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Israel was at war, and though I live across the ocean, I felt like I was on high alert. Strangely enough, I was actually grateful to have experienced this feeling during the crisis.
The weeks of unrest for Jews worldwide leading up to the war coincided with the weeks prior to and following my sister’s wedding. From the fiasco at Beit HaShalom in Hebron to the Mumbai massacre and the escalated Hamas rocket shooting, I was torn between celebration and mourning, between happiness and wrath. And I realized how easy it is for one immersed in personal matters to shift focus from intense concentration on the klal to individuals and family members.
During those weeks I would feel extreme resentment over the Israeli government’s manhandling of the Beit HaShalom protesters and then continue on to my next gown fitting. I cried over the innocent victims in Mumbai and then wiped my tears and filled in more names on the hall’s seating charts. Kassam rockets crashed down in Sderot and Ashkelon while I prepared another cake for the Sheva Brachos.
Though I’m no hard-core activist, this period of intense entanglement with private matters definitely curtailed my usual depth of involvement with Jewish issues. It takes above-average stamina and devotion to effect real change even under the most ideal circumstances, making it all the more remarkable that there exist those relatively few Jewish heroes who are able to sustain fierce involvement in righteous causes regardless of where their personal lives take them.
Heroes are also human, however, and though their dedication and their will to fight may not intervene, mortality can. Such was the thought that occurred to me after my initial shock on learning of the sudden death of modern-day hero Tsafrir Ronen, z’l. Tsafrir suffered a fatal heart attack on Dec. 27 at the young age of 53. He left behind a wife and three daughters.
Tsafrir was the consummate Zionist. A secular Jew who espoused the ideals of ahavat Eretz Yisrael, his mantra was Jewish identity, his constant slogan “There can be no Jewish state without Jewish identity.” He worked tirelessly and passionately on behalf of that motto. A fervent supporter of Jewish settlement in Judea and Samaria, he was also an outspoken critic of Israeli policies – the Oslo “peace” accords, the withdrawal from southern Lebanon and the Gush Katif expulsion – that in his view harmed the Jewish state.
I first met Tsafrir last year when I accompanied him and another Jewish activist on a visit to the Jewish National Fund offices in New York. During that time Hamas was firing daily barrages into Sderot while the Israeli government under a beleaguered Ehud Olmert did nothing.
We had hoped to inspire a change of attitude on the part of JNF officials and impel them to openly urge Israeli leaders to change course and protect their citizens. We were told it was not in their organizational mandate to get involved in Israeli politics.
Tsafrir implored the JNF officials to “be on our side” because Israeli public opinion was steadily moving to the right. He insisted that “the State of Israel was fighting against the Land of Israel” and begged the JNF to take a stand in defense of all of Israel, including Judea and Samaria. But he was politely rebuffed and told the JNF wished to remain a “positive” organization dedicated to planting trees and saving the Negev.
Tsafrir’s words ring prophetic today. Though the JNF does some wonderful work, I doubt many trees are being planted in the troubled southern region of Israel. And the JNF certainly must be having a hard time luring people to the Negev, what with the still imminent threat of rocket barrages from Gaza.
Ironically, Tsafrir died on the eve of Israel’s defensive operations in Gaza. And while everyone was shocked at his sudden death, I wonder whether the stress of committing himself entirely to an ideal, only to see that ideal denigrated by most of those around him, may have contributed to his demise.
Not all Jewish heroes become disillusioned, nor are all hindered in their quests. But it seems nearly impossible to live a life in the constant face of bitter realities without those realities following one like an unwanted shadow. Jewish heroes, driven by a passion to fight the uphill battle for Jewish survival, are heroes precisely because they have to fight. And for many of them there seems to be a price to be paid.
There are few among us who can claim such fierce dedication, undeterred by obstacles or personal distractions. For we mere mortals unable to put aside our daily responsibilities in the pursuit of a just cause, these heroes serve as an inspiration to engage in that cause when our lives do allow for it.
Sara Lehmann is a freelance writer and editor living in Brooklyn with her husband and children.