Jewish community reacts to the death of Shimon Peres: Rabbi David Wolpe, Stanley Gold and more

An astonishing life / Rabbi David Wolpe

He was the last.  The last of an astonishing group of people who came from totalitarian states and created a democracy.  The last of the generation of giants, trained in an ancient tradition, who shaped a modern state.  Shimon Peres was distinguished by the range of his culture and his optimistic spirit.  He was graceful and easy, deeply literate and engaging.  Veteran of a thousand fights, military and political, Peres carried the history of his nation in each step.  The father of Israel’s nuclear program was also President, Prime Minister, Peacemaker. Shimon Peres lived an astonishing life and his passing is mourned by an admiring world and his grateful people. He was the last and we must be worthy to be the heirs of a generation that gave us a miracle.  Y’hi Zichro Baruch – May his memory be a blessing.

Legacy that will help guide us in the future / Israeli Consul General Sam Grundwerg

Speaking with the Journal after a public appearance at an event in Glendale on Sept. 28, Israel’s consul general in Los Angeles, Sam Grundwerg, said it was “a very sad day for the state of Israel and really the entire world.”

“He personified the very same principle that Israel stands for: courage, optimism, persistence, resilience, vision, innovation, an unrelenting thirst for knowledge, and a commitment to Israel, Jewish people and all mankind,” he said.

He mentioned Peres’s commitment to communication and connecting with people, especially young people, as a legacy that “will help guide us in the future.”

“With all that, I think it made the world a smaller place,” he said.

A man with an appetite for life / Stanley Gold

Shimon Peres with Stanley Gold

I knew Shimon Peres for over 30 years. About 10 years ago I was in Israel on a business trip. While having lunch in a popular restaurant, I heard my name being called out. It was Shimon complaining loudly that I had come to Israel and had failed to call him or set a meeting with him. Sheepishly, I apologized and we set a lunch date for the coming Friday afternoon at a restaurant of his choosing.

We met at 1pm and Shimon ordered for both of us: a whiskey to start, soup, salad, a first course of fish and a main course of duck l'orange. There was white wine, red wine and a very rich dessert. Shimon was in his early 80's at the time and I'm 20 years younger … .and I consider myself a professional eater. No matter; it wasn't a contest. Shimon put me to shame, eating me under the table … all the time holding forth on Israel's opportunities for building a greater, more peaceful and just society. His enthusiasm was contagious, even if I could not keep up with his calorie count.

This was Shimon at his best and this was Shimon running at normal speed for him (and light speed for the rest of us). For him Israel was a project that needed to be completed today; “we'll make the desert bloom” was one of his favorite expressions…and he meant it to happen now.

Shimon attacked life everyday as he had attacked that lunch so many years ago. Where others saw problems, he saw opportunities. Where others defined problems, he dreamed of solutions. 

Shortly after reaching the Oslo Agreements he even dreamed for the Palestinians, telling me that “we” had to help this population achieve a better life because a lasting peace would only come when the Palestinians could see a path to an improved life.

Like all lives, it had its disappointments; it's lost elections; it's failed peace agreements; it's wars of attrition. But nothing could dull his drive and his enthusiasm. He swallowed life whole everyday. He was a one man cheering section for all that is good about humanity.

In the end, he lived the most Jewish of lives … he lived a life of meaning and purpose and all of us that follow him in the Zionist Dream are the beneficiaries of his wisdom, drive and boundless energy … and we need to finish his work.

Tough visionary / Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles President and CEO Jay Sanderson

At the end, he was committed to a lot of things. He loved talking about science, technological advances Israel was making in medicine. Not the last time I saw him, but before that, he was all-consumed with brain research being done in Israel. He was very smart and knowledgeable about a lot of things. When people met him here, or in the Arab world and anywhere else, they saw him differently than they had seen other Israeli leaders. They saw him as somebody who was moderate and was Zionistic and as supportive of the State of Israel as anyone, but understood Israel needed to find a way to make peace with her neighbors.

He really did have a connection historically and personally with the city [Los Angeles]. … He really loved Los Angeles. He was very enamored with Hollywood and Hollywood stars and so he liked coming here.

Not the last time he was here but before the last time, after three days of being with him on and off, not assuming he would remember my name, I started to introduce myself and he got angry with me. He said, “Jay, don’t think I don’t remember you.” He could be tough and strong.

Peres in Poland / Rabbi Yonah Bookstein

While some of the details have faded over the years, we will never forget when Shimon Peres, then Israeli Foreign Minister, came to Poland, August 22-23, 2001. My wife, Rachel and I were running the Ronald S. Lauder Foundation. We all knew that Peres had been born as Szymon Perski in Poland and emigrated to Israel as a boy with his family. But what none could have expected — and certainly not then-Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski and the assembled guests at the presidential palace — that he spoke a rarified and fluent Polish. Perhaps because he left Poland while still a child, or that his parents never dwelt on the difficulties for Jews in prewar Poland, we never sensed for a moment any antithesis from this great statesmen towards Poland. So often, when Jewish leaders would speak, we would anticipate they would say something. But not Shimon Peres. He reminisced, and you could literally feel the nostalgia in his voice, and the immense historical gravitas, of this shtetl boy arriving at the palace of the Polish president as a dignitary. A select group of Jewish leaders joined others for a small lunch around a large u-shaped table in the palace. Rachel and the Rabbi Michael Schudrich of Warsaw had ensured that kosher food could be served for those who ate kosher. Peres took the kosher option.

Later that evening, the Israeli Ambassador to Poland held a reception at his residence for many leaders of the Jewish community. Peres, I had been told by my friend who was running security at the Israeli Embassy, was not feeling well. We worried if he would make it to the event. But Peres was unstoppable. He had already met with the Polish President, the Prime Minister, laid a memorial wreath at the Warsaw Ghetto Monument, and he was in his 70s. However, he was not going to miss this opportunity to provide “chizuk” to the local community. Peres spoke with dozens of people in Polish, Hebrew and English, and posed for photographs with his confident, warm smile. He commanded the room in a moment by starting to speak, again in Polish, then Hebrew. He enchanted us all with his unwritten remarks and left everyone inspired and hopeful about peace and the possibility for people to overcome decades-long animosity.

Peres was a truly legendary figure, an integral part of the miracle of modern Israel from its first breath. Yet, he always remembered where he came from, and honored his ancestors and all of us with his life’s work.

The optimist / Rabbi Laura Geller

In 2009, I was one of 18 Los Angeles rabbis invited to meet then-President Shimon Peres at his home in Jerusalem. We were in Israel for only 58 hours, and we were a very mixed group — Reform, Conservative and Orthodox, 15 men and three women. Our “Unity Mission” had been organized by then-Consul General Jacob Dayan to signal to Israelis and our Los Angeles community that there is more than one way to be a Jew, and that although we had very different visions of what was best for Israel, we agreed that Israel really matters. 

President Peres was charming, gracious and very curious about women rabbis. He asked how many women rabbis there were and what people call the husband of a rabbi. He asked about our experience in our congregations. He seemed delighted to see that such different kinds of rabbis could work together, even as we acknowledged our very real differences. We represented the future he wanted to see, and in spite of all the challenges to religious pluralism in Israel, he was still optimistic about this possibility. 

One of our colleagues asked him: “How do you stay so optimistic?”

His answer was quick and direct: “Optimists and pessimists die the same way … but they live very differently.”

A kind gesture by a treasured friend / David Agus

I lost my mentor and close friend yesterday, Shimon Peres. When my first book [“The End of Illness”] came out in Israel, he wrote the intro as a surprise gift. He described how when the mirror first came out, the world changed. All of a sudden we cared how we looked and interacted, because we could now see ourselves. He said the technology in the book was the new mirror. Such a beautiful way of looking at the world.

He never lost hope / StandWithUs CEO Roz Rothstein

Even when ending conflict seemed distant, [Shimon] Peres never lost hope and launched a multitude of efforts aimed at building peace between Arabs and Jews. 

No Israeli leader was more respected / Simon Wiesenthal Center

“The passing of Shimon Peres, the 9th President of the State of Israel, two-time Prime Minister and Nobel Peace Prize winner, marks the end of an era. He was the last of the pioneers who helped found the State of Israel and no Israeli leader was more respected internationally than Shimon Peres. Every world leader would take his call immediately, said Rabbi Marvin Hier, Founder and Dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center. More.

‘I’m afraid I’lI be lost without him’ / Sharon S. Nazarian

I remember when, more than a decade ago, Shimon Peres was visiting UCLA to address faculty and students. The thought of an Israeli leader visiting a United States campus was not as contentious as it is today, and I was beaming with excitement, because I had just established an Israel Studies program at UCLA, and I knew I could ask for no better inspiration. Shimon addressed the crowd with his beaming smile and deep baritone voice. He spoke of the great achievements of the Israeli state and the hopes of the Israeli people. 

Among his uplifting words, many of which I had heard so often throughout my life, was a reference that surprised even me. He referred to a book that had just come out by a female Iranian author titled “Reading Lolita in Tehran,” an homage to the classic novel “Lolita” by Vladimir Nabokov, in which an older man lusts after and abuses a young girl. The Iranian writer superimposed the plot of “Lolita” onto the relationship between Iran’s Islamic Republic and the Iranian people. As a Jewish Iranian American, I was deeply moved because he, like the author, affirmed the price the Iranian people had paid for the revolution. But, more importantly, Shimon’s reference to a literary work that delved deep into the psyche of Israel’s biggest nemesis was a poignant testament to a leader who left no stone unturned to look for answers to his country’s challenges. 

Many have written of Shimon’s optimism, the permanent mark he left as a founding father of the State of Israel, his intellect and his visionary depth. All I have to add is that revisiting him many years later, he continued to surprise me. I had the opportunity to interview Shimon at an event sponsored by the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles that addressed community philanthropists and supporters of Israel. He had just turned 90, and despite his soft-spokenness, even his frailty, he still overwhelmed us with his almost revolutionary outlook, directing us, with no ambivalence, to move to a world where we need fewer politicians, even statesmen, and more scientists.

He who had fought wars and led armies to defend Israel, spoke of the obsolescence of boundaries and land, arguing that what we need to cherish and yearn for are instead ideas and innovation. He was ahead of his time even in his 90s, a true vanguard, a strident forward-thinker who refused to be dragged down by the past. 

But as I think about my decades of interactions with him, what I’m left with more than anything is a deep sense of loss. I’m afraid I’ll be lost without him, because what he epitomizes most to me is a leader who relentlessly hung on to an ideal, the now tarnished hope of a better tomorrow for Israel. And now that he’s gone, could it be that Shimon’s optimism has turned me into a pessimist? What I fear most is that no one is left in today’s Israel who will take the mantle for a hopeful future for Israel as a Jewish and democratic state for all its citizens. No one who will, time after time, tell us that we can find partners for peace, that we can preserve our identity and uphold our ideals, that we can stay on the moral high ground. 

I feel that I’ve lost a father figure, one who tells me that I’m safe, that my spiritual home is safe, and that all will be OK, if only we want it badly enough and work for it hard enough. 

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