A thousand people had converged on the Hyatt in Irvine to hear Ariel Sharon. It was some 21 years ago. As the leader of the opposition, he was on a tour to raise money for Jewish communities in Judea and Samaria. I had encountered Sharon some thirty years earlier as a yeshiva student and decided to remind him of that evening in my introduction.
“Ariel Sharon is not just a great general,” I told the sellout crowd, “but also a great Jew. Years ago, in 1969, I was a yeshiva student in Kfar Chabad, the Chabad town just outside of Tel Aviv. Sharon had been in New York and visited with the Lubavitcher Rebbe, who had asked him to give his regards in Kfar Chabad. The town’s mayor, Rabbi Sholmo Maidinchek, met him at the airport and told him that before anything else, he must come to the community. A crowd gathered late at night in the main synagogue to welcome him.”
I recalled what Sharon had said that night. “The Rebbe had asked me to put on tefillin every day. This morning I was in Paris visiting my uncle, and I performed the mitzvah of laying tefillin. My uncle was astonished, so I told him I would leave the tefillin as a gift so he too could perform the mitzvah on a daily basis.”
Sharon’s story had deeply inspired us. We would travel weekly to Tel Aviv to ask Jews to put on tefillin, I thought to myself at the time. “Wow, if he can ask his uncle, I can certainly do the same in Tel Aviv.”
After I finished the story, Sharon, who was sitting on the stage next to me, looked up at the podium. Gruffly, he told me in Hebrew, “It never happened.” I look back at him, my memory clear as day, and responded strongly, “It did occur.” The verbal confrontation continued for a few moments, the crowd of a thousand looking on as we sparred in Hebrew. Neither of us gave any ground. I realized that I had touched a chord.
Truth be told, I had a deeper agenda. I doubted that Sharon was still performing the mitzvah. I wanted to remind him of his promise to the Rebbe. His Chabad connection had started earlier and lasted throughout his life. In 1968 Sharon had his first meeting with the Rebbe in New York. The Rebbe asked, “What flight are you returning to Israel on? Sharon said, “from New York to London and then on to Israel.” “Change your flight,” the Rebbe told him, without giving a reason.
After leaving London, the El Al Flight was hijacked by Palestinian terrorists and diverted to Algeria. Sharon’s son’s Bar Mitzvah was held in Kfar Chabad. Sharon introduced his young secular nephew from Haifa to Rabbi Maidinchek. He became religious and married Maidinchek’s daughter.
The next day I met Sharon at a radio station in Los Angeles. He was slated as a guest on the top LA talk radio outlet. I stood on the sidewalk to welcome him as he exited the limo. Clearly, the story about the tefillin was still on his mind. He gave me a harsh look and erupted with a few terse sentences. “I spoke to Lily,” he said, referring to his wife, who was in Israel. “The story about the tefillin is true.” It seems that my true agenda had been accomplished.
For an analysis of the legacy of Ariel Sharon, who passed away January 11, please visit www.ocjewishlife.com.