Ken Toltz
Israel-based writer

‘You’re A Zionist!’

Ramat HaNegev High School Open Sept. 2019

“You’re A Zionist!” my new Israeli friend, entrepreneur and part-time driver Shmulik (Samuel) nearly shouted at me after hearing part of the story of moving from Boulder, Colorado to Mitzpe Ramon. Sincerely wanting to understand this ‘incredible decision’ he asked a series of questions on our recent drive from Herzliya down south following a weekend at the beach. Absorbing his lightbulb moment, I thought to myself of course I am, isn’t everyone here? Shmulik meant it as a compliment, not an accusation and I accepted it as such.

Nearly everyone I’ve met since relocating my home from Boulder, Colorado to Mitzpe Ramon deep in the heart of Israel’s Negev is curious to hear the story of my journey which began in my childhood and is ongoing. People who choose raising a family and settling down far from the big Israeli cities take pride in their decision, my story seems to reconfirm their own. In talking to these warm, welcoming new friends, I’ve found the emotions welling up on a regular basis. In fact, not a day goes by that I find myself explaining and tearing up at the same time.

Why? Granted it’s been a rough few years at home with both my parents and one of two uncles dying after debilitating health problems within the past 18 months. But the emotions seem rooted in taking a personal jolt by uprooting, downsizing, reinventing and exploring a new path somewhat later in life. And, honoring the love of Israel which has grown over a lifetime.

In previous posts here the memories of Jewish identity and awareness of a special responsibility to support Israel began at Beth Joseph Hebrew school. Beyond bar mitzvah my parents encouraged me to stay for an additional two years of education which were marked by Confirmation. The first class toward Confirmation was the earliest true and deep exposure to the horrors of the Holocaust, taught by the son of a survivor, Howard Hoffman, who for many years now has gone by the name of Rabbi Henoch Dov Hoffman.

Known to us students as Howie Hoffman, the Outward Bound instructor, a child of the ‘60s and a cool guy, we began that class with a reading of Elie Wiesel’s most well-known and, as described by The New York Times “slim volume of terrifying power”, Night. We had of course heard of the Holocaust, but in those days it was not a widely discussed topic. In fact for many years it was very nearly a taboo topic. This might be hard to believe today, but for decades after WWII many survivors kept their personal stories to themselves, not even revealing their traumas to their immediate family-members both in Israel and in America.

In this atmosphere, with little preparation, at the age of 14, my first reading of Night literally scared the Hell out me. The scenes Wiesel recreated from personal memory of a boy almost exactly our age, made an unforgettable impression, which Hoffman knew required careful handling and exploration in our school classroom setting. For the first time in my 3rd generation Coloradan life, the realization that simply being born Jewish in an enlightened assimilated European society could make one a target for the most heinous, cruel, inhumane and unimaginable acts by fellow man that were not only possible, but had happened not long before.

Just 7 years later, during my junior year of college, it all came back to me on my first visit to Yad Vashem in Jerusalem. In a letter home to my parents, in a sentence still in memory, I described sitting in the beautiful gardens there in tears realizing the moment I became a Zionist.

About the Author
Ken Toltz began his professional career at AIPAC in Washington, D.C. after attending Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He's a 3rd generation Colorado native, businessman and long-time gun violence prevention activist. After 42 years from his first visit to Israel, in 2019 he relocated his home to Mitzpe Ramon in Israel's Negev. Ken currently resides in Herzliya. He writes about Israeli politics, relations with the U.S. and the Israeli creative class of writers and filmmakers.
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