Lynchburg mayor studies Hebrew in Israel while rockets fly

Operation Protective Edge has turned Mayor Michael Gillette into a one-man Virginian Israel advocacy machine

Renee Ghert-Zand is a reporter and feature writer for The Times of Israel.

Lynchburg, Virginia mayor Michael Gillette tours Jerusalem as part of his Hebrew language studies. (Courtesy)
Lynchburg, Virginia mayor Michael Gillette tours Jerusalem as part of his Hebrew language studies. (Courtesy)

Nothing was going to get in the way of Lynchburg, Virginia mayor Michael Gillette’s Hebrew studies in Jerusalem this summer. Not the FAA’s temporary ban last week on American carriers’ flights to Israel, or the State Department’s travel advisory warning Americans to avoid non-essential travel to Israel because of the conflict with Hamas in Gaza.

In Israel’s capital for two weeks at Ulpan-Or (a private Hebrew language instruction program), the first-ever Jewish mayor of Lynchburg is making the most of his time here and gaining important insights on the current situation to share with his constituents back home.

“My original plan was to do what I did last year,” Gillette said. “Last year I studied at Ulpan-Or for a week and then my wife joined me here in Israel and we did some traveling around.”

Because of limitations the present security situation puts on touring the country, his wife decided to stay home, leaving Gillette more time to focus on his Hebrew lessons.

The thought of cutting short his stay never occurred to Gillette, a bioethicist who is beginning his second two-year term as mayor of Lynchburg, a city of 80,000 located in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, some 180 miles southwest of Washington, DC.

“Being here at a time like this enhances my connection to Israel and demonstrates that I have that connection,” he said.

“If I lived here I wouldn’t leave because of Hamas. And if I have a connection to Israel, then I shouldn’t leave here because of Hamas.”

Gillette’s relationship with Israel is not new. It began 34 years ago when he came to study for a semester at the Alexander Muss High School in Israel at age 17, and then stayed on while to study at a yeshiva.

“But I didn’t come back for 30 years after that,” Gillette, who is active in a 10-family havura in Lynchburg, said. “That time in Israel had been so formative for me, and I was afraid that Israel had changed in the meantime.”

Michael Gillette (second from right) receives certificate of achievement from Ulpan-Or staff Gavi Lewy-Neuman (left), Dor Yerushalmi and Yoel Ganor. (Photo credit: Renee Ghert-Zand)
Michael Gillette (second from right) receives certificate of achievement from Ulpan-Or staff Gavi Lewy-Neuman (left), Dor Yerushalmi and Yoel Ganor. (Photo credit: Renee Ghert-Zand/The Times of Israel)

Israel has indeed changed in the intervening decades. However, the mayor says he is enjoying the trips he is taking around Jerusalem with his instructors as part of his Hebrew curriculum. He’s getting to know the city’s various neighborhoods and museums and is discovering fun things to do, such as eating at cafes and attending outdoor film screenings at the First Station.

With local Virginia media outlets having contacted him while he is here, it is evident that his constituents are interested in knowing how he is faring in Israel during this difficult time.

“I’ve told reporters that I feel very safe in Jerusalem. I am walking around with a normal level of awareness. I am no more alert than I would be if I were walking in Manhattan,” he said.

Gillette has fortunately not heard any air raid sirens in Jerusalem. Nonetheless, he has received directions from his landlady on how to get to the bomb shelter in his Rehavia apartment building should one go off.

The mayor, who is a Democrat but runs as an independent in local government elections, is not surprised by the interest his visit has generated back home.

“We have only 50 or so families in the single synagogue in Lynchburg, but there is a high concentration of evangelical Christians in the area,” he said. “There is definitely an awareness of what is going on here in Israel.”

Gillette says he is careful not to inject national or international politics in to local affairs, but at the same time he admits that his trip, which was intended as a personal vacation, has turned in to something more.

“The cat is out of the bag. I guess I’ll be answering questions when I get back,” he said.

He plans on telling people that he has been very impressed by how Israel is handling the conflict with Hamas. He will also emphasize that Israel is at war with Hamas, and not Gaza’s civilian population.

“Israel has shown as much concern and constraint as possible,” he said. “And I know that Americans have seen this and support Israel.”

However, Gillette hopes that by the next time he visits here, the focus will have shifted toward implementing policies that move Israel onwards from the status quo with the Palestinians.

“A two-state solutions needs to be reached, and the lsraeli and Palestinian leaders need to have the courage to move the ball forward and make it happen,” he said.

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