Bay Area leaders, Jewish groups share memories of Peres

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Bay Area leaders and Jewish organizations in Israel, the United States and around the world lauded Shimon Peres, the former Israeli president who died this week, as a respected leader and a fighter for peace.

“Peres was always driven by a deep sense of responsibility toward the entire Jewish people. He concerned himself with the fate and future of the entire nation, but also with each of its sons and daughters, both near and far,” said Natan Sharansky, chairman of the executive of the Jewish Agency for Israel.

Peres (left) meeting with S.F. Mayor Ed Lee during the mayor’s trip to Israel last spring photo/francis tseng

Peres, who died on Sept. 28 at 93 after suffering a stroke two weeks earlier, served as president of Israel from 2007 to 2014, twice as prime minister and in numerous Cabinet positions.

In a statement several hours after his death, S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation CEO Danny Grossman lauded Peres as “both a dreamer and a realist, an idealist and a no-nonsense consensus builder. He was wholly committed to peace.”

San Francisco’s Rabbi Brian Lurie, a former Federation CEO, met Peres many times over the years. “He had incredible endurance and tenacity; he was a fighter,” said Lurie. “The guy had one of those very unusual minds that saw the present and always pushed to the future. He was the first person I heard talk excitedly about nano-tech, about 10 or 15 years ago. His mind grasped that new frontier. His ‘new Middle East’ was an example of how he thought — he was always reaching for that distant star.”

Daniel Sokatch, also a former head of the S.F.-based Federation and now CEO of the New Israel Fund, recalls how Peres inspired teenagers when his peace center was sponsoring a robotics tournament for Arab and Jewish high school students.

Peres, who was Israel’s president at the time, took to the stage and told the students, “Israel’s greatest asset — and our greatest natural resources — is the minds and creativity of our citizens. That means each one of you — Arab and Jew, religious and secular, from the north to the south and the east to the west.”

“This story gave me chills, and it stuck with me,” Sokatch said, “this belief in the human potential of all Israelis to make their society better.”

“I met with him a few years ago in his office when he was already in his late 80s and beginning to be frail,” recalled Tad Taube, chairman of Taube Philanthropies. “Yet he spoke with a very deep voice and exhibited an aura of the greatness of his continued status as a world leader. He spoke with pride about education in Israel and about the quality of the IDF. He was especially pleased about an education program that he had inspired which offered a degree to Israeli soldiers during their service in the IDF.”

Shimon Peres with Mark Zuckerberg at Facebook headquarters in Menlo Park in 2012 photo/gpo-moshe milner

Philanthropic adviser Phyllis Cook, former executive director of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Endowment Fund and associate director of the Federation, noted that Peres was “one of the first” to try to bring together diaspora and Israeli Jewish youth, in the 1980s and ’90s, “years before it was fashionable.”

He was indefatigable, she said. “On his last visit, when he spoke at [S.F. Congregation] Emanu-El, he spoke without notes, a long speech, and then he came down into the crowd and was shaking hands with people he knew and remembered,” she said. “He was always focused on the future, he had the most incredible optimism.”

There was a steely side to Peres as well. To survive that long in Israeli leadership, he had to be a political animal,    and although outsiders rarely saw that aspect of his personality, it was evident in his back-parlor dealings.     “Unfortunately,” said Lurie, “he never groomed anybody to take his place. I think in his own mind he thought he was irreplaceable.”

As the news of the elder statesman’s death spread, the tributes continued to arrive.

Ellen Hershkin, president of Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America, said her organization lost more than a powerful senior statesman and peacemaker.

“We have lost more than a strong defender of Israel, a winner of the Nobel Peace Prize and a father of the Oslo Accord, a past prime minister and president,” she said. Her members have lost “a friend.”

Israeli President Shimon Peres at S.F. Congregation Emanu-El in front of Kol Hadov, a Jewish a cappella group from U.C. Berkeley, on March 6, 2012. photo/courtesy consulate general of israel

European Jewish Council President Moshe Kantor said in a statement: “An important part of our people is no longer with us and our collective heart is aching.”

American Jewish Committee CEO David Harris met with Peres many times, both in Israel and the United States. “Peres had extraordinary energy, boundless optimism and future-oriented vision, not only about the possibilities of peace and coexistence in the region, but also about the exciting pathways of new technologies for the benefit of humankind — from nano-science to mapping the brain,” he said in a statement.

The Anti-Defamation League called Peres “the diplomatic, political and social innovation face of Israel over a seven-decade career.”

“His moderation and insight not only drew world leaders and dignitaries to meet and consult with him, but also served Israel in its ongoing fight against delegitimization and other anti-Israel forces,” Marvin Nathan, the ADL’s national chair, and Jonathan Greenblatt, its CEO, said in a statement.

The ADL leaders marveled that Peres had recently taken up skydiving to “promote social innovation and new advanced technologies for international social change and the greater good.”

AIPAC called Peres “an indefatigable advocate for justice and human progress,” and said his legacy “will live on through the many good deeds he accomplished, the countless lives he enriched, and the commitment to the Jewish state he inspired in so many.”

J Street said Peres “will be remembered for his tireless efforts to keep Israel safe and in his latter years to reach a just peace with the Palestinians based on a two-state solution.” The liberal Jewish Middle East policy group in a statement called Peres “the grandfather of the entire nation (who) was in many ways its moral conscience, preaching untiringly the need for peace and reconciliation with the Palestinians.”

Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the New York-based Union for Reform Judaism, said, “We have truly lost a giant, but we have not lost the resolve to continue to dream and to continue to strive for an Israel that lives side by side with its neighbors, in peace and with justice.”

The Orthodox Union called Peres “a beacon of light in times of darkness for our people. … His legacy inspires us to continue doing our work, ensuring a strong Jewish future with a strong Jewish state.” — jta & j. staff