Grapevine: One man making a difference

The recipient of many honorifics, awards and prizes over the years, including the Israel Prize, Rabbi Israel Meir Lau this week added another string to his bow when conferred with the prestigious Guardian of Zion Award, which he said was the only one he really deserved.

Presented annually since 1997 by the Ingeborg Rennert Center for Jerusalem Studies at Bar-Ilan University, the award inaugurated by Ingeborg and Ira Rennert has been awarded to a series of Jewish and non-Jewish personalities who by word and deed have demonstrated their responsibility to, and love of, Zion.

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Unlike his predecessors, Lau, the most internationally known of child Holocaust survivors, a former chief rabbi of Israel and of Tel Aviv, confounded organizers of the event by not having a prepared speech. Every recipient of the Guardian of Zion Award delivers a Distinguished Rennert Lecture. Lau, a spontaneous speaker and a master storyteller, differed from his predecessors in that he spoke in Hebrew, and that he spoke without notes. He was given 25 minutes for his address, but spoke for more than an hour, which few people sitting around the tables in the packed double dining room of the King David Hotel actually noticed.

Lau, as always, was so riveting that his audience looked at him instead of their watches.

The Rennerts, whom Lau has known for some 40 years, are extraordinarily generous donors to many causes in Israel and also own a home in Jerusalem. Through them, said Lau before embarking on his theme, which was “From Shoah to Revival,” he had discovered places in Israel that were previously unknown to him. They established so many ritual baths and synagogues, and donated so many Torah scrolls to small, peripheral communities to which Lau had been asked to officiate at dedication ceremonies, that they virtually opened the map of Israel for him.

The Lau family was very well represented at the event, though not all of his 61 grandchildren were in attendance. Those who did come were all friendly, knowledgeable and had inherited their grandfather’s almost mischievous sense of humor.

They said that they had lost count of the number of great-grandchildren in the family. All in all it’s a fantastic achievement for someone who came to the Land of Israel as an eight-year-old boy with his 19-year-old brother, the sole survivors of their family.

Lau spoke of some of the things that bother him – the fact that when you ask the average Israeli child about Ma’ariv, he tells you that it’s a newspaper; seldom is he aware that it’s the name of the evening prayer.

Lau is even more concerned about the resurgence of brutal antisemitism around the world, and cited a recent example in Melbourne where a brother and sister walking down a main street in a predominantly Jewish neighborhood were physically attacked during Shavuot.

The incident reminded Lau of when he had been to Melbourne some three decades earlier. He and a Chabad lawyer, each of them wearing black hats and frock coats, were walking down the street when a car with two well-dressed men stopped alongside them. “Jews!” they jeered, and then asked whether they’d paid the bill for the gas they used in the gas chambers.

Lau and his companion gazed at each other, dumbfounded. The incident prompted the lawyer to come on aliya. He now lives in Jerusalem.

Lau warned against ignoring the dangers of antisemitism. “We have to see it for what it is,” he said.

Over the years, Lau has received several offers to become the chief rabbi of Jewish communities in various European countries. His invariable response has been that he didn’t leave Europe in order to return.

There are several things that bother Lau in addition to the antisemitism which is today so pervasive in Europe. One is the attitude of secular parents who object to the fact that on the eve of a Jewish holiday, a rabbi enters the school in which their children are pupils, to tell the youngsters about the meaning of the holiday. He recalled that many years ago he had taught Bible at the Brenner School, “and they accepted me for what I am.” There was equal acceptance of the teacher who taught Talmud. All that seems to have changed.

Another area of concern, which has been characteristic of Israel since the very beginnings of the state, said Lau, is the divisiveness, the fragmentation.

For the first Knesset election, when there were only 600,000 Jews in the country, there were 21 political parties, he said. “We are incapable of living together. We have to keep dividing into more and more special interest groups.”