As a Jewish educator, the last place I imagined myself educating is the President’s Residence. Yet thanks to President Rivlin, that is where I can often be found. Here is my story.
In my role as director of two World Bnei Akiva gap year programs in Israel, I was looking for new paradigms to teach about the challenges and opportunities within Israeli society. At the same time, in a speech given exactly six years ago today, July 7, 2015, at the Herzliya Conference, President Rivlin formulated his vision for Israeli society, which he termed “Israeli Hope.” Recognizing the existence of four distinct tribes — secular Jews, Haredim, religious Zionists, and Arabs — he highlighted changing demographic trends, whereby each tribe will soon make up roughly a quarter of Israel’s population. Rather than being doomed to live together, President Rivlin viewed each tribe as being destined to live together, and he created frameworks and programs to build grassroots partnerships in education, academia, sports, and the workplace, with the aim of forming a more cohesive Israeli society.
In 2017, I made a hopeful phone call to the Office of the President with a proposal: to take the Israeli Hope framework and include the global Jewish community within it. President Rivlin had the most compelling vision for Israeli society, but it was not built to impact the Jewish world. To my surprise, this piqued their interest, and I was invited to present my plans in person.
Two years later, after many meetings and pilot programs, a fanciful idea had become a plan of action. I was tasked with developing English language tours of the President’s Residence, and workshops on Israeli Hope in conjunction with the nascent Visitors’ Center. Thanks to a unique partnership with Makom: The Jewish Agency for Israel Education Lab, specialists in the field of Israel education, Jews from around the world can now tour the President’s Residence and learn about this unique vision. In the past year, Jewish federations, synagogues, schools, youth movements, and gap year programs from many Jewish communities in North America, Europe, and the Southern Hemisphere have participated in these tours and workshops, either in person or online.
My story fits into a greater paradigm shift that to some extent has defined the Rivlin presidency. While at the start, President Rivlin’s focus was on Israeli citizens rather than the Jewish world, this changed with time, partly through visits and partly as a culmination of his natural tendency to seek dialogue and harmony where it is most needed. In a speech to the Jewish Federations in 2017 — notably his first major speech to the North American Jewish community outside of Israel — he said: “In order to meet this challenge [of the Four Tribes] we need the partnership with you, the fifth tribe, the Jews of the Diaspora.” Global Jewry was now an integral part of his flagship mission.
In recent barely noted remarks, President Rivlin described himself as the “president of the Jewish people.” Whether one agrees or not, this statement reveals the personal journey President Rivlin undertook throughout his presidency. Given the fraught nature of the Israel-Diaspora relationship in recent years, the optics of an Israeli “sabra” president, not blessed with fluent English, pivoting his perspective to look towards the Jewish world is highly significant. And this desire for engagement was borne out with every tour and workshop that took place.
Many will describe President Rivlin as a visionary. However, I prefer to see him as the Jewish world’s greatest educator, who turned the President’s Residence into a place of education for Israelis and Jews around the world alike. Rather than dictate an answer, an educator’s job is to challenge, encourage, and empower. President Rivlin has done exactly this for Israeli society and global Jewry. He has laid out the challenges and opportunities, created the framework to achieve partnership and empowered people like me to take a role in making it happen. As we reflect on a successful term of office, it is time for us, his students, Israelis and Jews around the world alike, to pick up the baton and rise to President Rivlin’s challenge.