Yair Lapid first mentioned his political ambitions seven years ago to his friend Ruth Calderon, a well-known Jewish educator.
Lapid, an Israeli journalist, author, and TV news anchor, was mulling a race that would focus on strengthening Israel’s middle class, improving its education system, integrating the fervently Orthodox into the military and general society, and pushing for a return to negotiations with the Palestinians without sacrificing Israel’s security.
“My first reaction was that it was great that good people would go into politics, but at the time I did not think I would be one of them,” Calderon told NJJN in a phone interview from her Tel Aviv home. “But as the years went by, I felt that the Jewish renewal in Israel has reached a glass ceiling that we cannot break until we have a voice in politics.”
All that changed with the stunning showing by Lapid’s party, Yesh Atid (There Is a Future), in last month’s elections. Not only did it make the party an essential component in any government, but it made Calderon, number 13 on the party’s list, a member of Knesset.
“I asked him what he needs of me, and he said he wants me there for exactly the work I am already doing in Israel: to help Israeli Jews answer their identity questions and develop connections with Jews around the world,” she said.
The election thrust a star of the Jewish educational world and a champion of Torah learning for secular Israelis — as well as onetime member of the MetroWest Jewish community — onto her largest stage yet. Last week, Calderon’s inaugural Knesset speech became an Internet sensation, resonating among secular and religious Jews across the political spectrum. She used the platform to deliver an impassioned plea — complete with talmudic quotations — for the widespread study of Jewish and Hebrew texts as the basis for a “new Hebrew culture.”
She received praise from rabbis and laypeople from around the globe, including a Jewish Week reader who remarked on an on-line translation of her speech: “I don’t understand how Moshiach did not come at this very moment. Beautiful.”
‘A higher authority’
No one was more surprised by the response than Calderon herself.
“It went viral on YouTube. I didn’t expect it. I think that this kind of language was sorely missed. We are all shareholders of the classic Jewish texts,” she told NJJN. “When Yair speaks of new politics, this is what we mean. Study can be part of politics. You don’t have to be boxed into a category of secular or religious. You can have a real dialogue outside the box.”
Meaningful, honest discussion eases the way for different kinds of coalitions to form, she added.
“I believe many of your readers, as well as my friends in Israel, were not so happy with Israeli politics as it was. There was something cynical and lacking in hope,” she said. “After last year’s demonstrations for social justice, there was a quest for solidarity and optimism. I think this election was the perfect place to express that quest. And the fact that Yair Lapid got 19 seats in the Knesset is proof that Yesh Atid connects with the need for social change.”
Connection with Diaspora Jews is also intrinsic to Calderon’s mission. “This is not the state of Israelis; it’s the state of the Jews, the one place in the world where Jews have sovereignty. There’s so much that needs to be done collectively to achieve what we all wish,” she said.
She remembers with fondness the three years she spent in Livingston, NJ, with her then husband, Guy Benshachar, and their three children, while Benshachar served as chief emissary from Israel to what was then United Jewish Communities of MetroWest NJ. The couple (they have since divorced) returned to Israel in 2005.
“There are so many highlights of my time in New Jersey and New York. The Jewish communities made us feel very much at home,” she said. “I was surprised by how good the public school education in Livingston was, and I hope Israel will reach that level at some point.
“I also was very impressed with public radio programs like NPR, which is something I am very interested in seeing develop in Israel.”
In her Knesset speech, Calderon explained that she was born and raised in Tel Aviv in a “very Jewish, very Zionist, secular-traditional-religious home that combined Ashkenaz and Sepharad, [Revisionist] Betar and [socialist] Hashomer Hatzair, in the Israeli mainstream of the ’60s and ’70s.”
Calderon, who holds a PhD in talmudic literature from The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, is the founder and chairperson of Alma, a study center for Hebrew culture and the Jewish text (alma.org.il). Her New York chapter of Alma is currently inactive as she focuses on building the Tel Aviv center, which, she said, is flourishing in content, but struggling for funding.
As a result of these secular and egalitarian centers for Torah study, she says in her Knesset speech, a “Jewish renaissance movement has begun to flourish, in which tens and hundreds of thousands of Israelis study within frameworks that do not dictate to them the proper way to be a Jew or the manner in which their Torah is to become a living Torah.”
Calderon said she plans to return to the States this spring to teach a Talmud course in Manhattan.
In the Knesset, she said, she looks forward to being part of the cultural shift toward civility, optimism, and Jewish renewal. Borrowing from a popular commercial for “American naknik” (hot dogs), she said, “I answer to a higher authority. I hope I will be true to my boss and my projects as I learn the new language of civil service, which is to do good and stay true.”