International journalist, broadcaster, lawyer, and educator Rabbi Yishai Fleisher recently was back in Wayne. He was helping his mother, Zhenia, pack up for Israel after 30 years in Passaic County.
The suburban surroundings in which he spent much of his childhood could hardly be more different than his home in Ma’aleh HaZeitim (Olive Heights), a small Jewish community on the Mount of Olives in East Jerusalem, where rocks and hostility are more common than lawns and basketball hoops.
He wouldn’t have it any other way. Ma’aleh HaZeitim is about as close to the historic heart of the Jewish people as any place can be. Moving there in 2011 with his wife, fellow Cardozo Law School graduate Malkah Bernath, entailed certain risks, but is essential to Rabbi Fleisher’s stated dual mission — helping to highlight the centrality of Israel in modern Jewish life and helping to bring the divine presence back to Zion.
With his cogent insider insights and ability to express himself calmly and clearly in three languages, Rabbi Fleisher has become a go-to Israel expert for international media, including CNN, BBC, Al Jazeera, Russia Today, Xinhua, MTV, Sipa Press, and Fox News. He does a podcast radio show available at yishaifleisher.com, has appeared on American talk radio, and writes regularly for the Jerusalem Post and the Jewish Press.
He has lectured in 14 American states and two Canadian provinces and has addressed the Canada-Israel Inter-Parliamentary Group; a bipartisan group of Texas lawmakers, and policymakers, and analysts in Washington, D.C.; many Jewish and Christian groups, and college students on 12 campuses.
“It’s not so easy to be able to analyze and blend together the geopolitics, economics, and sociology of the conflict with nationalism and a believer’s perspective, but that’s how I look at the world, and in the end I think they are part of the same truth much more than many people think they are — where science never conflicted with the feeling of God — and so for me geopolitics doesn’t conflict but informs our ancient understanding.
“At the same time, new steps must be taken. Our past does not totally guide us. We’re in a new situation; we haven’t been on this land for 2,000 years and have forgotten how to run a commonwealth and we have a lot of challenges: ingathering the exiles, conflict with the Arabs, navigating our relationship with the West, dealing with our various cultural differences, and instilling in us with strong values pioneered by America’s founding personalities.
“At the same time, the passion of our times is Israel.”
Zhenia and Alexander Fleisher were Russian chemists who eventually got permission to emigrate to Israel in the 1970s. Yishai, their firstborn, arrived in 1976 and spent his first eight years in Haifa, speaking Russian and Hebrew. When his family moved to Passaic and then a year later to Wayne, his transition was difficult.
“I learned English watching ‘He-Man’ and ‘ThunderCats,’” Rabbi Fleisher said. “My sister, who came to America as a baby, and my brother, who was born in New Jersey, had an easier adjustment than I did. It was hard and confusing because my parents were not yet Americanized.”
The newcomers were not religiously observant, but they sent young Yishai to Hillel day school. “Ironically, sometimes Jews need to leave Israel to find God, and that’s what happened to my family,” he said. “Slowly we started getting closer to classic Jewish spirituality and a Jewishly inspired lifestyle.”
After the move to Wayne, Yishai switched to the forerunner of Joseph Kushner Hebrew Academy, and then went to Frisch in Paramus for high school. “Today I really see how those experiences shaped me, and while I still feel myself to be not exactly fitting in any particular mold, I can sort of seamlessly transition between American and Israeli Jews, from ultra-Orthodox to secular, and to understand their inner psyche,” he said. “I was sensitized to many different types of cultures, including the Russian part of me.”
At 17, he returned to Israel as a lone soldier and entered a hesder yeshiva, a five-year program combining Torah learning with military service. “At the time there weren’t so many American kids doing the army,” he reflected. “Joining the first Jewish fighting army in 2,000 years is an element of renewing Jewish strength. It’s absolutely key to throwing off our self-identification as weak Jews. We are a tough lot and we need to be the best trained, armed and prepared troops to defend the Jewish people. I believe the Zionist vision of the strong and empowered Jew is part of the healing process from the diaspora experience.”
After he was injured seriously by a roadside bomb in Lebanon in 1996, Rabbi Fleischer returned to United States for a few years. He completed an undergraduate degree in political science at Yeshiva University and a law degree from Cardozo, where he met his future wife. They wed in 2002 in the biblical city of Hebron and moved to Beit El the following year. They remained in Beit El for seven years. Rabbi Fleisher was director of Israel National Radio (Arutz Sheva), which is based there, and he was a member of the town’s rapid response anti-terror team. He continues to serve in the paratroop reserves.
Though he does not practice law, his legal education has served him well. “It gave me the ability to see the other side, to make a cold analysis, to resolve conflicts, to understand somebody may have a smart point; techniques for thinking and speaking,” he said.
While living in New York during college and law school, he taught children at Temple Emanu-El in New York, worked on the media response team at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, conducted research at the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, and led four Birthright trips to Israel.
In 1999, the same year Birthright began, he founded the not-for-profit group Kumah and embarked on a campaign of pro-Israel education, myth-busting, advocacy, and outreach through a variety of media. He describes Kumah as “the spinal cord for many different projects” and it still serves as the organizational base for his activism.
“I’m working to strengthen the character of the Jewish state and help people understand our rights to the land. I’m reaching a hand across the Atlantic to encourage people to be part of the story on whatever level,” said Rabbi Fleisher, who has ordination from the Kollel Agudath Achim.
Making the move to Israel — called “aliyah” — literally “going up,” because moving to Israel is considered spiritual elevation — is not the only goal.
“Physical aliyah is the ultimate way to get on board, but there are so many more ‘aliyot’ people can do,” he said. “I know a lawyer who rents a house every summer in Jerusalem and works at night so his kids can live their summer in Israel. I know other lawyers who hire Israelis to work for them. My question is, ‘What’s your step, what’s your aliyah?’ I want to excite North American Jews to take that step into this incredible story.”
Naturally he is pleased that his mother is making the move; his father died 12 years ago and is buried in Israel. His sister lives in Manhattan with her husband, while his brother, Joshua, lives in Jerusalem with his wife and two children. “Having a brother in Jerusalem is awesome, and I look forward to seeing my sister and her new husband coming home soon,” Rabbi Fleisher said.
Josh Fleisher is a professional videographer, and the brothers collaborated on a 2012 video, “The Land of Milk and Honey,” dedicated to the memory of their father.
But it’s not all milk and honey. Living in Ma’aleh HaZeitim, Rabbi Fleisher and his wife and three children — 8, 4, and two months old — have been subject to rock-throwing, firebombing, and other forms of intimidation and aggression. Yet he has had surprising conversations with some of his neighbors about their true feelings toward Jews and the Jewish state, the kind of stuff you won’t read about in the New York Times because East Jerusalem Arabs are subject to intense intimidation from their own.
Despite the escalation of terror attacks in Jerusalem and elsewhere, Rabbi Fleisher radiates serenity and positivity.
“I do get frustrated, sure,” he said. “But we are living in great times, and people in general are good and smart. I even love the problems and the challenges. I think you either tackle it and change it, or accept it and embrace it.”
Rabbi Fleisher looks at Ma’aleh HaZeitim as a tenacious project in practical Zionism.
“We are trying to normalize our existence here and push back against the jihad,” he said. “Ten years ago, this community was 20 families, and now we have 110 families and good public transportation. Situated across from the Temple Mount, protecting the Mount of Olives cemetery, we are opening the pathway for Jews to feel normal and safe.
“It’s not seductive like New York City, but Jerusalem is our passion,” he concluded. “You can feel the river of history flowing here, from the majestic past to the magnificent destiny, and you can see that a step you take can build something.”