Currently, no cadet in Officer’s Training School in the Israeli Army can graduate without attending one of Avraham Infeld’s talks about how the Jewish people can be unified without being uniform.
I pick up Avraham this week at the airport in Los Angeles where he will be lecturing at the Jewish Federations of North America General Assembly in part about a reverse Birthright, how Israeli youth could benefit from educational well-structured visits to Diaspora Jewish communities. For the last 46 years when in Jerusalem, I have settled in his home and when he is in Los Angeles, he’s stayed in mine.
Soon hundreds of copies of his just published book “A Passion for a People: Lessons from the Life of a Jewish Educator” cover my kitchen table and spread across the floor, shipped to my house for availability at the GA.
“I am a builder—not of buildings but families,” Avraham writes. He starts with his own large nuclear family and then expands, “yielding to the eternal pull that I feel toward the extended Jewish family to those I don’t know personally but love anyway and to the relatives across time and space that Jewish history has bequeathed me.” Avraham’s mission is to help ensure the continued significant renaissance of the Jewish people. The memoir movingly shares both what he’s experienced and the learning and relearning of the educational messages that grew from those encounters, and it tries to anticipate major challenges the Jewish people will face going forward.
A peripatetic traveler, Avraham estimates that he’s lectured to 300,000 Jews. He’s served as President of Hillel International, founder of the Melitz Center for Jewish Zionist education, planning director of Birthright Israel, and was the first ever community shaliach, Israeli representative to the United States, in the late 1960’s in Baltimore.
In the summer of 1970, on his circuitous return to Israel from Baltimore, we collided at the Brandeis Camp Institute outside Los Angeles known now as the Brandeis-Bardin campus. It was the height of the Vietnam War, Nixon was bombing Cambodia and I had just completed my sophomore year at a rioting UC Berkeley. Infeld met with many of the collegiate campers on his porch and invited them to come to Israel and stay with his family. He avoided me like the plague. During the highly patriotic July 4th play, a member of the drama group, I recited the corny line, “A hundred and ninety-four years is like a twinkle to a star.” I started laughing so hard I bent over and the entire cast broke out laughing, some falling to the stage. Hundreds of young children at Camp Alonim down the road were also in attendance. The institute’s director, Shlomo Bardin, stormed on stage, stopped the performance and sent everyone to their bunks.
Avraham and I have told this story dozens of times and we talk about it again now. “I found your behavior atrocious,” he says over lunch at Steven Spielberg’s mother’s nearby kosher restaurant. “I wasn’t an American and I didn’t understand the legitimacy of such criticism. For an Israeli, Independence Day is a sacred event. When this whippersnapper did that, my natural response is to regard him as a jerk and have nothing to do with him.”
Two weeks later, the rabbi and renowned professor, Arthur Hertzberg, arrived at camp to lecture. He was quickly told that I was a troublemaker and to stay away from me. He marched right up and invited me to take a walk. An hour later he offered to arrange for me to spend my junior year abroad at the Hebrew University that fall but I would have to leave immediately to begin to learn Hebrew.
I knew nobody in Jerusalem so I wandered around The Jewish Agency trying to get Avraham Infeld’s address. In torn jeans and a t-shirt, I knocked on his apartment door. When he saw me, his face fell. It was 4:30 Friday afternoon and I had no idea that buses did not run on Shabbat. He was stuck with me for the weekend. Dressed as I was, we went to a Hassidic shteibel near his home. Avraham tells me now, “I invited the whole group to come to Israel and the only one who took me up on it came immediately. I’m at my front door and he’s come not to tour, but to study.”
I had not known until many years later, that there had been a meeting at Brandeis camp where Shlomo Bardin proposed to send me home immediately. Infeld had argued that it was a first offense and you don’t throw people out of Jewish education when you have more time to impact them.
My favorite Infeld story is 1974 in London, where Avraham was the Youth Department director for English speaking Europe. I had not talked to him in a year, was in London and went to find him. As I mounted the outside stairs of the Jewish Agency, Avraham came down them in conversation with someone. He saw me and said, “Howard, wait, I’ll be back in a few minutes.”
Seconds later, he came running from around the corner laughing. We saw each other so often, he had not realized I shouldn’t be there. We both had red beards and, always a jokester, Avraham took me inside and in office to office introduced me as his long estranged brother, explaining that I had come to London to reconcile. He had everybody believing it.
Avraham’s wife, Ellen, has often remarked that of all the people they’ve seen come and go, I’ve changed the least. It’s true. I am essentially the same person I was on that July 4th stage. I am simply lucky to have happened across great people who were not wedded to early judgment.
In the summer of 1974, Shlomo Bardin hired me as the Men’s Head Advisor at the Brandeis Camp Institute.