The Jewish community turned out Oct. 20 to pay its final respects to Shimon Peres, Israel’s renaissance man who during a decades-long political career held the most important positions in the Israeli government.
Peres, who died Sept. 28 at age 93, was remembered as a statesman, visionary, peacemaker, lover of books, a man dedicated to the defence of Israel, a proponent of high-tech and someone who felt equally comfortable in the company of dignitaries as people he’d meet in the street.
About 500 people filled the sanctuary at Beth Emeth Bais Yehuda Synagogue to hear speakers and spiritual leaders celebrate the life of the man considered one of the giants at the founding of Israel. The event was sponsored by UJA Federation of Greater Toronto and the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA), in co-operation with about two dozen community organizations and congregations.
Keynote speaker Heather Reisman, chair and CEO of Indigo Books, noted that political leaders from the four corners of the world, along with many other dignitaries, flocked to Israel for Peres’ funeral – a measure of the respect they had for the man.
Peres was “eternally optimistic,” a joyful, energetic man who was generous with his time. “This was the Shimon that I knew.”
Reisman recalled her first meeting with Peres as a teenager, when as deputy minister of defence he visited Canada. In later years, she and her husband, businessman Gerry Schwartz, travelled to Israel regularly and often met with Peres. “Shimon was an insane bookaholic,” who read often and deeply. “He enchanted us with his reverence for reading” and took pleasure in recommending books to her, Reisman said.
Despite his advancing years, Peres retained boundless energy, she continued. Late in the evening, when you might expect an elderly man to wind down, he was eager to make the scene at Israeli nightclubs. Accompanying him to one in Tel Aviv, she witnessed the reception he received. “It was clear he was a rock star,” she said.
Even in his 90s, “his enthusiasm was boundless,” Reisman said.
Reisman recalls Peres inviting her to a beachfront restaurant in Tel Aviv-Jaffa, where he described his proposed Peres Center for Peace. Reisman said she was so moved by his passion, she agreed to fund the centre’s library, which formed a repository for Peres’ collection of books and other documents.
Peres was present at every key event in the history of Israel, and he never tired of pursuing peace, she said. “Where others saw dead ends, he saw opportunities.”
Reisman ended her tribute by quoting from the eulogy of former U.S. president Bill Clinton, who said of Peres, “He started life as Israel’s brightest student, became its best teacher and ended up its biggest dreamer.”
Israel’s consul general in Toronto, Galit Baram, called Peres “one of the generation of giants” responsible for the founding of Israel and someone who contributed greatly to the new country’s security and ability to defend itself.
Peres was also seen as a dreamer who foresaw joint infrastructure projects in the region, she said.
He valued the opinions of young people, he was tremendously energetic – “he had one of the craziest schedules I have ever seen” – he was accessible, willing to talk to anyone and had a tremendous sense of humour, Baram said.
That self-deprecating sense of humour was illustrated in a video shown at the event that was made after his departure as president. It shows the former president seeking help at an employment office, then trying his hand as a pizza delivery guy, security guard, gas jockey and stand-up comic, all the while delivering pearls of wisdom to anyone who would listen.
Other tributes were presented by Morris Perlis, chair of UJA Federation; UJA shinshinim; and Yael Karol, Toronto council member of CIJA, while rabbinic reflections were offered by rabbis Daniel Korobkin of Beth Avraham Yoseph Synagogue, Howard Morrison of Beth Emeth and Yael Splansky of Holy Blossom Temple.