President, Shepherd, Poet

Stand for Israel  |  July 17, 2023

Israeli President Shimon Peres and Yael Eckstein
(Photo: IFCJ)

Born Szymon Perski in 1923 in what was then Poland and is now Belarus, the boy who would come to be known as Shimon Peres never fathomed a future leading the Jewish state. “I did not dream of becoming president of Israel,” he said later in life. “My dream as a boy was to be a shepherd or a poet of stars.” But life would hold different plans than shepherding or writing poems.

To Be a Shepherd

Speaking many languages from his youth—Hebrew, Yiddish, and Russian at home; Polish at school; as well as both English and French—the boy learned Jewish tradition from his grandfather. And he learned to love his Jewish homeland, too—his father made aliyah (immigrated to what was then still British-mandate Palestine) in 1932, with the rest of the family following two years later.

In the Holy Land, the boy did serve as a shepherd first, receiving agricultural training and working on a farm. But he also began to serve the Jewish people—in the years before Israel won her independence—becoming a leader of the Zionist youth movement at only 20 and garnering interest from leaders such as David Ben-Gurion.

A Servant of the Jewish State

After marrying his wife Sonya in 1945—with whom he would raise three children—Peres joined the Haganah (the precursor to the IDF) and was appointed to leadership positions in the military by Ben-Gurion. Traveling to the United States in the early 1950s, Peres studied at NYU and Harvard, while also serving as director of Israel’s Defense Ministry delegation.

Returning to Israel after his time in America, Peres became Director General of the Defense Ministry, at 29 the youngest person to hold the position, helping develop Israel’s early military capabilities, navigate the 1956 Suez Crisis, and build the Jewish state’s nuclear program.

First elected to the Knesset (Israel’s parliament) in 1959, Peres served in the legislature for 15 years, before becoming Israel’s Minister of Defense in 1974, a position that found him coordinating the successful 1976 operation to rescue Jewish hostages in Entebbe.

Prime Minister and President

Shimon Peres would then lead Israel as her Prime Minister two different times—from 1984-1986 and 1995-1996—still serving in the Knesset after his time as premier. In 2007, Peres would finally fill the role he’d never dreamed of as a boy, being elected President of Israel, a role he would serve in until his retirement in 2014.

But Peres never truly retired from serving Israel—after he left the presidency he continued to push for technological advancements by the Jewish state, including founding the Israel Innovation Center in Jaffa, to inspire young people to pursue careers in science and technology.

And this man who was once a boy dreaming of a life of shepherding and poetry—much like King David, another leader of Israel—also pursued poetry, music and literature. A mandolin player since childhood, Peres wrote poems his whole life, and his songs have been recorded by others, the proceeds going to charity.

The Ultimate Leader of Israel

Truly a renaissance man, Shimon Peres dreamed of a Jewish state since he was a boy, and was one of the last links to Israel’s founding fathers. When, at age 93, this great leader suffered the stroke that would ultimately take his life, Rabbi Eckstein wrote:

I am grateful for the life of dedicated public servants like Shimon Peres, just as I am grateful for his strong support of The Fellowship‘s work through the years. And I am most grateful that the ultimate leader of Israel is God Himself. As a Jewish state, we have a unique combination of democracy and spirituality, of citizenship and faith. We hope and pray for wise leaders, but our ultimate fate rests in the hands of God. It is this that gives me the greatest hope for Israel’s future.

Today, along with all of Israel, and the world, I thank God for the life of Shimon Peres, and salute his exemplary record of service to his country…

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