for hundreds of thousands of Nazi death camp survivors with no place to call home, remains a mystery to me.
Less mystifying for me, was my immediate family’s non-response. The subject, while not avoided, was barely recognized. My parents, refugees of the Nazi onslaught, arrived in the States, just before the attack on Pearl Harbor. Jews arriving from Europe at that time were not exactly welcomed with open arms. My parents had to focus almost exclusively, on eking out a living for the five of us (my parents, my two sisters Melinda and Josie, and myself).
So, where does my concern for, and love for Israel come from?
Young and intelligent Israeli cousins coming to the States for graduate studies, made that country into a stark, tangible reality. The parts of my family that had made their way to Palestine, and subsequently Israel, caught my imagination and stoked curiosity.
Marrying an adventurous woman didn’t hurt.
We traveled to Israel during a long summer break from my graduate studies. While Israel, a fledgling country of twenty years, appealed to us, the raucous nature of the populace, and the daily terrorist threats, raised question marks for us about a re-visit.
Within a few months after our extended tour, we found ourselves beginning to plan a move to Israel as new immigrants. Our families were flabbergasted. Where did this come from? We found ourselves unable to explain to family or friends precisely why we had made this monumental personal decision. Of course, we responded with all of the platitudes: Jewish homeland, helping to build a new country, etc., etc. These answers mostly produced head scratching puzzlement.
My wife and I didn’t understand either — until we stepped off the plane, proudly displaying a giant Star of David on the fuselage. Some collective unconscious connected us. We felt we had arrived in perhaps the only place on Earth Jews can call home — and really believe it. We remained in the country a net total of six years. Our return to the States for my Doctoral studies causing an interim break.
Two positions that I held in Israel: Director of Community Development for Southern Tel Aviv, and faculty member of the School of Social Work at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, helped me develop a first-hand, close-up, understanding of the country’s social, political and economic challenges.
Extensive research and numerous exchanges with political and military personages, helped shape my understanding of Israel’s challenges — both in the security of the homeland, and its role in addressing potential violence against Diaspora Jews in far-flung regions of the globe.
These career choices that I had made in Israel helped shape what was to be the majority of my subsequent professional career when we returned to the United States in 1981. Working as the (Director of Major Gifts for the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington), followed by the CEO of the JCC’s of San Diego, and then the CEO of the Atlanta JCC’s were all guided by my love of Judaism and of Israel.
Now, as I reflect upon so many of my life’s choices, it’s clear to me how many of them were tied to my devotion to Israel.
So, why Israel?
I guess I just needed to leave my comfort zone and travel across the globe, to help shape the rest of my life.