Isaac Herzog, the chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel (JAFI), began his four-city Canadian tour meeting with high school students in Montreal on Sept. 4.
At his side was former Montrealer Sylvan Adams, who made aliyah almost four years ago and who has become, according to his business card, “the self-appointed ambassador at large for Israel.”
They spoke to Grade 8 students at Herzliah High School’s Sylvan Adams Campus, which was named in recognition of his major donation to the new school building that opened one year ago.
Also present were other donors, school administrators and board members, along with officials from Jewish Federations of Canada-UIA, which is overseeing Herzog’s itinerary in Canada. His tour also includes stops in Toronto, Calgary and Vancouver.
Herzog, the former opposition Labour party leader, became head of JAFI last year, replacing Natan Sharansky.
He stressed that he sees JAFI’s role as strengthening the connection between Israel and Jews, and helping those in need, wherever they live.
People are impressed and surprised at how diverse, modern and safe Israel is, which is not what they get from the media.
– Sylvan Adams
One way that is being furthered is by having Israeli teens spend time in Diaspora communities. Present at the event were some of the eight shinshinim who are performing volunteer service in Montreal this year, before they begin their military service.
Herzog said he started his political career while still in high school, and that Herzliah students are not too young to contribute to society.
Visiting Canada felt like “closing the circle” for him, because his grandfather, Rabbi Yitzhak HaLevi Herzog, had been here 70 years earlier, when he was Israel’s chief Ashkenazic rabbi. Likewise, his uncle, Yaacov Herzog, was Israel’s ambassador to Canada in the early1960s.
Herzog hailed Adams for having “put Israel’s good name on the map and turning the world upside down.”
Retired from a successful business career in real estate development in Quebec, Adams now devotes himself to two interests: promoting Israel internationally and strengthening Jewish identity within the community.
His first big project was bringing the Giro d’Italia, one of the most important cycling races, to Israel for the first time. Adams boasted that nearly one billion people around the world watched the televised three-day event in 2018.
The coverage of the road race gave viewers the opportunity to see Israel from Haifa in the north, to its finish in southern Eilat, said Adams, a world-class amateur masters cyclist himself and co-founder and owner of Israel’s first professional cycling team, Israel Cycling Academy.
“It was an antidote to the distortions of the haters,” he said, part of his plan to show the “normal” Israel.
“People are impressed and surprised at how diverse, modern and safe Israel is, which is not what they get from the media,” he said.
He told the youngsters to “stay tuned,” because he has other projects coming up. “Take that BDS!” he joked.
As for strengthening Jewish identity, Adams said Jewish education, especially at the high school level, is key. He described Herzliah as “the most important institution in the Montreal Jewish community,” and a model for other Jewish schools in North America.
He urged the students to be “proud of being part of the Jewish nation,” a term he prefers to “people,” because Jews have the characteristics of a nation: a language, country, religion, set of laws, moral code and “a sense of destiny.”
The Holocaust was definitely a trigger that caused the world community to understand that there was no choice but to give the Jews a national homeland.
– Isaac Herzog
Asked by a student how being the son of Holocaust survivors affected him, Adams said his mother, Annie, who died 20 years ago, and his father, Marcel, now 99, were inspirations.
“That generation, they don’t make people like that anymore,” he said. “They never complained.… My father never looked back, always forward.”
Marcel Adams fled Romania and reached Palestine in 1944 and became an emissary for the new state, helping Jewish refugees in Marseille and Algiers, he said.
In Canada, his only goal was to become a success in business. “Ours was a Zionist household. That I made aliyah, the purest expression of Zionism, completes the journey,” he said.
Another student asked Herzog if the Holocaust was the reason the State of Israel was created. He responded by saying that modern Zionism had taken root long before that, “but the Holocaust was definitely a trigger (that caused) the world community to understand that there was no choice but to give the Jews a national homeland.”
Adams added that, “We are the indigenous people of this land. It’s not because of the Holocaust. We came back because it is our home. The Holocaust may have been a catalyst for the modern state, but we were there 3,000 years ago when King David built Jerusalem.”