When Israel’s prime minister lived in Teaneck
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When Israel’s prime minister lived in Teaneck

Remembering Naftali Bennett’s two years as a Jersey boy

On Sunday, Israel swore in its 13th prime minister — and the third to have spent formative years in the United States.

Golda Meir, who led Israel from 1969 through 1974, immigrated from Kiev to Milwaukee with her family when she was 8, in 1906; she only moved to Palestine 15 years later, not long after she married Morris Meyerson. (She changed her name to Meir in 1956 when she became Israel’s foreign minister.)

Benjamin Netanyahu, whose tenure as Israel’s longest serving prime minister ended on Sunday, spent two stints of his youth — one in elementary school, one in high school — in suburban Philadelphia, while his historian father taught Jewish history at Dropsie College. (On Tuesday, New York Review Books will publish “The Netanyahus,” a comic novel by Joshua Cohen set in 1958-59, during the family’s time in American academia.)

And now there is Naftali Bennett, Israel’s latest prime minister, who lived with his family in Teaneck for two years. He was a student at the Yavneh Academy, which moved from Paterson to its current Paramus address during his time there.

Mr. Bennett was born in Haifa in 1972; his parents, Jim and Myrna, made aliyah from San Francisco a month after the Six Day War in 1967. Jim Bennett found a job with Haifa’s Technion university’s fundraising team. That took him, Myrna, and their family — Naftali and his two older brothers, Asher and Daniel — back to North America for two sojourns: first to Montreal for two years, when Naftali was 4, and then to Teaneck for another two years, when Naftali was 7.

In Teaneck, the family lived in a house on Sussex Road at the corner of Emerson, across the street from Murray and Basheva Goldberg.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett addresses the Knesset on Sunday.
(Israeli Government Press Office)

“They became very close and dear friends of ours,” Mrs. Goldberg said. “Every trip we went on to Israel after they returned, we spent time with them. Naftali’s father is deceased, unfortunately, but his mother is still a very close friend of mine. We texted each other last night and we texted this morning.”

Mrs. Goldberg remembers young Naftali as “fun loving, quick, smart, very, very friendly, fun to be with.” He and his two brothers “were in and out of our house all the time,” she said.

The Goldbergs have three children.  A daughter, Daniella, was in Naftali’s grade (but not in his class or ensuing class pictures); their sons, Efrem and Judah, were younger. They all took the school bus to Yavneh together.

Jim and Myrna Bennett “were remarkable people,” Mrs. Goldberg said. “Wonderful, wonderful, dear people. Very bright, very thoughtful.

“The whole journey of their life has been a very remarkable and interesting one. They moved to Israel as a young couple. They did not come from an Orthodox background. Over the years they became observant. They provided a very beautiful Orthodox home for their children and a beautiful life filled with true values and meaning. They laid the groundwork for their son’s rise to where he is now.”

Other people who encountered young Naftali Bennett during those years have less clear memories.

That’s Naftali Bennett on the right end of the front row of this second grade class portrait.

One classmate, who prefers not to be identified, remembers him as “the fastest runner on the playground.”

Another, who also didn’t want to be named, agreed that “he was a good athlete. Fast. Skinny. He integrated himself into our punchball games.

“He was a very nice kid. Friendly. He wore his tzitzis hanging out.”

But others who were contacted did not remember much about the classmate who joined them for two of their elementary school years. “I have absolutely no memories of him at all — it was a long time ago!” one of them said.

“He was with us only for a short while until the family moved on,”c, Yavneh’s longtime principal, who now lives in Israel, said. “He was in a class of outstanding students, many of whom today are accomplished adults.”

“They were unusually smart, a really bright class,” Rebecca Gordon, Yavneh’s longtime secretary said, adding that “I don’t remember Naftali Bennett at all.”

That’s Naftali Bennett on the right end of the front row of this second grade class portrait.

The classmates whom Naftali joined for two school years, from the fall of 1979 through the spring of 1981, include Jeremey Dauber, a Columbia University professor and author; Adam Szubin, an attorney who served as director of the federal government’s Office of Foreign Assets Control as well as  acting secretary of the Treasury; and Dena Kinstlinger, a ballerina who made history as the only Sabbath-observant Jew in the New York City Ballet. The small class — a photo from 1981 that includes Naftali Bennett shows 16 students, with one not present — also includes several who ended up in Israel.

One former Yavneh student who does remember Naftali is Efrem Goldberg, now the senior rabbi at the Boca Raton Synagogue in Florida. Back in February, Mr. Bennett was a guest on Rabbi Goldberg’s podcast, “Behind the Bima.” This was six weeks before the Israeli elections on March 23, the fourth in two years. That’s the electon that picked the Knesset that just this week approved the narrow coalition that chose Mr. Bennett as prime minister.

“We had a lot of fun on the school bus to Yavneh,” Rabbi Goldberg recalled as he began his conversation with his former neighbor.

Rabbi Goldberg asked Mr. Bennett what he took away from his years in America, both as a child in Teaneck and later on when, beginning in 2000, he lived in Manhattan while running the high-tech startup that made him a multimillionaire.

“Being in America back in ’79 to ’81 was a meaningful experience for me,” Mr. Bennett said. “Only when I was in America did I fully learn to appreciate how great it is to be an Israeli, to have a state where everyone around is Jewish. It was very meaningful, especially in terms of my understanding of how important it is to have a strong Jewish identity. I missed Israel very much when I was in Teaneck.

“Teaneck back then was not yet Israel,” he joked. “We annexed Teaneck a few years ago.”

That’s Naftali Bennett partially hidden on the left; on the right, Batsheva Goldberg stands next to her son Efram and behind her son Judah. That’s the oldest Bennett son, Asher, behind her.

Mr. Bennett spoke about his parents’ influence on him.

“The fact that my mom and dad were olim” — immigrants to Israel — “was profound from my perspective,” he said. “They always appreciated the fact there was this amazing state, notwithstanding the problems they encountered. They never kvetched about it. I never heard any complaints about the State of Israel. They forever felt in its debt.

“My dad, may he rest in peace, really taught us by personal example the value of self-reliance. That was one thing.

“The other was to fight for what you believe in. It’s something I think they brought from America. My dad and mom grew up secular in San Francisco in the ’50s and ’60s. My dad was in fact arrested at a civil rights demonstration at a hotel that would not admit African Americans. I’m very proud of them.

“My same dad went to demonstrations against” the Oslo Accords in the 1990s, Mr. Bennett said, refuting “the dichotomy that if you’re right wing you can’t be for civil rights. No. You can be right wing, which means eretz Yisrael, am Yisrael, Torat Yisrael” — believing in the land of Israel, the people of Israel, the Torah of Israel — “and also human rights.”

Rabbi Goldberg asked his former neighbor how Judaism informed his politics. Mr. Bennett is the first Israeli prime minister to wear a yarmulke (a small one, reportedly affixed to his bald head with double-sided tape).

Daniella Goldberg (center) takes a break from a year of study in Israel to visit her former neighbor, Naftali Bennett, in uniform to her left.

“To be fair, people are still afraid of it,” Mr. Bennett said of his religiosity. “But being a deep believer in Torat Yisrael and am Yisrael has a huge influence on me. I think Israel is a miracle — a divine miracle, where humans and God have to work together. I’m a practical person. I don’t think all of it is on you, but that doesn’t relieve you from putting in all your effort,” he said, citing Pirkei Avot 2:16.

“I work really hard and put in all my neshama” — soul — “and I also know you can do everything, and then have to have bitachon” — faith — “in Hashem,” Mr. Bennett continued. “It doesn’t mean it’s always okay. From my perspective, bitachon means that what does happen is from Hashem. Here on earth we have to work as hard as we can to build a strong Jewish state, a strong Jewish identity, to ensure we don’t give up one centimeter of the land of the State of Israel, to ensure our next generation understands why we’re here, to build a strong economy. Bitachon means you do what you can, but you know that the rest is from Hashem.”

After returning to Haifa with his family when he was 9 years old, Naftali ended up attending that city’s coincidentally named Yavneh yeshiva high school; he was an active participant in the Bnei Akiva youth group. After high school he was drafted into the Israeli army, where he served in the Sayeret Matkal and Maglan commando units as a company commander. After six years in the army, he studied law at Hebrew University; then he started his first company, Cyota, and came to America for a few years. Cyota offered services against online banking fraud to financial institutions. It was sold in 2005 to the Israeli-founded cyber security company RSA for $145 million.

Mr. Bennett’s army service, both as a commando and later as a reservist who fought during the 2006 Lebanon war, was a key part of his resume for Israeli voters.

In his conversation with Rabbi Goldberg, Mr. Bennett said that when he fought Hezbollah in Lebanon, he was fighting “quite literally to defend my family. Taking down a rocket in Lebanon was very personal for my family,”  as the northern city of Haifa where his parents lived was directly threatened by Lebanese missile fire. Now he lives with his wife, Gilat, a professional pastry chef, and their four children in the town of Ra’anana, 10 miles north of Tel Aviv.

David Hochstein, who now lives in Bergenfield, this week tweeted out a recent selfie with his former Yavneh classmate Naftali Bennett.

He said his lessons from the army were:

“First thing, always be on the attack. Don’t let up for a moment. In 1995 I think I was number one in the IDF in the number of terrorists I neutralized. We killed a lot of Hezbollah terrorists. When we came in and had massive ongoing operations on the offense, they had no time to raise their heads and think how to hurt us. When we cloistered and went on the defensive, it only encouraged them to hurt us.

“It’s a paradox. The more you want to defend your people, the more initiative you need to take.”

He quoted the Talmud: “He who wants to kill you, you have to precede by killing him. I’m a huge believer in that. I saw it in Lebanon.”

A second lesson from his army days: “Always be innovative. Always surprise. Never go the straight route because they’re waiting for you. Always go the indirect way. That’s vital.”

He declined Rabbi Goldberg’s invitation to apply those lessons to his political career. “I don’t want to compare it to Israeli politics,” he said. “While I certainly have opponents, they’re not enemies. My left-wing friends are not less patriotic. They’re friends. Mistaken friends, but friends.”

Rabbi Goldberg recalled seeing his former neighbor at an AIPAC event, where his talk followed that of former Labor party leader, then Jewish Agency head, and now president of Israel Isaac Herzog. “The two of you were so warm in embracing each other,” despite your different politics, Rabbi Goldberg said.

Defense Minister Benny Gantz, Foreign Minister Yair Lapid, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, Justice Minister Gideon Sa’ar, and Transportation Minister Merav Michaeli.

Rabbi Goldberg moved the conversation to Israel Diaspora relations. “We can’t give up on each other,” Mr. Bennett said.

He said “there’s a true chasm” between the younger generations in the two countries. “In the entire West, the younger generation tends to be more left wing. In Israel, the younger generation is more right wing. It has to do with the reality on the ground. We tried the other way and it didn’t work.

“We have to create dialogue. We should listen more than talk, which is un-Israeli. I don’t know the precise solution. All I know is that I’m not giving up.

“We’re in a new era. The Holocaust cannot be the defining glue of the Jewish people. The Jewish state was founded indeed because of security needs, the existential needs of the Jewish people before the Holocaust, but Herzl’s vision was one of a survival-based Zionism. He said it’s not working out in the Diaspora; something bad is going to happen.

“But shelter, that’s not a good enough vision. If we’re looking for safe places, I think Perth in Australia is a safe place. I wouldn’t necessarily choose Israel.

“So the defining mission statement of the Jewish people is indeed building and fixing the world. To the liberal direction? To the conservative direction? All I know is we need to be a beautiful state, a vibrant democracy that connects to Jews around the world. We need to figure out the degree of mutual influence.”

He said that if he became prime minister, he would “have two hats.”

One is the leader of all Israeli citizens, “Jews and non-Jews alike, and I’m responsible for all of them equally.

“I’m also the leader of all Jews around the world, because Israel belongs to you.”

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