Tag Archives: Belorussian Jews

Jew of the Week: Shimon Peres

A young Shimon Peres with his wife Sonia

A young Shimon Peres with his wife Sonia

Szymon Perski (1923-2016) was born in the shtetl of Vishnyeva (then part of Poland, now in Belarus) to a wealthy Russian-Jewish family. He was the great-great-grandson of the famed Rabbi Chaim Volozhin, and was greatly influenced by his own grandfather, Rabbi Zvi Meltzer. At the young age of 11, Perski’s family moved to Tel Aviv and Hebraized their last name to Peres. (Their entire extended family back in Vishnyeva would later perish in the Holocaust). After finishing his schooling, young Shimon went to live on a kibbutz working as a dairy farmer and shepherd before co-founding his own kibbutz. He was soon elected secretary of a Labor Zionist youth organization. From there, he joined the Mapai party, whose leader David Ben-Gurion took a personal interest in him. At 21, Peres was imprisoned for two weeks by the British for leading an “illegal” expedition into the Negev to scout a new place for Jewish settlement. In 1947, now married, Peres was appointed to the Haganah and put in charge of recruitment and weapons purchases. The following year, he took charge of Israel’s nascent navy. In the 50’s, while part of Israel’s delegation to the US, he studied at NYU and Harvard. At 29, he became the head of Israel’s Ministry of Defence – the youngest person to ever hold the position. He was praised for building strong military alliances with other countries (particularly France, who awarded him their highest distinction, the Legion of Honor), and securing large amounts of modern weapons that propelled Israel into a regional powerhouse. He also helped establish the crucial Dimona nuclear reactor. In 1959, Peres was elected to the Knesset. At one time or another, he served as Minister of Immigrant Absorption, Minister of Transportation, Minister of Defence, Foreign Minister, Minister of Finance, and Information Minister. In 1984, Peres was elected Israel’s prime minister, and in 2007, Israel’s president. Among his other major achievements are the 1976 Entebbe rescue operation (which he pushed through the Cabinet), the 1994 peace treaty with Jordan, and his Peres Center for Peace, which has trained over 250 Arab doctors and brought life-saving treatment to thousands of Arab children. Peres was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1994 for his work with the Oslo Accords, was knighted by Queen Elizabeth in 2008, presented with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2012 by Barack Obama, and with the US Congressional Gold Medal in 2014. He was also the author of 11 books. Sadly, following a debilitating stroke, the last of Israel’s founding fathers passed away in his sleep early Wednesday. Dignitaries from around the world are flying in to pay their respects, including past and present heads of state of Germany, France, Canada, Australia, Mexico, and the US – many of whom Peres had guided and advised. President Obama has ordered flags in America to fly at half mast. Despite his age, Peres worked tirelessly until the very last days of his life. He had once said, “Optimists and pessimists die the same way. They just live differently. I prefer to live as an optimist.”

Words of the Week

It’s better to be controversial for the right reasons than to be popular for the wrong reasons.
– Shimon Peres

Jews of the Week: Rav Uziel and the Chofetz Chaim

The Chofetz Chaim

The Chofetz Chaim

Israel Meir Kagan (1839-1933) was born in what is today Belarus to an Orthodox Polish-Jewish family. After his father’s passing when he was just ten years old, the family moved to Vilnius where Kagan continued his Jewish studies. Quickly noted as a great scholar, at the age of 17 he was married and appointed rabbi of the town of Radin. Soon after, he founded the Radin Yeshiva, which would go on to become one of the greatest yeshivas in the Ashkenazi world. Meanwhile, Rabbi Kagan wrote many popular books of wisdom, most notably Chofetz Chaim, a book about the laws of proper speech, the title of which became Rabbi Kagan’s nickname. His Mishna Berura became a standard text of Jewish law, and still used extensively today. He wrote nearly two dozen other books on a wide array of topics. At the same time, the Chofetz Chaim traveled across Europe to inspire Jews to observe the Torah, and to counter the growing secular movement. He was also an important member of Agudath Israel. Click here to see rare footage of the Chofetz Chaim at the First Congress of Agudath Israel in 1923.

Rav Uziel

Rav Uziel

Ben-Zion Meir Chai Uziel (1880-1953) was born in Jerusalem, the son of the president of the city’s Sephardic community. Like the Chofetz Chaim, Uziel was also quickly noted as a great scholar, and by age 20 founded his own yeshiva. By 31, he was the Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Jaffa, where he worked alongside his Ashkenazi counterpart, Rabbi Kook, bridging the two communities together. During World War I, he worked tirelessly to stop the persecution of Jews, which earned him a sentence of exile in Damascus. In 1923 he returned to Israel as the Chief Rabbi of Tel-Aviv, and in 1939 became the Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Israel, a post he held until his passing in 1953. Rabbi Uziel was a founding member of the Jewish Agency, and played a key role in the founding of the State of Israel. Of course, he wrote a great deal of widely-read Torah thought and commentary as well. Rav Uziel and the Chofetz Chaim passed away on the same day, twenty years apart: the 24th of Elul.

Shana Tova! Rosh Hashanah Begins This Sunday

Words of the Week

In Jewish history there are no coincidences.
– Elie Wiesel