What I Learned from Ari Fuld, z”l

Author’s Note: This is essentially the note I sent to an internal leadership group in my weekly newsletter. I was inspired by Moshe Kinderlehrer sharing his own thoughts publicly, and thought this too might have wider appeal, so I am sharing it here.

One of the most powerful moments of the movie Defiance, based on the Bielski Brothers partisan band is when they meet with the Russians and ask to join with them. “But Jews do not fight,” says one of their commanders. Tuvia Bielski replies simply, “These Jews do.”

Easily, the last thing I expected to be writing about today was Ari Fuld, z”l. But Ari was murdered last Sunday. Stabbed to death, in Israel, because he was a Jew.

So I really wish that right now, Ari was at Shabbos dinner in Efrat with his now widowed wife and orphaned children. And I wish most of you had never heard his name.

But Ari is dead and he died a hero. He chased his attacker, and shot at him, almost certainly saving others. The video of his final act lives in eternity as some cosmic counterweight to the hasidic tale of an unlettered, uncommitted, and otherwise unremarkable Jewish peasant who eats & eats & eats so that when locals on a pogrom or raiding Cossacks take him out to be be burned for his heresy, it won’t be quick. Ari was the antithesis of that fable in so many ways – well versed in Torah, deeply, passionately committed to Judaism, and extraordinary in so many ways.

For that alone, it’s worth our taking note.

But there is more that we can learn from Ari.

For one, I learned that there was much to Ari below the surface. So much I never knew.

I last saw him at an AIPAC Policy Conference a year or two ago, and I knew he did some kind of hasbara and advocacy. But not much more.

Still, based on my Facebook page and Twitter feed, and even my scrolling on LinkedIn, it’s clear so many in my network did know him, and had worked with him. It’s easy to see how many lives he touched and the scores of teenagers and adults he inspired. Schoolteachers, community activists, advocates, elected officials, candidates, policymakers, and so many more had personal recollections to offer. Boys who learned karate – and so much more – from him, offered their memories. And peers and classmates of ours who were much, much closer to him offered lessons learned and ideals crystalized.

Ari’s passion was self-evident, even in high school. But as to the extent of his reach, I simply was unaware.

In our advocacy work, on Israel of course, but even here with our communities and agencies, there’s never a site visit I walk away from where I don’t learn something new about the work our institutions are doing, and the breadth of their reach.

It’s a lesson we’d all do well to learn – take some time to dig a bit deeper and understand a little more.

The next lesson is that we are indeed a long way from the Europe of that hasidic story I mention above. What happened to Ari has happened far too many times to count in the millennium long recording of the Jewish story. A Jew is attacked, and killed, for no other reason than that they are a Jew. Like Mordechai before Haman, it is the very existence that powers the hate of some extremists.

It is a reminder of the powerful exchange between Herman Wouk and David Ben Gurion, with the latter urging the former to move to Israel, where he could be free. Wouk replied, in his retelling, by reminding the former prime minister of the fedayeen, of the roads that were impassable at night, and of the very large machine gun mounted on the back of the car that had brought the famed novelist to Sde Boker. Ben Gurion unflinchingly answered him, “I didn’t say safe. I said free.”

Ari’s life, and his death, are proof that there is at least one place in the world where Jews are always free, and free in a way some likely will never be anywhere else.

But the most important lesson I took from Ari’s death was the outpouring of sympathy, grief, and mourning from a spectrum of ideological allies, and even opponents. Ari’s positions put him squarely on one side of the debates in and about Israel, its security policies and diplomatic moves.

Yet, seeing the heartfelt comments by leaders and activists from Peace Now, Meretz, and others with very different worldviews than Ari was moving, and comforting. It is a reminder of the way things ought to be, and the way things were – and can be even today. Vigorous debate need not vilify. Political, philosophical, and religious disagreements can be civil. And opponents at the ballot box or on the chamber floor can be friends off of it.

So for many reasons, Ari’s life – of which I am still learning so much – and his heroic death, give me cause for hope. I am sad he is gone, and shaken to my core by the sudden and violent way he went. But I hope that these lessons (and others as so many more have written) help make tomorrow a bit better, and may that be a merit to Ari’s soul, and a comfort to his family and close friends.

Yehi Zichro Baruch. May his memory always be for a blessing.

About the Author
Howie Beigelman is Executive Director of Ohio Jewish Communities, the statewide public affairs arm of Ohio's eight Jewish Federations. He works at the intersection of nonprofit advocacy, strategic storytelling, and Jewish communal affairs.
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