Sunday, May 31, 2020

Englewood—When Ambassador Yehuda Avner walked into the shul of the Moriah School recently, 200 7th- and 8th-grade students rose to their feet to greet him. None of them had ever met him and only a handful had ever heard of him. All they were told was that he was the former advisor to four Israeli prime ministers, Israel’s ambassador to several different nations, and the author of one of the most important and bestselling books of our time, The Prime Ministers. An hour and a half later (it was supposed to be a 40-minute program), the same 200 students flocked around Ambassador Avner as if he was each one’s saba or zaide.

“As eager as I was to bring Ambassador Avner to Moriah,” commented Principal Dr. Elliot Prager, “I wasn’t certain how he would relate to our students and how they would receive him. As much as our students learn about Zionist and Israeli history in their Hebrew classes, I wondered how he would convey the sweep of Israel’s history that he captures so magnificently in the 703 pages of his book.” But, as soon as he opened his remarks with his experience in the trenches on the night of May 14, 1948, learning from a comrade who had just returned with news that Ben-Gurion had declared the new State of Israel right before Shabbat, Dr. Prager and all 250 students and faculty assembled in the room knew that this was not to be a lecture but a spellbinding adventure in story-telling like they had never experienced.

For the next hour, you could hear a pin drop as the ambassador captured the power, majesty, and drama of Israel’s history. He recounted but a small handful of vignettes from his book, but knew exactly which ones would fascinate and captivate the children in front of him. From Levi Eshkol’s visit to Johnson’s ranch in Texas to his recollections of the first announcements he heard in shul on Yom Kippur that Israel was under attack, from Sadat’s ground-breaking visit to Israel to Begin’s courageous, passionate defense of Israel before Jimmy Carter at Camp David, Ambassador Avner mesmerized the 7th and 8th graders as few speakers could.

When it came time for questions from the students, there was a brief moment of silence. And then, as if on cue, one hand after the other shot up: “Which American presidents did you know?” “What was it like to work with Golda Meir?” “When you first came to Palestine in 1947 did you have to run the British blockade?” “Did you have to do research for your book, or did you write it all from notes taken at the time of the events?” And, when asked if he thinks there will ever be peace between Israel and the Arabs, Avner replied: “When I saw Sadat walk off the plane at Ben-Gurion airport I knew at that moment that someday, someday there will be a genuine peace.”

As it came time to bring the program to a close, there were still scores of hands up. But, rather than walk away not having their questions answered, a crowd of students stormed to the front of the room, surrounded Ambassador Avner and fired away with more questions.

“Most touching of all,” remarked Dr. Prager, “was the scene of this world famous Jewish diplomat, historian, Zionist figure, and author hugging our children and they clinging to him. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything quite like this.”

As Ambassador Avner began to take leave, one of the students turned to Dr. Prager and said, “Just hearing his stories, I feel like I was personally there witnessing these events...Can he come back next year?!

By Dr. Elliot Prager