What were the chances? This morning Israel awoke to a new prime minister and a president-elect who are both offspring of Anglo immigrants. And it’s more than just parentage. Both Naftali Bennett and Isaac Herzog spent critical periods of their early development living in North America immersed in its Jewish cultural and religious life.
At a time when Israeli Jews feel alienated from American Jewry, and American Jews are increasingly more divided regarding their opinions on Israel and how to best impact its trajectory forward, it’s worth reflecting on the Anglo/American pedigrees of the two individuals who are arguably becoming Israel’s most influential public figures.
President-Elect Isaac “Bougie” Herzog’s position as scion to Israeli royalty is well-known. Yet his father Chaim Herzog’s eloquent English speeches in the UN reflected his upbringing in Ireland, where Isaac’s grandfather and namesake was then chief rabbi.
Arriving in British Palestine in 1935 after completing secondary school in Dublin, Chaim studied in a yeshiva and fought in the Haganah before attending law school in London and serving in the British army during World War II. He only returned to Palestine in 1947 at nearly 30 years old, and then met his wife Aura, who had immigrated after gaining advanced academic degrees in South Africa. By 1950 they were back on the road when Chaim was stationed in Washington D.C. as the IDF’s military attaché.
Not only was Bougie born in 1960 to a home of olim, he spent his high school years in New York during his father’s ambassadorship, graduating in 1977 from the renowned Modern Orthodox Ramaz School, where he was elected vice president of the student government and also worked with his classmates as a counselor at the Religious-Zionist summer camp Massad.
Rabbi Haskel Lookstein, the longtime Ramaz principal and rabbi of its mother institution Kehilath Jeshurun (KJ), reminisced that throughout his Manhattan years, Bougie would accompany his father to synagogue each Shabbat morning where he would encounter the congregation’s moderate and inclusive Orthodox approach. Recall that Lookstein’s conversions were challenged recently by the Israeli chief rabbinate, before eventually being accepted.
Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s American parents arrived in Israel in 1967 and settled in Haifa where he was born. Yet like the Herzog family, for mostly professional reasons, the Bennetts returned numerous times to North America for extended periods. When Naftali was a toddler the family lived in San Francisco, he spent his pre-school years in Montreal where his father worked for the Technion and the family began its road to religious observance, and they relocated one more time to New Jersey, where Naftali attended school until the age of ten. After returning to Israel, the Bennetts’ American immigrant credentials were further solidified through his mother’s long-time role as director of the Northern branch of the Association of Americans and Canadians in Israel (AACI).
Like Herzog, Bennett had an early adult stint in the United States as well. After serving as an officer in top IDF commando units and completing his studies at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, he moved to New York with his wife Gilat. There he developed his successful high-tech start-up venture, while she worked as a dessert chef in some of the city’s top restaurants.
Profiles of Bennett’s wife, who grew up in a secular home, have fixated on the degree to which she shares his devout commitments. In one interview, she described how she began to feel a personal connection to religion during their time in New York when she attended a “Beginner’s Minyan” dedicated to helping those with limited familiarity with traditional rituals and ideas at a local Orthodox synagogue. That congregation was none other than Lookstein’s KJ, the same one that Isaac Herzog attended with his father throughout his high school years. Indeed, upon coming back to Israel, the Bennetts made their home in Ra’anana, a town north of Tel Aviv with an exceptionally strong American immigrant Modern Orthodox community.
Similar to Bougie and Bennett, outgoing prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu also spent formative years in the United States. Biographers have noted, however, that Bibi’s family was far more isolated from local Jewish life than his younger fellow Israeli statesman. While Netanyahu has certainly developed strong relations with some American Jewish leaders, more recently he and his key representatives have indicated they consider cultivating connections to American evangelical Christian groups to be far more important. This week’s change of guard offers an opportunity to refresh and deepen ties with American Jews of all stripes.
Both Bennett and Herzog may be more inclined to explore ways to reengage non-Orthodox groups, including offering greater recognition to their rabbis and to their members whose Jewishness is questioned by the official Israeli religious establishment. This does not necessarily mean full official Israeli sanction. At a time when there is so much bad blood on these issues, earnest demonstrations of appreciation by Israel’s political leadership for the roles of non-Orthodox denominations and their clergy in sustaining Jewish life will go a long way toward healing deep wounds.
For Israelis, the biographical elements shared by Israel’s new political and state leaders send a message that goes beyond the question of how specific policies and actions will be affected. Herzog and Bennett’s connections to the Diaspora and to immigration suggest that Israel stands to gain a great deal from drawing upon American Jewry’s cultural and intellectual resources and legacies. When the prime minister and the president are products of both worlds, it is hard to dismiss the value of learning about and from the largest Jewish population center outside Israel.
As to American Jews who wish to have a stake in Israel’s future, here the Bougie-Bennett examples actually highlight an uncomfortable reality. No matter how passionate and intelligent one is regarding Israel, and no matter where one stands on the political spectrum, the surest way to make a difference is by trying to do so from the inside. The Herzog and Bennett families, each with their distinct paths, demonstrate that once Jews settle in Israel permanently, there are no limits to the opportunities to impact their surroundings.
In this regard, the Bennett family story is especially prescient. A young American couple inspired by Israel’s Six Day War victory picked up and established their home in northern Israel. Their son, clearly influenced by his parent’s experiences and his own forays to their birthplace, grew up as a transnational Israeli and rendered their enthusiasm and idealism into the practical terms of the local cultural language. Just over 50 years after their move, this second-generation Israeli is now the political leader of the country.