Ex-Israeli Air Force Pilot Eyes His Toughest Mission Yet: Saving Both Israeli and Diaspora Jews

Tal Keinan wasn’t scared, even though he knew each time he took off that he might not return alive. Now, however, he fears for the future of Israel and the Jewish people – no less. But he thinks he might have the solution

Tal Keinan. "The real existential threats are not going to present themselves as urgent on signposts."
Moti Milrod

The morning before I met with Tal Keinan, I found a short, online news report from 2016 about a plane crash he was in. While attempting to land a private, single-engine aircraft at Essex County Airport, New Jersey, Keinan was forced to make an emergency landing, due to a nonfunctioning fuel gauge. Neither he nor his wife, Amber, his only passenger, was hurt, though the plane was damaged.

The experience sounded harrowing to me, to say the least, but Keinan, an American-born Israel Air Force reserve pilot, seemed mainly embarrassed when I asked him about the crash.

“It was a little less dramatic than the way it was presented in the New Jersey newspaper,” he said, when we talked in his office in Tel Aviv a few hours later. “It was a very nice grassy field to put it down on, and it was actually pretty gentle.”

And if I was imagining that it was when he walked away unharmed from the Beech 33A aircraft that he understood he was meant to write “God Is in the Crowd,” his newly published book about the future of the Jewish people, I had it wrong. “I think the book was pretty much written by that point,” he clarified, with a laugh.

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Keinan long ago got over fearing death. He says – and considering that he flew an F-16 in the air force, it’s safe to assume that this is more than bravado – that each time he lifted off as a fighter pilot, he knew he might not come back alive. “I didn’t want to die, but I was willing to trade my life for my contribution to this community,” he told me. By which, he means not just the State of Israel, but also, “Jews in the United States and in Baltimore, and in Kiev and Buenos Aires – that was clear to me.”

Keinan, 49, is convinced that his comrades in his fighter squadron didn’t feel that same connection to Jewry in general: “My wingman – he was flying for Israeli Jews, Israeli Arabs,” but not for the Jewish people as a whole.

Today, half of those comrades – people who gave at least seven years to the air force in active duty – no longer live in Israel. They’re in Seoul, Beijing, London, the United States, and they’re living well, but Keinan fears they may be permanently lost both to their birthplace and to the Jewish people. That’s part of what keeps Tal Keinan up at night, and what drove him to write “God Is in the Crowd: Twenty-First-Century Judaism” (Spiegel & Grau, 352 pp., $28) – a sense that the status quo is not sustainable, for either the Jews or their state.

Within Israel, polarization, alienation and plain weariness will drive away those segments of the Jewish population that carry the bulk of the country’s economic and defense burdens. These people include the men he used to fly with. In the meantime, he writes ominously, “Those Jews who remain in Israel will be unable to sustain themselves economically or militarily. They will eventually succumb to the violent reality that befalls most minorities in the Middle East.”

In the Diaspora, which means primarily the United States, he writes, the danger is from assimilation, which “will end American Judaism, in any form we would find recognizable today, within three generations.”

Keinan’s post-air force career has been as an asset manager, so he knows how to crunch the numbers, and in the book, he tells us how he made his calculations.

Finally, the sense of mutual responsibility and shared fate that once characterized relations between Diaspora and Israeli Jewry is largely gone, so that the two communities no longer understand one another, nor feel especially connected.

‘There’s a mission here’

If he were just another Cassandra warning about the dangers of intermarriage, or of worsening relations between Israel and Diaspora Jewry, Keinan’s book might be of limited interest. Yes, these problems are serious, but many other writers have already trod this territory. Tal Keinan, however, is a man with a plan to get us out of this mess, one he has already thrashed out with a variety of others who share his worries, and while he is realistic enough not to expect his plan to be adopted wholesale by the Jewish people, he would like it to serve to initiate a discussion.

“I’m not here to sell books,” Keinan, dressed in a blue blazer, jeans and open-necked shirt, told me. “There’s a mission here, and if I can’t reach the Jewish people, I will have failed.”

We were sitting on the 30th floor of one of the Azrieli towers in Tel Aviv, looking out from the conference room of Clarity Capital, of which Keinan is today executive chairman, over the city toward the Mediterranean and beyond. I wondered aloud if publishing a book in English, in the United States, is really the best way to reach “the Jewish people,” nearly half of whom reside in the country that surrounds Tel Aviv. Shouldn’t “God Is in the Crowd” be coming out in Hebrew, and its author crisscrossing Israel to present his ideas to local audiences?

Keinan, handsome and low-key, as one would expect from a fighter pilot, says he agrees completely, which is why the book is also coming out in Hebrew this fall from major Israeli publisher Kinneret Zmora-Bitan. “This is a least as important a community for me as the American Jewish community.”

Whether or not Keinan is seeking personal fame, he’s savvy enough to understand that his own story provides an effective framework for presenting his message, and he intersperses his analysis and proposals with an account of his life that includes vivid descriptions of episodes from his air force service. These include a terrifying exercise from his training that was intended to simulate capture by an enemy, and a detailed recounting of a bombing raid over Lebanon in the late 1990s when he ended up dropping his ordnance on the wrong target. Riveting as these sections are, they seem only marginally connected to the argument of his book, making me think that they are mainly intended to maintain our attention as readers, as well as further establish his bona fides as a serious guy.

He didn’t need to. In “God Is in the Crowd,” we read about a young man who took charge of his life at a young age. Tal Wiener, as he was called at birth, spent his early years in Miami, but began attending boarding schools at age 10, after his parents divorced. His father would marry another three times. Though he returned to Florida for some time, by the time he was in 11th grade, he was at Phillips Exeter, in Massachusetts, which he had decided to attend after reading about the exclusive prep school in a magazine.

Keinan describes his interest in Judaism as being nurtured by Exeter’s Protestant chaplain, who led the school’s Jewish students at a weekly Shabbat dinner. Growing up, Tal had a bar mitzvah and annually attended synagogue on Yom Kippur and a seder on Passover, but his Jewish identity did not go much deeper than that until he arrived at Exeter. His father’s way of encouraging his sons’ commitment to Judaism was to take them to lunch after Tal’s older brother Jeff announced his intentions to marry his non-Jewish girlfriend, and tell them how important it had been to his own parents and grandparents that their descendants marry within the faith.

“'If it is so important,’” one of the brothers challenged his father, “’why is this the first time we are hearing about it? Why should it matter to us?’”

“It was Passover, and we were eating pizza as we debated the value of Jewish tradition,” he writes in the book. “The unintended irony was completely consistent with our upbringing, and comically incongruent with my father’s admonitions.”

The spiritualism that Keinan says he was exposed to at WASP-y Phillips Exeter was ecumenical and generic. “If it was at all distinct, it was distinct to Exeter – not to Judaism… beautiful, but only incidentally Jewish.” It would be up to him to initiate his own search for deeper Jewish knowledge and a sense of belonging. He took whatever courses the school offered about Judaism, and at age 14, enrolled in a summer teen tour of Israel. He returned during college for a junior year here, and decided to stay, transferring his credits from Georgetown University to Tel Aviv University.

After graduating and taking Israeli citizenship, Keinan was drafted into the air force, where, to the surprise of both himself and his fellow inductees, he survived one cut after another to become one of the handful who was selected to lead a group of F-16 pilots. At the end of his military service, he changed his surname from “Wiener” to “Keinan,” the name of a Negev riverbed, an act he describes as “a final unintended blow to my family’s assimilationist ambitions.”

Army service was followed by Harvard Business School, where he enrolled knowing he would return to Israel. Initially after graduation, he worked at Giza Venture Capital, in Tel Aviv, and then in 2002 he and banker Jay Pomrenze cofounded what would eventually become Clarity Capital, an asset-management firm. In 1999, Keinan married Amber Landeau, a geriatric social worker (and an editorial staffer of Haaretz English Edition in its early days). They have three daughters and split their time between New York and Ra’anana.

Keinan is not religiously observant, nor is he a believing man, but he is respectful of people who are religiously committed, and he has spent a lot of time studying Jewish history and thought. He points to the tension between “universalism” and “particularism,” a negative force that both pulls Jews apart but also gives depth and nuance to their identity. It is the universalist values of Judaism that makes its scriptures a guidepost for much of humanity, and has driven so many Jews to engage with the wider world. It is the particularism that has led the Jews to adopt dietary laws that limit their ability to break bread with Gentiles, and that kept intermarriage taboo for so many generations. In combination with anti-Semitism, particularism has insulated the Jews, and allowed their religion and culture to outlast those of so many more powerful nations.

Keinan feels the pull of both tendencies, and sees the value of them both. As he writes, “I knew too much to escape the orbit of community but had grown up too detached from it to forfeit my individuality.”

If the Jews of the United States risk being dissociated from the Jewish people by the centrifugal forces of universalism, the Jews of Israel, writes Keinan, are threatened as a community by particularism. He divides them into four categories. Three of these – the “Territorialists,” “Theocrats” and “Secularists” – are “minority factions [that] have been locked in constant battle over the definition of Jewish statehood ever since” Israeli independence.

Members of the Territorialists “live mainly in the settlements of Judea and Samaria,” and their belief in the need to maintain Israeli control if not sovereignty over these areas, the cradle of the Jewish people, has managed to dominate Israeli politics for the past four decades, even though they are a numerical minority.

The Theocrats are basically congruent with the country’s ultra-Orthodox, and they live in Jerusalem, Bnei Brak and such newer homogenous communities as Ramat Beit Shemesh. Because of a decision by Israel’s founding prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, to put off a serious national discussion on the balance of powers between Jewish law and the new state’s democracy, and instead adopt the so-called “status quo,” Israel gave over control of vast areas of its citizens’ lives – including marriage and burial, transportation and determination of citizenship itself – into the hands of the Orthodox Rabbinate. As the Rabbinate has become increasingly ultra-Orthodox in nature, so has the way that those matters are handled become more coercive and unresponsive to the public’s needs.

“The meaning of Jewish statehood, as expressed in Israeli governance and policy, has not been defined in a manner that applies to most Jews,” he writes.

The Secularists, in Keinan’s definition, are not just those Jews who, like him, do not see themselves as bound by halakha in their daily lives. They also include modern-Orthodox Jews who hold “a Universalist capitalist vision, which holds democracy, free trade, and open engagement with the wider world as central values.” This group “bears the bulk of both the defense burden and the economic burdens that underpin Israel’s survival,” but Keinan fears that they will increasingly head for the exits as their vision is extinguished.

There is one final group in Keinan’s flow chart, what he calls the “Fourth Israel.” Its members, who include both Jews and Arabs, live in the state’s geographic and economic periphery, and remain there, largely because its education system doesn’t serve them properly. “This group’s needs,” writes Keinan, “will never be addressed without a master vision for the Jewish State.”

‘Wisdom of the crowd’

The details of Tal Keinan’s own master vision are less interesting than the very audacity entailed in his having one at all. Broadly, he proposes having the Jewish people adopt a high-tech concept called “the wisdom of the crowd” to resolve big questions.

Keinan contends that Jewish law and morality have never been static. “Judaism has evolved constantly, and its dynamism has always been driven by the Crowd,” something that can be understood if one examines the changing consensus over a lengthy period, he writes. Just as, by studying the Moving Average of a stock over a period of months or years, one can discern long-term trends, Keinan believes that by finding a mechanism to engage a much wider cross-section of the Jewish people – lay members and religious scholars alike – it should be possible to establish a broad consensus. Constantly testing the consensus would allow it to evolve and adapt to the changing world, an evolution, he insists, that would be in keeping with the spirit of the Talmud and subsequent Jewish thought, more so than the dictatorial rigidity that comes when a hierarchy is allotted exclusive control over Jewish law and practice.

In the optimistic spirit of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, Keinan proposes that technology can be used for “aggregating diverse, independent inputs to establish Crowd Wisdom” for the Jews. He doesn’t get much more specific than that, but he does make a good case for the argument that consensus should take into account the judgment of lay people as well as rabbinical sages.

Keinan’s concept of engaging Jewish collective wisdom might seem more naïve if he didn’t also propose what he calls the “Jewish World Endowment,” basically a tithing system that participating Jews worldwide would pay into annually, and in return for which would have part of their children’s Jewish education covered, as well as their university education.

He goes into some detail with the finances of this, so as to prove the viability of the plan, which would be unique in that its summer educational programs would bring together young people from different Jewish backgrounds, rather than separate them by denomination.

Finally, Keinan proposes a reconfiguring of the office of Israeli president, turning the position from a largely symbolic one domestically into a role that represents the Jewish people as a whole. Keinan acknowledges that there are wide areas of Israeli policy – such as defense and, for example, Israeli health care – where only Israelis can decide on their future. At the same time, however, he finds it unacceptable that the Israeli government should decide matters that directly affect all Jews, ranging from the Law of Return to who has access to Jewish holy sites such as the Western Wall. Keinan’s enhanced office of Israeli president would be responsible for “maintaining the nation-state of the Jews,” and would oversee implementation of decisions made by the Crowd.

Tal Keinan’s sleep isn’t broken by the Palestinian issue nor over Iran or the threat of BDS, none of which he perceives as an existential threat. “I’m really not worried, as an ex-insider, about how we are organized to defend ourselves. The real existential threats are not going to present themselves as urgent on signposts.”

It’s those less conspicuous threats that Keinan wants to discuss. “Let’s get this on the agenda: Who are we, what are we doing here, what’s the ambition?”

It is worthwhile listening to him.