Leaders of Jewish organizations remembered Shimon Peres, who died Sept. 28, as an incomparable statesman and the last of Israel’s founders.
“He rode different tides of Israel as it changed and always maintained optimism when things looked dismal,” Rabbi Baht Yameem Weiss of Temple Beth Ami, president of the Washington Board of Rabbis. “It’s the death of a legend; it feels like the end of an era.”
Peres served as president of Israel from 2007 to 2014 and twice for short terms as prime minister. But he was recalled as being an inspiration to many.
Steve Rakitt, CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington, met with Peres several times, and once in Peres’ birthplace of Vishnyeva, Belarus.
“He had tears in his eyes as he spoke lovingly of his parents, his early years and his journey to British Mandate Palestine at the age of 11,” Rakitt said in an email. “Shimon Peres’ long journey on behalf of Israel and the Jewish people is now over, but his eloquent expression of hope for lasting peace lives on in each of us.”
Belarussians gathered outside of Peres’ childhood home on Sept. 28, the day he died, to pay respect.
Ron Halber, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington, said Peres’ stature in Israeli history is comparable only to the likes of Yitzhak Rabin and David Ben-Gurion.
“It’s hard to imagine the state of Israel without the contribution of Shimon Peres,” he said of the former prime minister and president. “This is a guy who was a witness to the birth of a nation. His name reads like a biography of every seminal event in Israeli history.”
Washington Hebrew Congregation Senior Rabbi Bruce Lustig called Peres a “great statesman and a remarkable human being.
“He was 93 years old and never gave up his hopes and dreams of what Israel could be,” he said. “His life in many ways is heroic in the way he inspired and served the state of Israel.”
Rabbi Uri Topolosky of Beth Joshua Congregation admired Peres’ energy and sense of purpose in life.
“He never retired, and that’s astounding,” he said. “It is inspiring to many people to see somebody who lived a life with purpose to the very end.”
Topolosky compared Peres’ life to the sounds of the shofar, noting Peres “is somebody who ultimately sounded that final tekiah until the very end.”
Some took to social media to express their thoughts.
“A great light goes out. In life, he never ceased in his quest for a lasting peace. May his vision come to pass in our lifetime, by the work of our hands,” Adas Israel Congregation said in a post on Facebook. “Our community mourns together with the people of Israel and the world.”
Rabbi Susan Grossman, of Beth Shalom Congregation in Howard County, described Peres as a champion for peaceful coexistence.
“His passing represents the passing of the generation of founders of the Jewish state who held onto this hope,” she said. “That in the midst of challenges and impossible odds that it would be possible to not only thrive in the Jewish state but to live in peace with our neighbors.”
Leaders in the United States and Israel praised Peres’ sense of responsibility.
Natan Sharansky, chairman of the Executive of the Jewish Agency for Israel, recalled Peres as “the first Israeli” he saw when he arrived from Russia after his many years in prison. He said that he would always remember the then-prime minister as “the individual who started the Israeli chapter of my life.”
“Peres was always driven by a deep sense of responsibility toward the entire Jewish people. He concerned himself with the fate and future of the entire nation, but also with each of its sons and daughters, both near and far,” Sharansky said.
In a conference call with the National Jewish Democratic Council, Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton said she “loved sitting and listening to him whether it was about Israel, the nation he loved and did so much to defend, or about peace or just about life itself.”
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, in a prepared statement, called Peres “a consummate statesman, a distinguished patriot and a friend of peace-loving people everywhere.”
Ellen Hershkin, the president of Hadassah, The Women’s Zionist Organization of America, said her organization lost more than a powerful senior statesman and peacemaker.
“We have lost more than a strong defender of Israel, a winner of the Nobel Peace Prize and a father of the Oslo Accords, a past prime minister and president.” Her organization’s members, she said, lost “a friend.”
American Jewish Committee CEO David Harris met with Peres many times, both in Israel and the United States.
“Peres had extraordinary energy, boundless optimism and future-oriented vision, not only about the possibilities of peace and coexistence in the region, but also about the exciting pathways of new technologies for the benefit of humankind — from nanoscience to mapping the brain,” he said in a prepared statement.
The Anti-Defamation League called Peres “the diplomatic, political and social innovation face of Israel over a seven-decade career.”
“His moderation and insight not only drew world leaders and dignitaries to meet and consult with him, but also served Israel in its ongoing fight against delegitimization and other anti-Israel forces,” Marvin Nathan, the ADL’s national chair, and Jonathan Greenblatt, its CEO, said in a prepared statement.
The ADL leaders marveled that Peres had recently taken up skydiving to “promote social innovation and new advanced technologies for international social change and the greater good.”
B’nai B’rith International said in its statement: “The history of the State of Israel cannot be written without including Peres and his myriad accomplishments during a nearly 70-year career in public service.”
AIPAC called Peres “an indefatigable advocate for justice and human progress,” and said his legacy “will live on through the many good deeds he accomplished, the countless lives he enriched, and the commitment to the Jewish state he inspired in so many.”
J Street said Peres “will be remembered for his tireless efforts to keep Israel safe and in his latter years to reach a just peace with the Palestinians based on a two-state solution.” The liberal pro-Israel group in a statement called Peres “the grandfather of the entire nation (who) was in many ways its moral conscience, preaching untiringly the need for peace and reconciliation with the Palestinians.”
Debra DeLee, CEO and president of Americans for Peace Now, said “Shimon Peres’ memory and legacy are a blessing to anyone who cares about Israel and its well-being as a democracy that is guided by progressive values.”
Jewish Federations of North America said in a statement, “Peres was both a pragmatist and unwaveringly optimistic that Israel would reach peace with its neighbors.”
The Rabbinical Assembly of the Conservative movement said it “in particular appreciated his work on pluralism and the open dialogue he maintained with Judaism’s various religious streams.”
The National Jewish Democratic Council called him “a man of values and integrity.”
Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, said Peres “was a tough-minded lover of peace who understood that Israel lives in a dangerous neighborhood and must have the deterrence it needs, but that in the end, the best deterrence is hope for a better tomorrow, and promoting the wisdom and creativity of the Israeli people on the world stage, while also ensuring that Israel engages significantly in a global arena.”
The Orthodox Union called Peres “a beacon of light in times of darkness for our people.”
Its statement continued, “As someone who built lasting bridges across the secular-religious divide in Israeli society, Peres knew intimately the importance of Israel’s Jewish identity in the state’s vibrant character. His legacy inspires us to continue doing our work, ensuring a strong Jewish future with a strong Jewish state.”
Women of the Wall’s Anat Hoffman praised Peres for championing equal rights for women, something she said Peres did “from his days as a young soldier in the trenches to his last days as an elder statesman pursuing peace in the Middle East.”
The Israeli American Council praised Peres as “a giant of our time,” saying he “absorbed nearly a century of Jewish experience and used it to build a strong and vibrant state of Israel and pursue peace.”
And the Zionist Organization of America said: “We are truly grateful for Peres’ extraordinary contributions to Israel’s security, including helping to arm the previously defenseless Jewish people, fathering Israel’s aircraft industry, and serving in numerous government posts.”
JTA News and Features contributed to this article.