U.S. Jewish Schools Applaud as Alumni Bennett, Herzog Assume Posts

Naftali Bennett became Israel's 13th prime minister on Sunday while Isaac Herzog was elected as the next president two weeks ago

Samuel Sokol is a freelance journalist based in Jerusalem. He was previously a correspondent at the Jerusalem Post and has reported for the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, the Israel Broadcasting Authority and the Times of Israel. He is the author of Putin’s Hybrid War and the Jews.
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Prime Minister Naftali Bennett on Monday
Samuel Sokol is a freelance journalist based in Jerusalem. He was previously a correspondent at the Jerusalem Post and has reported for the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, the Israel Broadcasting Authority and the Times of Israel. He is the author of Putin’s Hybrid War and the Jews.
Sam Sokol

As world leaders congratulated Naftali Bennett who was sworn in as Israel’s 13th prime minister on Sunday, so too did a Jewish day school in New Jersey which the Yamina head attended in the 1980s.

“Mazal tov to former Yavneh Academy student, Naftali Bennett on becoming Israel's new Prime Minister,” the school posted on its Facebook page on Sunday evening, alongside a class picture featuring the future leader.

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“Wow, this is great,” one alumus commented. “Yavneh graduates go places,” another crowed.

Bennett was born in Haifa in 1972 to Jim and Myrna Bennett, American Jews who emigrated from San Francisco in 1967 following the Six-Day War. He grew up in Israel, Canada and the United States. For several years in the early 1980s, Bennett attended Yavneh, a Modern Orthodox yeshiva that boasts of providing what it calls a “superior Judaic & secular education” based on “Torah, middot [good character traits], Ivrit [Hebrew] & Eretz Yisrael [the land of Israel].”

While at Yavneh, Bennett was classmates with Adam Szubin, who served as acting secretary of the US Treasury in 2017.

The first Orthodox prime minister in the history of the state of Israel, Bennett is on the liberal side of the Orthodox spectrum and has drawn heated opposition from the ultra-Orthodox and conservative wing of the national-religious community.

On Sunday evening, as Bennett was preparing to be sworn in as prime minister, Rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu, Chief Rabbi of Safed and one of the leaders of the national-religious community, led prayers against the new government at the Western Wall.

Around the same time, United Torah Judaism Chairman Moshe Gafni took to the Knesset podium to castigate the new government led by Bennett and Alternate Prime Minister Yair Lapid, accusing it of abandoning Judaism and effectively erasing Israel’s unique religious identity. 

“In what way are you Jews?!” he thundered, accusing members of the so-called change bloc of turning their backs on Shabbat observance, Torah study and the Western Wall. “What’s different from any other country in the world?”

Speaking at a Knesset gathering held last week to discuss how to push back against proposed changes to the country’s religious status quo, Gafni called Bennett “wicked,” while UTJ lawmaker Yaakov Litzman demanded that he “remove his kippa.”

“He shames his kippa and I think it is a great insolence. At least everyone should understand that he is a Reform” Jew, Litzman stated.

Herzog's U.S. alma mater also proud

Bennett is not the only Israeli leader to receive plaudits from his Orthodox alma mater in the United States.

In a Facebook post on June 3, a day after Isaac Herzog was elected to succeed Reuven Rivlin as the next president of Israel, the Ramaz School, a Modern Orthodox yeshiva high school in Manhattan's Upper East Side neighborhood, commended the former Labor leader and Jewish Agency chairman for his achievements.

“On behalf of Ramaz, it is an incredible honor to congratulate Isaac ‘Bougie’ Herzog '78 on becoming the 11th president of Israel,” the school wrote. “We are grateful that the extraordinary ways he has led the Jewish people -- with strength, humility, and thoughtfulness -- will now have even more of an impact on Am Yisrael.”

“"President Herzog's first experience in political life was as a president of the Ramaz GO [student government] in his senior year (1978),” wrote Rabbi Haskel Lookstein, who served as Herzog’s principal.

“He always expresses love and respect for his Ramaz education and experience. We, in turn, have always treasured him as a great representation of that for which Ramaz stands: Judaism; Zionism; and menschlichkeit [ethical behavior],” added Lookstein.

Ramaz later took out an advertisement in the national-religious Israeli Makor Rishon newspaper congratulating Herzog.

Herzog, who is not religiously observant, attended Ramaz while his father Chaim Herzog, who would become Israel's sixth president,  served as Israeli ambassador to the United Nations from 1975-1978. His grandfather, Rabbi Yitzhak Herzog, served as both Chief Rabbi of Israel and Ireland.

Herzog’s election will likely have an impact on students at the Modern Orthodox institution who have previously followed his political fortunes.

“I’m personally interested in politics and you can see what Buji has done and it makes you think you can do that too and be someone important,” one student told Tablet magazine during Herzog’s run for prime minister in 2015. “This has been a unique opportunity to see how Ramaz is big in the world and how prestigious we actually are.”

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