Shimon Peres, the often controversial Israeli leader who served in a variety of political and defense positions from before Israel’s founding, and who later in life became the nation’s ninth president and the world’s oldest head of state, passed away today in Tel Aviv following complications from a stroke. He was 93 years old.

An influential force in Israeli political life, Peres stood apart from many of his fellow secular Zionists who sought to jettison traditional Judaism from the fledgling state. Born to a noted rabbinic family in pre-war Poland, throughout his life Peres considered Torah, its mitzvahs and faith in G‑d to be the very foundations of the Jewish people. It was a conviction that was reinforced, expanded and deepened after meeting with the Lubavitcher Rebbe—Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory—later in life.

Born Shimon Perski in 1923 in Visnieva, Poland, Peres proudly related that he was conceived only after his parents—Yitzchak Getzel, a wealthy timber merchant, and Sarah, a volunteer librarian—had sought a blessing for children from a Chassidic rebbe.

As a young boy, Shimon was deeply influenced by his maternal grandfather, Torah scholar Tzvi Hirsh Meltzer, who taught him Talmud daily and whose heartfelt prayers, he would relate, motivated him to pray with great devotion.

In 1934, his family migrated to British Mandate Palestine, settling in Tel Aviv. During an emotional farewell at the train station, Meltzer held his grandson tight. “My child, be a Jew!” he pleaded. In 1942, the rabbi was murdered by the Nazis, defiantly wearing his tallit as he marched ahead of his community to his death inside a burning synagogue.

Peres grew up quickly and his eloquent writing and speeches attracted the attention of Labor Zionist founder Berl Katznelson and Zionist Labor organizer David Ben-Gurion, who later became the modern State of Israel’s first prime minister. The two appointed him to the secretariat of Mapai, an Israeli Socialist party.

In 1945, Peres married Sonia Gellman, a mitzvah-observant Jew. The couple settled in Kibbutz Alumot and went on to have three children: Tzvia Valdan, a doctor of philology; Yoni Peres, a veterinarian; and Nehemiah Peres, an engineer, founder and managing partner of a venture capital fund.

Peres at Lubavitch World Headquarters; he sought the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s guidance over the years on numerous issues.
Peres at Lubavitch World Headquarters; he sought the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s guidance over the years on numerous issues.

Peres was recruited by the Haganah, the Jewish paramilitary organization that later became the core of the Israel Defense Forces, and tasked with special assignments involving personnel, defensive acquisitions and military research. He was later appointed head of the naval service. After the 1948 War of Independence, he was appointed head of the Ministry of Defense delegation to the United States.

Upon his return to Israel in 1952, at age 29, he was appointed by Ben-Gurion as director general of the defense ministry. Among his accomplishments were strong ties with the French and German political and military establishments, as well as the creation of Israel’s nuclear program.

As a result of his sincere respect for traditional Judaism, Peres was sometimes dispatched by Ben-Gurion to work with rabbinic leaders on crucial matters like the deferment of military service for yeshivah students. Years later, Peres recalled to his close friend, journalist David Landau, that when he was discussing the matter “with the venerable rabbis, I felt like I was sitting with my grandfather.”

Peres at Lubavitch World Headquarters, waiting for his audience with the Rebbe.
Peres at Lubavitch World Headquarters, waiting for his audience with the Rebbe.

“I had reverence toward these people,” Peres said, “I didn’t sit with them to haggle.” Peres said he was impressed by their "very cogent [argument that] throughout the Diaspora period even the czars and other rulers had facilitated the existence of yeshivot. ‘Did I want all the yeshivot to be abroad?’ I thought this was a powerful argument.”

As a result, an agreement was reached in which full-time yeshivah students would enter the military at age 25 for a brief three-month induction, followed by reserve duty.

In 1959, he entered politics under the banner of Mapai. After he was elected to the Knesset, he was appointed by Ben-Gurion as deputy to the Minister of Defense, serving in this capacity for six years.

Peres went on to serve as a member of the Knesset for 48 years—the longest term of service in the history of the Israeli parliament. He served as a minister in 12 different cabinets and served twice as prime minister (1984-86, 1995-96). His portfolios include deputy minister of defense (1959-1965), minister of defense (1974-77, 1995-96), foreign minister (1986-88, 2001-02) and treasury minister (1988-1990).

Correspondence from the Lubavitcher Rebbe—Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory
Correspondence from the Lubavitcher Rebbe—Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory

Encounters With the Rebbe

Like so many other leaders among Israel’s secular political, military, scientific, financial and educational establishment, Peres sought the advice and blessing of the Rebbe. He traveled twice to the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn for face-to-face meetings with the Rebbe, and wrote numerous letters and sent in-person intermediaries to consult on sensitive matters that to this day remain classified.

During their first meeting, in 1966, some 15 months before the Six-Day War, the Rebbe alerted Peres to his view of the impending Egyptian threat and his opinion that it could be solved by focusing Israel’s efforts on Egyptian President Gamel Abdel Nasser. Peres described the meeting, which lasted for more than an hour, as something he had waited for with significant anticipation.

After the war, Peres was among the generals and other notables pictured in tefillin, thus giving expression to what the Rebbe worked to become a national phenomenon—thanksgiving to G‑d in recognition of His miraculous deliverance during the war, as opposed to Israel’s becoming lost in euphoric and hubristic overconfidence in the wake of victory.

By the time he came to the Rebbe again in 1970 as Minister of Transportation and Communications in Golda Meir’s Labor Party government, the Rebbe had repeatedly and publicly expressed his opinion that post-Six-Day War attempts to offer militarily strategic areas of land in exchange for vague promises of peace was a dangerous, even suicidal, approach to peacemaking and would, G‑d forbid, only bring more bloodshed in its wake in Israel and spur terrorism in other parts of the world. Peres, as is known, favored a romantic approach, hoping that Israel’s overtures would somehow spur its declared enemies to act peacefully.

Reciting a blessing over the lulav and etrog in Israel during Sukkot.
Reciting a blessing over the lulav and etrog in Israel during Sukkot.

Yet Peres knew that despite the Rebbe’s grave and fundamental disagreement with his approach, he would always be available for strategic counsel related to Israel’s own well-being as well as to help assure the success of its missions for safekeeping Jews across the globe.

In an interview with JEM’s “My Encounter With the Rebbe,” Peres recalled that the Rebbe discussed with him issues pertaining to Jewish identity in Israel, including many specifics regarding the Russian émigrés who were beginning to arrive there from the Soviet Union, and a host of other subjects.

The Rebbe underscored to Peres the importance of educating Israel’s populace, especially the young, about Judaism and its age-old traditions, and ensuring that this infuses the very character of Israel. Addressing Peres’s opportunity and responsibility as communications minister, “the Rebbe told me that we need to apply modern communication—which then meant radio, telephone and television—as vehicles for Jewish education,” according to Peres.

Recalling that meeting, Peres said that the Rebbe “foresaw what the future bode with the same clarity with which he discerned the present. He understood very well our immediate security challenges, yet was also determined to meet the future, by investing in education.”

Along those lines, Peres said the Rebbe “engaged in both our present and our future with the same urgency, because they dare not be separated. He felt that any gap between them invites sure danger.”

He went on to say that the Rebbe was “unique in how he fused the spiritual and the practical.”

Inspecting a historic Torah scroll with Chief Rabbi of Russia Berel Lazar.
Inspecting a historic Torah scroll with Chief Rabbi of Russia Berel Lazar.

The national Israeli daily newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth, whose correspondent covered the Peres visit to Lubavitch World Headquarters at 770 Eastern Parkway in Brooklyn, recorded in its Feb. 13, 1970 edition a far simpler reaction by Peres. Upon leaving the Rebbe’s wood-paneled study, the paper reported, Peres exclaimed: “He is the greatest human being I’ve ever met. His is true greatness!”

Characteristically, the Rebbe’s concern extended to the entire family. Following that meeting, the Rebbe wrote a letter to Sonia Peres, acknowledging the note she had sent with her husband, thanking her for her heartfelt good wishes, and providing her with the blessings she had requested for the couple and their children.

The Rebbe also replied in writing to Peres’ elderly father, describing his pleasure from meeting his son personally and discussing with him weighty matters of significant importance, and expressing his hope that their discussion would lead to concrete action.

In 1984, when Peres wrote to the Rebbe to inform him of the details of his ascension to the premiership in a power-sharing agreement with Yitzhak Shamir of the Likud Party, as well as to request the Rebbe’s blessing for success in his new position and for the new year, the Rebbe replied fairly succinctly, and then added a long postscript.

Donning tefillin in 1985
Donning tefillin in 1985

The Rebbe reminded Peres that 1.) during their meeting nearly 15 years earlier, he had proudly told the Rebbe that he, Peres, was born after his parents had turned to a righteous person (a Chassidic rebbe) for a blessing; and 2.) that Peres had responded to the Rebbe’s concern about some very grave issues at the time, “Der Aibershter vet zicher helfen” (“the One Above will surely help”).

The Rebbe thus urged him to fulfill his role in a manner that would satisfy the rebbe who had blessed his parents, and in a manner that would elicit G‑d’s blessing now, which is surely the way of Torah—called the “Torah of Life”—and its mitzvahs.

Despite the chasm in their approach to Israel’s security, the Rebbe’s exhortations to Peres about Jewish education continued to influence him, and he implemented and supported numerous programs aimed at furthering Jewish education throughout the state. He also frequently helped Chabad in Israel in its work spreading Judaism to soldiers and many others.

It is perhaps as a result of his deep respect for the Rebbe that Peres remained particularly close to a number of Chabad Chassidim in Israel throughout the decades. One close friend was the longtime mayor of Kfar Chabad, Rabbi Shlomo Madanchik, who would visit the Peres home often, bearing a lulav and etrog on Sukkot, reading the full Megillah for him and his wife on Purim, handing out shmurah matzah for Passover and throughout the year, regularly updating the Peres family with information about the weekly Torah portion and the like.

Peres shakes the lulav with Rabbi Schneur Goodman of Ashdod, Israel, circa 1979.
Peres shakes the lulav with Rabbi Schneur Goodman of Ashdod, Israel, circa 1979.

‘Without Sinai, What Meaning Does Life Have?’

In 1990, Peres spearheaded the left-led effort to take down the Shamir government in protest of Shamir’s refusal to negotiate with Palestinian representatives. Peres succeeded in convincing enough parliamentarians to support him in a no-confidence vote, and the Shamir government fell.

Efforts by Peres to form a new government, however, were stymied by two members of parliament from the Agudat Yisrael Party, who refused to attend the vote in which the proposed new Peres-led government would be approved.

They were largely seen as acting out of respect to the Rebbe’s well-known position about the mortal danger to Israel of territorial concession in exchange for promises of peace.

“To my sorrow,” he later reflected, “the Chabad movement did not support me politically, but I still treasure the Rebbe’s outstanding leadership and tremendous impact.”

On the third of Tammuz, in 1994, while Peres was serving as Israel’s Foreign Minister, the Rebbe passed away. Soon afterward he wrote a public, heartfelt letter focusing on the Rebbe’s intimate involvement in Jewish affairs all over the globe. Peres wrote, “In the places where danger lurked for Jewish people, his emissaries risked their lives to fulfill his secret missions to save Jews—in Soviet Russia, in Islamic lands and in many other lands. It is in his merit that the Jewish embers have been preserved in those places.”

Commenting on the Rebbe’s humility and genuine interest in every individual, he described the Rebbe as the embodiment of Hillel’s teaching to “love people and bring them close to Torah,” and “The legacy that he bequeathed was a love of Jews as they are, and the constant search to find that which united him and others.”

With Rabbi Lazar at the 2012 opening of the Russian Jewish Museum and Tolerance Center in Moscow
With Rabbi Lazar at the 2012 opening of the Russian Jewish Museum and Tolerance Center in Moscow

His final term as prime minister began in November 1995, after the assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin. But he was ousted only half a year later in the aftermath of the Oslo accords.

In 2007, at the age of 83, Peres was elected to serve as the ninth president of Israel.

In that role, he traveled to Jewish communities around the globe and experienced firsthand the manifold work of Chabad-Lubavitch emissaries. But he took particular pleasure in seeing the rebirth of Judaism through its length and breadth, marveling at the manifestation of the Rebbe’s vision as well as the flourishing of the Rebbe’s decades-long clandestine work there.

“I see you, the shluchim of Chabad in many places around the world, among them remote, forsaken and hostile places,” he said in a 2013 message he videotaped and sent to the shluchim. “You are mitzvah messengers of the Rebbe—of his desire that the Jewish people continue and be sustained as a nation.”

By the time he retired in 2014, he was the oldest head of state in the world.

Just a few months ago, before he was felled by a stroke from which he never fully recovered, Peres reflected on the essence of the Jewish people, asserting that a nation defined only by memories of the Holocaust and the creation of a secular Zionist state cannot sustain itself.

“Without Sinai, what meaning does life have?” he asked rhetorically.

Shimon Peres was predeceased by his wife in 2011. In addition to his three children, he is survived by eight grandchildren and many great-grandchildren.

Peres visiting the Chabad Yeshiva in Lod, Israel
Peres visiting the Chabad Yeshiva in Lod, Israel
In Lod, Israel
In Lod, Israel