When Ted Farber found himself serendipitously present for a major moment in Jewish history, it ended up leading to a 50-year career in the field of Jewish communal work.
“I sort of landed in Israel a little bit by accident immediately after the 1967 Six Day War,” the Potomac resident and former CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington recounted in a phone interview.
Farber’s arrival in the country happened to coincide with the first day the newly-recaptured Old City of Jerusalem was open to non-military personnel. The director of his program unexpectedly announced on the bus from the airport that the group was going to drive to Jaffa Gate and then walk to the Western Wall.
Farber recalled writing about what he saw to his then-girlfriend, now-wife, Ronni. “The sight of my people — cripples crawling and old people being carried — you see I choke up about it 60 years later,” he said, his voice breaking. “It was very impactful on me.”
The following six months in Israel were his introduction to Judaism in many ways. “I grew up in a very small, rural, poor community in eastern Connecticut.” There was a synagogue there that he had a nominal connection to. “But I really had no particular interest until I got to Israel.” He learned a lot about Israel and Jewish history, but not the American Jewish community — not yet anyway.
Now, after a 50-year career in the Jewish communal world — including as CEO of The Jewish Federation of Greater Washington, a job he held until 2001 — Farber, 76, is “happily retired, with a little bit of pro bono here and there” as a consultant.
Israel remains the center of Farber’s Jewish identity, and as such “this is a very sad time for me,” he said.
“I still believe in the two-state solution because it is, in my mind, the only way to maintain Israel as a Jewish and democratic state. There is no other alternative that’s been suggested that can accomplish that,” he said. “It saddens me that on one hand, Israel and the Palestinian Authority seem to be moving away from that. And it deeply saddens me that the American Jewish community is less connected to Israel, at least younger generations are less connected to Israel than has been the case in the past.”
Memory is short, he said.
“People don’t remember or give credit to Israel for swapping land for peace, and what did that get them? Rockets. I think people forget that Israel signed the Oslo Accords. And what did that get them? Riots. And I particularly realize that people have forgotten, if they ever cared to know, that Israel has made two very strong offers to create a two-state solution, twice-rejected: once by Arafat, once more recently by the PA.”
Farber said that he doesn’t hold the Israeli government blameless, but he thinks there have to be stronger efforts to educate American Jewish communities, and young people in particular, about Israel.
“Its realities, its intensities and, yes, its warts — Israel has its warts,” he said. “We’re sending kids off to college who either have no background or maybe have had a short stint in Israel where they have seen beautiful things but where they haven’t been given all of the ammunition necessary to deal with BDS on the campus, which is a very serious issue.
“I realize that they’re shying away from trying to balance anti-Israel or pro-Palestinian or BDS, as the case may be, with facts. They don’t realize we have to acknowledge that there were Arabs who were displaced in 1948. We have to acknowledge that Israel has not done everything that I believe it should to be inclusive of all Jews, the egalitarian section of the Wall being one example, but there are others. Instead, we send them off with a beautiful view of Israel but not with the ability to debate.”
The vehicles for preparing them exist, he added: camps, youth groups, day schools — and, of course, Israel programs.
“I would like to see more kids going on longer than the 10-day Israel programs, seriously longer ones so they can have the same kind of experience I had.”
Rachel Kohn is a freelance writer. Follow her on Twitter at @RachelKTweets and see more of her work at authory.com/rachelkohn