A Conversation With Chaim Chesler
by Asher Weill
In 2006, together with Sandra Cahn (US) and Mikhail Chlenov (Russia), Chaim founded Limmud FSU and chairs its Executive Committee. As executive director of the Israel Public Council for Soviet Jewry, he worked in Israel and around the globe to raise awareness of the struggle of Soviet Jews and their right to repatriate to Israel. Chesler headed The Jewish Agency for Israel’s delegation to the former Soviet Union and the United States, and served as treasurer of The Jewish Agency.]
My mother came to pre-State Palestine from Bialystok in Poland in 1933, my father also managed to get out just in time in 1938, but most of their families did not. When the war started and the Soviet Union invaded the eastern part of Poland, some members of the family moved to Siberia. After the war, they arrived in Israel. Those who chose to stay at home disappeared in the crematoria of Treblinka when the Nazis invaded. I grew up very aware of the shadow of those family members who had perished in the Holocaust. I also knew of the Soviet Union and the Jews who, unlike my aunts and uncles, had stayed in the country after the war had ended. It colored my childhood and it seems to have defined my path in life.
I have spent most of my adult life working to strengthen the centrality of Israel to Jews worldwide and the connection between Israeli Jews and those in the Diaspora. In some ways, I am a Zionist of the old school who believes in the overriding importance of aliya. But I also believe that that centrality today takes many forms and aliya needs to be seen in the wider context of recognizing Israel as the Jewish homeland, so as to make it significant for Jews everywhere. This is all the more challenging in the contemporary electronic and global village, when most Jews live without fear of anti-Semitism, although the current wave of anti-Jewish sentiment sweeping Europe is truly alarming.