'My parents never complained; they felt indebted to Israel'

PM Naftali Bennett lived in NJ as a kid. Israel belongs to all Jews, he says

The new premier says his time in the US helped him appreciate the Jewish state even more, citing his American-born Israeli immigrant parents as inspiration

Illustrative: Then-Jewish Home party chairman Naftali Bennett (R) is interviewed by Brookings Executive Vice President Martin Indyk at the Brookings Institute in Washington on December 6, 2014. (Brookings Institute)
Illustrative: Then-Jewish Home party chairman Naftali Bennett (R) is interviewed by Brookings Executive Vice President Martin Indyk at the Brookings Institute in Washington on December 6, 2014. (Brookings Institute)

NEW JERSEY (Jewish Standard) — Israel recently swore in its 13th prime minister — and the third to have spent formative years in the United States.

Golda Meir, who led Israel from 1969 through 1974, immigrated from Kyiv to Milwaukee with her family when she was 8, in 1906; she only moved to Palestine 15 years later, not long after she married Morris Meyerson. (She changed her name to Meir in 1956, when she became Israel’s foreign minister.)

Benjamin Netanyahu, whose tenure as Israel’s longest-serving prime minister ended in June, spent two stints of his youth — one in elementary school, one in high school — in suburban Philadelphia, while his historian father taught Jewish history at Dropsie College.

And now there is Naftali Bennett, Israel’s latest prime minister, who lived with his family in Teaneck, New Jersey for two years. He was a student at the Yavneh Academy, which moved from Paterson to its current Paramus address during his time there.

Bennett was born in Haifa in 1972; his parents, Jim and Myrna, moved to Israel from San Francisco a month after the Six Day War in 1967. Jim Bennett found a job with Haifa’s Technion university’s fundraising team. That took him, Myrna, and their family — Naftali and his two older brothers, Asher and Daniel — back to North America for two sojourns: first to Montreal, Canada for two years, when Naftali was 4, and then to Teaneck for another two years, when Naftali was 7.

In Teaneck, the family lived in a house on Sussex Road at the corner of Emerson, across the street from Murray and Basheva Goldberg.

Naftali Bennett on the back left in this 1987 photo taken in Jerusalem, when the Bennett family journeyed to the capital to meet the visiting Goldbergs. (Courtesy of the Goldberg family)

“They became very close and dear friends of ours,” Basheva Goldberg said. “Every trip we went on to Israel after they returned, we spent time with them. Naftali’s father is deceased, unfortunately, but his mother is still a very close friend of mine. We texted each other last night and we texted this morning.”

Goldberg remembers the young Bennett as “fun-loving, quick, smart, very, very friendly, fun to be with.” He and his two brothers “were in and out of our house all the time,” she said.

The Goldbergs have three children. A daughter, Daniella, was in Naftali’s grade (but not in his class or ensuing class pictures); their sons, Efrem and Judah, were younger. They all took the school bus to Yavneh together.

Jim and Myrna Bennett “were remarkable people,” Basheva Goldberg said. “Wonderful, wonderful, dear people. Very bright, very thoughtful.

“The whole journey of their life has been a very remarkable and interesting one. They moved to Israel as a young couple. They did not come from an Orthodox background. Over the years, they became observant. They provided a very beautiful Orthodox home for their children and a beautiful life filled with true values and meaning. They laid the groundwork for their son’s rise to where he is now.”

Naftali Bennett in IDF uniform with Daniella Goldberg, center with arms crossed, and members of the Bennett family along with Goldberg’s roommate Erica Weissman, left, in the Bennett family home in Haifa, 1990. (Courtesy the Goldberg family)

Other people who encountered young Naftali Bennett during those years have less clear memories.

One classmate, who prefers not to be identified, remembers him as “the fastest runner on the playground.”

Another, who also did not want to be named, agreed that “he was a good athlete. Fast. Skinny. He integrated himself into our punchball games.”

“He was a very nice kid. Friendly. He wore his tzitzit hanging out,” he said, using the Hebrew word for ritual fringes worn by many Orthodox Jews.

But others who were contacted did not remember much about the classmate who joined them for two of their elementary school years. “I have absolutely no memories of him at all — it was a long time ago!” one of them said.

“He was with us only for a short while until the family moved on,” said Yavneh’s longtime principal, who now lives in Israel. “He was in a class of outstanding students, many of whom today are accomplished adults.”

“They were unusually smart, a really bright class,” Rebecca Gordon, Yavneh’s longtime secretary said, adding, “I don’t remember Naftali Bennett at all.”

A young Naftali Bennett is seated on the right end of the front row of this second grade class portrait. (Courtesy Yavneh Academy)

The classmates whom Naftali joined for two school years, from the fall of 1979 through the spring of 1981, include Jeremy Dauber, a Columbia University professor and author; Adam Szubin, an attorney who served as director of the federal government’s Office of Foreign Assets Control, as well as acting secretary of the Treasury; and Dena Kinstlinger, a ballerina who made history as the only Sabbath-observant Jew in the New York City Ballet. The small class — a photo from 1981 that includes Naftali Bennett shows 16 students, with one not present — also includes several who ended up moving to Israel.

One former Yavneh student who does remember Naftali is Efrem Goldberg, now the senior rabbi at the Boca Raton Synagogue in Florida. Back in February, Bennett was a guest on Goldberg’s podcast, “Behind the Bima.” This was six weeks before the Israeli elections on March 23, the fourth in two years. That is the election that picked the Knesset that recently approved the narrow coalition that chose Bennett as prime minister.

“We had a lot of fun on the school bus to Yavneh,” Goldberg recalled, as he began his conversation with his former neighbor.

Goldberg asked Bennett what he took away from his years in America, both as a child in Teaneck and later on, when, beginning in 2000, he lived in Manhattan while running the high-tech startup that made him a multimillionaire.

“Being in America back in ’79 to ’81 was a meaningful experience for me,” Bennett said. “Only when I was in America did I fully learn to appreciate how great it is to be an Israeli, to have a state where everyone around is Jewish. It was very meaningful, especially in terms of my understanding of how important it is to have a strong Jewish identity. I missed Israel very much when I was in Teaneck.”

“Teaneck back then was not yet Israel,” he joked. “We annexed Teaneck a few years ago.”

Bennett spoke about his parents’ influence on him.

A young Naftali Bennett is seated on the right end of the front row of this third grade class portrait. (Courtesy Yavneh Academy)

“The fact that my mom and dad were olim” — immigrants to Israel — “was profound from my perspective,” he said. “They always appreciated the fact there was this amazing state, notwithstanding the problems they encountered. They never kvetched about it. I never heard any complaints about the State of Israel. They forever felt in its debt.”

“My dad, may he rest in peace, really taught us by personal example the value of self-reliance. That was one thing,” he said. “The other was to fight for what you believe in. It’s something I think they brought from America. My dad and mom grew up secular in San Francisco in the ’50s and ’60s. My dad was in fact arrested at a civil rights demonstration at a hotel that would not admit African Americans. I’m very proud of them.”

“My same dad went to demonstrations against” the Oslo Accords in the 1990s, Bennett said, refuting “the dichotomy that if you’re right wing you can’t be for civil rights. No… You can [believe in the land of Israel, the people of Israel, the Torah of Israel] and also human rights.”

Goldberg asked his former neighbor how Judaism informed his politics. Bennett is the first Israeli prime minister to wear a kippa (a small one, reportedly affixed to his bald head with double-sided tape).

“To be fair, people are still afraid of it,” Bennett said of his religiosity. “But being a deep believer in [the Torah and the Jewish nation] has a huge influence on me. I think Israel is a miracle — a divine miracle, where humans and God have to work together. I’m a practical person. I don’t think all of it is on you, but that doesn’t relieve you from putting in all your effort,” he said, citing the Ethics of Our Fathers.

Naftali Bennett places a note in the stones of the Western Wall in Jerusalem’s Old City, January 21, 2013. (AP Photo/Sebastian Scheiner)

“I work really hard and put in all my neshama” — soul — “and I also know you can do everything, and then have to have bitachon in Hashem,” Bennett continued, using the Hebrew words for faith and God. “It doesn’t mean it’s always okay. From my perspective, bitachon means that what does happen is from Hashem. Here on earth, we have to work as hard as we can to build a strong Jewish state, a strong Jewish identity, to ensure we don’t give up one centimeter of the land of the State of Israel, to ensure our next generation understands why we’re here, to build a strong economy. Bitachon means you do what you can, but you know that the rest is from Hashem.”

After returning to Haifa with his family when he was 9 years old, Bennett ended up attending that city’s coincidentally named Yavneh yeshiva high school; he was an active participant in the Bnei Akiva youth group. After high school, he was drafted into the Israeli military, where he served in the Sayeret Matkal and Maglan commando units as a company commander. After six years in the army, he studied law at Hebrew University; then he started his first company, Cyota, and came to the US for a few years. Cyota offered protection against online banking fraud to financial institutions. It was sold in 2005 to the Israeli-founded cybersecurity company RSA for $145 million.

Bennett’s army service, both as a commando and later as a reservist who fought during the 2006 Second Lebanon War, was a key part of his resume for Israeli voters.

In his conversation with Goldberg, Bennett said that when he fought Hezbollah in Lebanon, he was fighting “quite literally to defend my family. Taking down a rocket in Lebanon was very personal for my family,” as the northern city of Haifa where his parents lived was directly threatened by Lebanese missile fire. Now he lives with his wife, Gilat, a professional pastry chef, and their four children in the town of Ra’anana, 10 miles north of Tel Aviv.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett with his family, in the Knesset in Jerusalem, on June 13, 2021. (Ariel Zandberg/ Yamina)

He said his lessons from the army were:

“First thing, always be on the attack. Don’t let up for a moment. In 1995, I think I was number one in the IDF in the number of terrorists I neutralized. We killed a lot of Hezbollah terrorists. When we came in and had massive ongoing operations on the offense, they had no time to raise their heads and think how to hurt us. When we cloistered and went on the defensive, it only encouraged them to hurt us.”

“It’s a paradox,” he said. “The more you want to defend your people, the more initiative you need to take.”

Bennett quoted the Talmud: “He who wants to kill you, you have to precede by killing him. I’m a huge believer in that. I saw it in Lebanon.”

A second lesson from his army days: “Always be innovative. Always surprise. Never go the straight route because they’re waiting for you. Always go the indirect way. That’s vital.”

He declined Goldberg’s invitation to apply those lessons to his political career. “I don’t want to compare it to Israeli politics,” he said. “While I certainly have opponents, they’re not enemies. My left-wing friends are not less patriotic. They’re friends. Mistaken friends, but friends.”

Goldberg recalled seeing his former neighbor at an AIPAC event, where his talk followed that of former Labor party leader, then Jewish Agency head, and now President of Israel Isaac Herzog. “The two of you were so warm in embracing each other,” despite your different politics, Goldberg said.

Goldberg moved the conversation to Israel-Diaspora relations. “We can’t give up on each other,” Bennett said.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett speaks to US President Joe Biden on June 13, 2021 (Courtesy / Ariel Zandberg)

He said, “There’s a true chasm” between the younger generations in the two countries. “In the entire West, the younger generation tends to be more left wing. In Israel, the younger generation is more right wing. It has to do with the reality on the ground. We tried the other way and it didn’t work.”

“We have to create dialogue,” Bennett said. “We should listen more than talk, which is un-Israeli. I don’t know the precise solution. All I know is that I’m not giving up.”

“We’re in a new era. The Holocaust cannot be the defining glue of the Jewish people. The Jewish state was founded indeed because of security needs, the existential needs of the Jewish people before the Holocaust, but Herzl’s vision was one of a survival-based Zionism. He said it’s not working out in the Diaspora; something bad is going to happen.

“But shelter, that’s not a good enough vision. If we’re looking for safe places, I think Perth in Australia is a safe place. I wouldn’t necessarily choose Israel.

“So the defining mission statement of the Jewish people is indeed building and fixing the world. To the liberal direction? To the conservative direction? All I know is we need to be a beautiful state, a vibrant democracy that connects to Jews around the world. We need to figure out the degree of mutual influence,” he said.

He said that if he became prime minister, he would “have two hats.”

One is the leader of all Israeli citizens, “Jews and non-Jews alike, and I’m responsible for all of them equally.”

“I’m also the leader of all Jews around the world, because Israel belongs to you,” he said.

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