I was born in New York City, one of the most diverse cities in the world. I attended a Jewish school from kindergarten through twelfth grade and was surrounded by Jews at school and synagogue. Central Park was a few streets from where I lived, and in this vast green space with walking trails, a petting zoo, picnic areas, and playgrounds I began playing basketball. Though I was the captain of our high school team, when I entered Central Park, it was the Black basketball players that I played with and got to know and who offered me a view of and insight into a world I was pretty much sheltered from.
With my mom
With African asylum seeker players
I first became aware of racial segregation during the United States civil rights movement (1954-1968). This movement was a nonviolent social and political campaign to abolish legalized institutional racial segregation, discrimination, and disenfranchisement nationwide. In 1965, I was fourteen years old, and the movement had a huge effect on me. My parents and fellow Jews had experienced difficult youths in Europe where an enemy wanted to kill them, and both my mother and father and many others luckily escaped in time by immigrating to the United States. From my youngest years, my parents, my teachers, and rabbis taught how Jews had been mistreated for millennia and more recently, by the Nazis in Germany and Austria, especially. I had equated racial discrimination to Blacks and antisemitism to Jews as coming from the same place: Misguided prejudices, discrimination, and unwillingness to accept people who either looked different or practiced a different religion. And I felt a kinship to minority groups and Blacks in particular.
Travels to Israel and Africa
I fell in love with Israel on my first visit at age sixteen, and I felt great pride in what the country had accomplished since its birth as a sovereign nation, in 1948. After two thousand years since their expulsion by the Romans who had destroyed the Second Temple, in 70 CE, Jews had returned to their homeland from where conquerors had exiled them multiple times. During the two-millennia exile, Jews kept alive the dream and hope of returning and rebuilding the country as a free nation founded on our ancient sacred texts honoring the merit, safety, and equality of every person.
- At age twenty, I took my first trip to Africa where I solo hitchhiked through Kenya and Tanzania. I loved Africa from the moment I stepped off the plane in Nairobi where I was warmly hosted by a wonderful Kenyan whom I had met on the plane! He had won the Gold Medal in Steeplechase in the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City.
- Leaders such as Israel’s David Ben Gurion, India’s Mahatma Gandhi, United States President John F. Kennedy, and Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Junior inspired me to keep in focus those people who society marginalized, excluded, or found unacceptable.
With my daughter Julia in Rwanda, in 2019
With Amos Biwott and wife who hosted me in Kenya, in 1971
In 1971-1972, I studied at The Hebrew University in Jerusalem during my junior year in college and returned to Israel to volunteer during the Yom Kippur war, in 1973. I loved Israel and the values I saw in practice. I was proud to be a Jew and wanted to do all I could to help Israel be the kind of country we had been dreaming to return to and rebuild.
In 2002, I launched “Israel at Heart” to show the world the Israel I knew and loved, not what the media was presenting unfairly. The idea was to highlight the diversity of Israel and show what motivates Israelis. I believed that young Israelis who had just completed their army service could do a great job if given the opportunity to travel the world and help promote a better, truer understanding of their country and its people. “Israel at Heart” sent more than one thousand young Israelis on this mission worldwide.
With Ester David, program manager of Israel at Heart Program
I sent groups of three students to each location for two to three weeks: First in America, then throughout Europe, and finally, in South America. In each group, I tried to include an Ethiopian Israeli who would address the false charge that Israel was an Apartheid state discriminating against its minorities. The Ethiopian Israelis I had met made me feel that if given the opportunity to receive a top-level education they could contribute to Israeli society and become leaders in their communities and all Israel. Ester David manages the program that is the envy of all colleges in Israel.
Partnering with the Interdisciplinary Center (IDC), now Reichman University
At the Carol and Joey Low Building
Receiving an Honorary Doctorate from Reichman University, in 2021
In April 2006, I asked Professor Uriel Reichman then President of the Interdisciplinary Center (IDC), if we could start the “Israel at Heart Ethiopian Israeli Scholarship Program” to enable Ethiopian Israelis to get a top education and degree. Professor Reichman immediately agreed, and we began that October with six students. Each year since we added up to fifteen more students. Currently, in 2023, more than fifty Ethiopian Israelis study at Reichman University and more than 200 have graduated and are contributing to Israeli society beyond anything I could have hoped for.
Orientation for Ethiopian Israeli Students
In 2010, the IDC administration asked whether I would be willing to meet eight African asylum seekers who wanted to study there. I was happy to meet them, and they immediately reminded me of my mom’s and dad’s stories about how they came to America as refugees from Europe, turned away multiple times until they were welcomed as immigrants. I always knew that if ever given the opportunity to help people like my parents I would grab it.
The first eight African asylum-seeking students at IDC, now Reichman University
After meeting with some Eritreans and Sudanese from Darfur, I told Professor Reichman it would be my honor to help them earn a degree from the prestigious IDC. We began with the eight African asylum-seeking students and have continuously expanded the group to include many more students including from Somalia, the Ivory Coast, South Sudan, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, and Ghana. I also agreed to include students from Zambia and Rwanda who had student visas in Israel.
The Africans have been outstanding students and have shared with students, faculty, and the administration about African culture and their special experiences growing up there. I have no doubt that they would make tremendous contributions to Israel by advocating for Israel in Africa through diplomatic work as Israel’s ambassadors in Africa. In Africa, countries don’t work together as one Africa whereas our students from many African countries work together beautifully.
African Students Organization in Israel (ASO)
ASO founders with Joey and his daughter Tanya
Each student has taught me so much, and we began building the African Student Organization in Israel (ASO), in 2016. The board and CEO from our African students’ communities administer, manage, network, and market ASO. The work it has done, and its accomplishments are nothing short of exceptional and remind me of Jewish organizations that sprouted up while Jews were coping with diaspora life in Europe and elsewhere.
Students diversity by country, school and degrees earned
A most beautiful experience for me was watching Africans in Israel from all over Africa coming together to help one another during COVID (while meeting multiple challenges they face daily). This unity is a tribute to the local African communities who are free from rivalries and jealousies that pervade Africa.
While I know that Israel could have done far better in accepting the African asylum seekers and incorporating them into Israeli society, the country has helped in many positive ways. For example, by modeling democratic institutions that allow people to protest and speak up, something not afforded to many of our students in their home countries. Also, in exposing them to how Israelis think and operate.
The first Covid-19 lockdown, community leaders delivered food and household supplies
It is my great sadness that Israel has not lived up to Jewish values I was raised with —always reach out and assist strangers, refugees, and people in distress. Israel was built by refugees who know well how we have been mistreated throughout our history in the ancient Land of Israel and in the diaspora. “When a stranger resides with you in your land, you shall not wrong him. The stranger who resides with you will be to you as one of your citizens; love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” (Leviticus 19:33-34)
On the most important fast day of the Jewish year, Yom Kippur, when worship service attendance is highest, the ancient rabbis chose to read the Hebrew Prophet Isaiah’s message, that fasting alone is not enough, unless there is a moral and ethical foundation to the ritual practice (Isaiah 57:14-58:14). “Is it not to share your bread with the hungry and to take the wretched poor into your house; when you see the naked to clothe him and not to ignore your own kin?” (Isaiah 58:7-8)
I am certain God is unhappy and humiliated by the actions of the Israeli government, and I do everything in my power as do many other Israelis and nationals to express compassion and love for the African community that finds itself here, not of free choice but because of repression, genocide, and forced conscription in some of the African countries from where they had escaped.
Lessons Africans in Israel have taught me
As I’ve come to know well the community and its members, I am motivated and inspired to do increasingly more to improve their lives. Each person I’ve had the good fortune to meet has taught me humility, dignity, and the strongest desire to achieve something positive in their lives. I am fortunate to help as I can and what I’ve received in return is immeasurable and has inspired me beyond any initial expectation I might have had.
When I meet young Africans today who are looking for an education, I encourage them to study those subjects that can benefit them most and that provide skills they need to compete in today’s world no matter where they ultimately live. To date, almost twenty of our graduates have left Israel for Canada, the United States, and other countries.
Wishing everyone continued success in their life journeys
While I feel very sad to see them go, I know that Israel has been unwilling to accept them as citizens or to provide them visas that would allow them to work and live with the dignity and self-respect that they deserve. The government providing education for their kids is good but what about health insurance and the freedom to work in all jobs in Israel? While many jobs that Israelis refuse to do, and that Africans are willing to work the government makes it difficult for them to do. That’s cruel and not what Jewish values taught me. While such policies and behaviors were practiced against my parents in Europe, I never imagined that Jews and Israel would be so insensitive to suffering. The mistreatment and abuse of African asylum seekers have been apparent to anyone whose eyes, ears, and hearts are open.
I believe that the judicial changes the current government is attempting to fulfill with its extremist ministers would never have happened if Israelis had raised up to protest when the government was trying (sometimes, successfully) to deport Africans more than four years ago. The lesson is: Never let injustice continue without resisting and fighting against it because the government notes indifference and gets bolder in planning and carrying out even more corrupt policies, laws, and actions. Injustice must be fought at the onset. We can’t claim we didn’t know the wrongs because they seemingly didn’t affect us. Today, more people are rising in opposition.
First demonstration against deporting African asylum-seekers, 2018
Joey, his wife Carol, and daughter Julia demonstrating against the government endangering democracy, 2023
“In a free society, some are guilty, but all are responsible.” (Rabbi Dr. Abraham Joshua Heschel was a leading Jewish theologian, philosopher, and civil rights movement leader.)
Israel is in my heart