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A Profile of our Member, Michael Bar-Dov

Another Eternal Activist!

by Rabbi Don Levy

My cousin, Peter Schniedre, is a poet. A single-line poem he once wrote comes to mind from time to time:

Each a part of the other’s attire, they wore each other out.

From the moment I first read the poem – I might have been 18 at the time – I think I grasped its meaning: couples who are so inextricably identified one with the other that one has a hard time deciding where one ends and the other begins, are doomed to failure. The lesson is that in marriage or other partnership, one party should never dominate the other to where their individual identities are not clear. I found that early insight confirmed again and again when, as a chaplain, I counseled troubled couples.

Netzach Israel recently published a piece I wrote, offering a biographical glimpse into the life of Ruth Rosenthal, one of our members. After I turned in the article about Ruth, it was published under the subtitle, The Eternal Activist. In this offering, I profile Michael Bar-Dov, Ruth’s longtime partner. If one could label Michael in a nutshell, it would also be as the Eternal Activist. And yet, anyone who knows Ruth and Michael, knows that each of them came to their activism by a unique path. Thus, one can begin to understand the success of Ruth and Michael’s partnership.

Michael was born and raised in South Africa He attended state school and went to cheder three times a week. He still remembers the Rabbi who taught cheder, who pronounced his Hebrew with the Ashkenazi pronunciation. (YISgadal veYISkadash sheMEI rabOH) He says he knew from the age of eight, when he was active in Habonim, that his destiny would be to make Aliyah to Israel. It was the Shoah that drove him to this goal. His mother, although born in South Africa came from a family from Belarus (then, Byelorossiya), and his father was born in Lithuania, migrated to South Africa at a young age, and paid for much of his family to join him there. With roots on both sides of his family in different parts of the Jewish heartland of Eastern Europe that was the very crucible of Nazi atrocities against the Jews and others from 1939 to 1945, it’s no surprise that the Shoah looms large in Michael’s consciousness.

But something else had an important role in Michael’s intellectual and spiritual formation: Apartheid, South Africa’s unique form of separation of people along racial lines, became the law of the land in South Africa in 1948. Living under the twin shadows of the Shoah and Apartheid, Michael determined at a young age that racism is a major cause of tensions and conflicts in the world. It became an important part of his ethical makeup to address racist tendencies: in himself, and his adopted country.

Michael’s departure for Israel was delayed by his being chosen, in 1960, in South Africa’s draft lottery to serve in the army there, an obligation that his two brothers escaped. Michael jokingly tells of how the army took him, even though he told the health screener that he was practically blind: the recruiting bureau must have encountered multiple candidates for enlistment who used this as a ‘scam’ to avoid service. But partly into his service, when they learned to shoot rifles, it became clear that he couldn’t see the target well at all! He was therefore mustered out early, but unfortunately not before being on the receiving end of a beating by fellow soldiers who’d learned that he was opposed to Apartheid and was planning to emigrate to Israel at his earliest opportunity.

Both of Michael’s brothers remained in South Africa, one finding success as a farmer and the other as an executive in a meat packing conglomerate. Michael came to Israel against the wishes of his mother and, almost immediately, immersed himself in anti-racism efforts and in the Israel Students’ Union. He ultimately found his life’s work in various forms of community and political activism, thanks in part to a number of chance meetings – for example Shimon Peres and even the ‘Old Man,’ Ben Gurion, himself – during his days as a student activist in Mapai, the Labor Party. Ben Gurion sent him to Yeruham, a development town located deep in the Negev between Beersheva and Sede Bker, to be Secretary of the local branch of Mapai there.

In 1982, Michael moved to Ashkelon to run Interaction, an NGO funded primarily by British sources, which was involved in various kinds of art and cultural activity in the community. The organization ultimately moved its base of operations, against Michael’s counsel, to Tel Aviv. Michael remained in Ashkelon, working in various roles. He worked for Eli Dayan when the latter was mayor of Ashkelon and then, as a Likud MK, was deputy Foreign Minister. Michael ran Ashkelon’s city library for two years. After a heart attack, he retired.

Michael and Ilana, to whom he was married from 1969 to 1982, have three sons. The older two are twins: one is Chief of Training for Bank Hapoalim, and the other is a diplomat currently stationed in the US having previously been in Croatia and Jordan and is slated to move to Panama this summer. The youngest one works for Microsoft and is currently at company headquarters in Redmond (Seattle) Washington. Between the three of them, Michael has eight grandchildren. Ilana, who was originally from the UK, decided she wanted to return to England, but Michael was committed to living in Israel and specifically in Ashkelon; as a result, the two parted company.

In 1984, at an International Zionist Congress, Michael met Ruth Rosenthal. He was asked to translate for her. As they say, one thing led to another…

In addition to his career in professional activism, Michael was for a long time a Freemason but ended up leaving the Masons over frustration that they would never accept women as members. Instead, he poured his energies into Rotary, helping found two clubs in Ashkelon as well as Rotary’s national Ethics Forum.

As if all this weren’t enough, at one point he joined a Chabad-affiliated rabbi’s study group. While he enjoyed the exposure to traditional Jewish sources, he could not countenance some of the organization’s teachings, which he considers racist. Looking for a substitute as an intellectual outlet, he discovered a philosophy group run by a freethinking Orthodox rabbi. Michael and Ruth have been avid members of this group for 16 years now. Michael and Ruth are also among the most active, enthusiastic, and supportive members of the weekly English-language Torah Study Group that I facilitate.

Michael Bar-Dov, an Eternal Activist, has led a life greatly enriched by his commitment to causes, which in turn has made the community and the world a better place. And his eternal happiness has certainly been enhanced by his partnering with Ruth. But I do not see any danger of them being part of the other’s attire, and thus wearing each other out. No, I expect that each will continue to pursue their own particular brand of activism, and thus continue to compliment one another, G-d willing, for a long time to come.