“Thank you” seems inadequate. Without you, I am not sure I would be a Zionist. I am not sure I would be part of the Jewish community. I am sure I would not have become a leader within that community.
AJC, the organization you have led since 1990, has redefined how I relate to the world. Your example has taught me the importance of both knowledge and nuance — of strength and kindness. That it is not enough to be a great orator or writer; your words must be backed with both an understanding of history and a view towards the future.
Many years ago, there was a small session for young AJC leaders to meet with an Israeli diplomat. As you introduced the speaker, you said, “Many of you have criticisms of Israel.” I swear that you looked at me. “In front of you, you have a representative of the Israeli government.” Again, you looked at me. “Ask him your questions. But if you do not state your criticisms here in this room, I do not want to hear you state them outside of this room.”
Now, looking back, maybe you were looking at me because we knew each other fairly well at that point. Maybe it was just a small room. Or maybe you were not looking at me at all. But in that moment, I was shocked. Here I thought I had always hidden my uncomfortable relationship with my Zionism and here you were creating a permission structure to have an honest conversation among friends. So I asked the diplomat a question. Nuanced? Yes. Factual? Yes. Critical? Absolutely.
Later, I would marvel in the trust it took to let young leaders ask their questions. Just like the trust it had taken a few years prior when you brought a dozen young leaders with you to the Durban Review Conference to run around Geneva and experience the inane spectacle that is the United Nations Human Rights Council. I remember asking, even begging for talking points. I was a lawyer — hand me the arguments and I will make them.
But you never gave me talking points. You and AJC educated me in what peoplehood means, in why we defend our people. While we may not agree about everything, the lesson of peoplehood that you have taught me through your example, as well as your words, has rooted within me and will always be my guide.
I remember you describing Jewish leadership as a table, where we moved up and up and up until we found ourselves at the head of the table. But through the 12 years that I have known you I watched you consistently bring young leadership to the table. You brought our voices forward. You — so versed in history and so knowledgeable in the struggles of the Jewish people — were willing to listen to those who were new to these battles.
As you step down from a lifetime of service to the Jewish people, you have referred to this as passing a baton. But for those of us who have learned from you, this description seems wholly inadequate.
You have taught us not only how to run this race, but why we run. You have taught us what it means to serve the Jewish people. You have taught us to understand our moment in history. That we cannot merely act in service of short-term goals, but to improve the lives of a people that have existed for millennia and — God willing — will continue to thrive for millennia to come.
Thank you for all you have done to improve the lives of the Jewish people — and all humanity.
Yashar koach and todah,