“I hope it was an easy fast for all who fasted.” This was the first sentence spoken by Omri Casspi, among the greatest Israeli basketball players, at his press conference Sunday evening in which he announced his retirement.
I have nothing to add to all the praises of the world’s elite basketball players who spoke of the professionalism, the humility, and the perseverance of the boy who grew up in Yavneh and made it to the NBA. But I was reminded of when Casspi interviewed me on his podcast and opened our conversation with this surprising statement: “I departed for the United States as an Israeli only, but I returned also as a Jew.” He explained this transformation as follows:
“Outside of Israel, if you do not create an identity, it will not happen on its own. I lived in places like Sacramento, Cleveland, and Houston – without a large Jewish community. But at some point, I stopped and said to myself: ‘Wait a minute, what is going on with me?’ I felt a sense of obligation and began thinking: I represent something, but I know nothing about what I represent.
“For example: I land in Boston and American Jewish kids are waiting for me there with much excitement and they are staring at me. I represent for them the Jewish nation, the State of Israel, but I am conflicted. After all, if you go outside in Los Angeles on Yom Kippur, it’s just a regular day, traffic as usual. If you do not do something special on Shabbat, you won’t feel any Shabbat. It’s your responsibility to do something since you are not in a Jewish country.
“My wife and I went through this process together, as a family – Friday night dinner, kiddush, tefillin, holidays, community, Jewish education, kosher food. I felt a sense of obligation towards myself and towards the Jewish community. Many Israelis feel this over there, but there are many unfortunately who do not. Only there was I able to understand that I am an emissary of something great. Sometimes you need to go far away in order to come closer, to discover who you really are.”
Wishing you much success, Omri, as you continue in the game of life.
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Shani Avigal, mother of six-year-old Ido Avigal from Sderot who was killed in the recent “Guardian of the Walls” conflict, is still healing from her painful loss. The other day she wrote me the following:
“I thought a lot about how to memorialize Ido, how he would want me to memorialize him. I thought about the value of friendship and that it was sometimes difficult for him to connect with others. Whether in kindergarten or on a playground, he would play alone and find it difficult to participate in group activities. I thought that if there had been a ‘friendship bench’ at his kindergarten, that could have been most helpful to him. The idea is this: if it is difficult for a child to connect, he can simply sit on the bench and others can approach him and ask him to join their game. If children argue amongst themselves, they can also resolve their argument on the bench.
“The idea began with one bench at his kindergarten and has now spread to schools and even public parks. A number of cities have already ordered these benches in preparation for the coming school year. The feedback I have been receiving is tremendous. The benches simply help children who are socially isolated or otherwise in distress. Every night before bed, Ido would share with us what happened to him that day and said that he always made sure to ‘love thy neighbor as thyself.’ Therefore, this is what is written on the bench.”
In this week after Tisha B’Av, when we become aware of what is missing and what we need to change, I wrote Shani that perhaps a bench like this is needed for adults as well.
(translation by Yehoshua Siskin)