Voices from the Field
"...to recapture how I came to be in the company of such amazing individuals, these early leaders of Israel, who were thrust into my life with such collision force that their hold on my imagination is intensely alive and personal still. I am everlastingly grateful for having had the opportunity to work for and alongside such prime ministers, and for having had my eyes opened to the fact that occassionally such larger-than-life champions of the Jewish people exist on earth." - Yehuda Avner, Jerusalem 2010
A moment remembered by Sarah Katz, a student at Barnard University
My first encounter with Yehuda Avner was at a speech he gave at my high school. He was a soft-spoken, stately man who was introduced as the trusted advisor to many of Israel’s most memorable prime ministers. However, it was not until the Q&A discussion at the end of the speech that I truly understood who he was. One of the boys in my class raised his hand and asked what his reaction had been to the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin. Yehuda Avner suddenly stopped speaking and his warm smile melted away as he began to explain how that experience was one of the hardest moments of his life as he lost one of his closest friends. After he explained that he stopped and began to yell, “No Jew should EVER touch, kill, or hurt another Jew, EVER.” We high-school students sat stunned in our seats, not having expected this older man with the pleasant presence to become so visibly upset and begin to yell. However, it was at that moment that I began to realize that this was not just a kind man with a fascinating job, but a man who was strong to his convictions, a man who had a message, and a man who had life stories that were far beyond anything I could imagine.
Soon after hearing him speak I began to read his magnum opus, The Prime Ministers. To say that that book made an impact on me would be an unbelievable understatement. From the moment I picked it up I was unable to put it down. His delicately crafted stories, charming anecdotes, deep understanding of history and unprecedented look at the inner thoughts of the Israeli Prime Ministers gave me a completely new understanding of Israeli history and the evolution of the state. His flowing and readable style is not only a testament to his talent as an author, but his true expertise that he dedicated to the State of Israel as a speech writer for each of these Prime Ministers. Yehuda Avner soon became a presence in my home, as his book deeply affected many of the members of my family and he and my father rekindled an old friendship from many years prior. Spending time with him was a deep honor to each of my five siblings, as we carefully worked to memorize every thought-provoking, witty, and loving statement he made. Listening to his British accent he relayed his love of the State of Israel and extreme passion for Judaism and all of its practices.
Despite his old age, Yehuda's speech was consistently eloquent and his mind extraordinarily sharp. With an everlasting and endearing smile on his face, he would recount his stories, amazingly not leaving out a single detail. But more importantly, he devoted his full attention to each of his counterparts and genuinely cared about what they had to say. Yehuda Avner was the embodiment of a Jewish hero and a mensch. It was an honor and privilege to have known him.
A moment remembered by Brett Kopin, an iCenter consultant
I had dinner once with Ambassador Yehuda Avner. It wasn’t a one-on-one. Rather, he was the keynote speaker at a fundraiser for a Jewish program, and I was speaking on behalf of the alumni. I met him at the dinner before the event. Not only were we at the same dinner, but I, then a senior in college, got to fill the open chair right next to him at the table. We were surrounded by New York businessmen, all vying for his attention. At first I didn’t know what to say to him, but his warmth quickly put me at ease, and soon we were making witty side comments to each other. The ambassador, between bites of salad, rose from his seat to answer questions from the 40 or so eager people in the crowd.
Between each question Mr. Avner sat down while people at the table engaged him in more questions. He never showed a hint of weariness in answering – he was there to share. The ambassador exuded a walking history of Israel, and I was overwhelmed that I was rubbing shoulders with him.
Later at the fundraiser, held in a Central Park West apartment, after I gave my speech the ambassador rose to speak, and he stole the show. This man – in his mid-80s –electrified the crowd with his stories. He spoke for about 15 minutes, and at his most dramatic note right at the end he jumped into the air while making a large circular motion with his index fingers. The man was amazing and larger than life. After the event I found him in the crowd. When he saw me he let out a hearty laugh and gave me a hug – this was my moment with Ambassador Yehuda Avner.
The three days I felt most “Israeli” were August 20, 2013, Yom Ha’atzmaut 2014, and March 17, 2015. August 20, 2013 was the day that my family and I landed here as olim. Yom Ha’atzmaut 2014 was our first Independence Day in Israel. And, just recently, March 17, 2015 was my first chance to vote in Israel's national elections for the Knesset. I had chills all the way to the polling place.
While Israel is one of the greatest hubs for hi-tech innovation in the world, voting here is incredibly low-tech. Your name is approved by a person looking at a paper list. You vote by taking a piece of paper with the name of the party you want to vote for, put it in a special blue envelope, seal the envelope and then drop it in the ballot box. No touch screens or chads; rather, an old fashioned paper ballot for one party in an envelope.
Here, everyone has an opinion about the elections and is not shy about sharing that opinion. They are not shy about asking for which party you will cast your vote. All of this makes for the most fascinating conversations with people I don’t really know or, most likely, will ever see again – taxi drivers, passengers on the bus, waiters, and waitresses.
Just like how my eyes well up with tears every time I hear Ha'Tikvah, they welled up with tears today when I put my vote in the ballot box. Today, my Zionism was expressed through a small piece of paper, in a blue envelope, in a blue ballot box with the official seal of The State of Israel on the front. I participated in a free, fair, open election in the Middle East in the only true democracy in the region, the democratic and Jewish State of Israel. My home.
Rabbi Loren Sykes was the founding director of Camp Ramah Darom and creator of Camp Yofi: Family Camp for Jewish Families with Children with Autism. He also served as the director of Camp Ramah in Wisconsin. Most recently he served as the executive director of the Fuchsberg Jerusalem Center. In 2006, Loren received the Covenant Award in recogntion of his entrepreneurial work in the fields of Jewish camping and Jewish special needs programming.
Loren, Rebecca and their two daughters, Mira and Amalya, live in the Talpiyot neighborhood in Jerusalem. Their son, Elan, attends college in the US.
On Thursday, March 5, I woke up feeling unusually festive, and drove to the Israeli Consulate in downtown Chicago to exercise my right to vote for the 20th Knesset of the State of Israel.
I have never missed a vote in Israel. Even when I went on my big "post-army" trip to India and an early vote for a new government was called, I shortened my trip to return to Israel so I could vote. I have always felt it was a great responsibility and obligation.
This election, for the first time in my life, I voted for the Knesset from outside of Israel. I was gripped by a sense of excitement and responsibility even deeper than usual. It was a surprising feeling I wasn't prepared for, and it has taken time to digest and understand why this time felt so different.
At first, I thought it might have been the distance which magnified the responsibility, making me feel a sense of necessity, or even urgency. I am not currently living in Israel, yet there I was, on the day of elections at the Israeli Consulate in a sort of Israeli territory, feeling like I was actually in Israel.
The deeper I thought about my feelings, the more I realized they stemmed from a deep understanding and identification with the North American Jewish community.
For thousands of years, what happened in one Jewish community did not necessarily affect the identities of other Jewish communities around the world. But after the establishment of the Jewish State, that paradigm changed.
In the past, when I voted in Israel, I felt that my vote would influence the future of the State of Israel. During this election, however, after living in America for one and a half years as a shlichah (שׁליחה, "emissary"), I understand that my vote matters not only in Israel, but that it also has a critical impact on the identity and life of the Jewish people here. It was this understanding that explained my greater sense of duty.
The post I put on Facebook with the picture of me voting at the Israeli Consulate got more "likes" than any I had posted before; way more "likes" than articles, pictures of trips, or even pictures of my children had received.
The reaction people had to my Facebook post showed me how much pride the North American Jewish community has for the future of Israel and the Jewish people. My vote is, in many ways, all of our votes. It elicited a feeling too big to begin to put into words.
Tal Shaked is the Midwest Education Israel Emissary for JNF. She arrived to Chicago a year and a half ago with her husband and 3 kids. In the US, Tal is working with different communities - schools, synagogues, and colleges running JNF’s educational programs focusing on Israel and Judaism.
In Israel, Tal was the visionary and founder of the first secular yeshiva in Israel, a center for hundreds of young adults who learn and are involved with Zionism, Jewish identity , social justice and Hebrew culture. Tal was also the first woman in Israel in a position of “Rosh mechina kdam Zvait” – pre army programs for young adults in Israel. Tal studies Business, law and Judaism. Before becoming Rosh Yeshiva she worked six years as a prosecutor in the district attorney office in Tel Aviv.