High Holidays

Wandering Jews: Former Tucsonans thrive in new locales – Yizhar Hess

Yizhar Hess, executive director of the Masorti movement in Israel, right, with then-White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel in Jerusalem at the Bar Mitzvah of Emanuel’s son, Zach, on May 30, 2010

Yizhar Hess is the executive director and CEO of the Masorti (Conservative) movement in Israel. He is a former community shaliach and director of the Israel Center in Tucson.


How long did you live here? How often do you return to Tucson? Do you still have family and friends here?

We lived in Tucson from August 2000 until August 2003. Three years. Great memories. I visited Tucson only once since then, a couple of years ago. It’s funny, but it was like coming back home. Our home is in Israel, and will always be, but we miss Tucson very much.

What have you missed most about living here?

Believe it or not, I miss the heat. We almost never go to Eilat in the summer; this year we did. We wanted to remind ourselves how Tucson felt. I also miss Sunday. In Israel we work on Sunday (Friday we don’t work, but it’s not the same). But mostly I miss the feeling of Jewish pluralism that is so vivid in Tucson, and we are so lacking in Israel. I was fortunate to experience it for three years, and am trying now, with many of my colleagues in the Masorti Movement, to create such experiences in Israel.

What did you learn or experience in Tucson that has most affected you in your present life? Have you taken something concrete from Tucson that reminds you of your life here?

Mica, our daughter, was born in Tucson! She will always be a native Tucsonan and we will always be the parents of a proud native Tucsonan. In Tucson — not in New York — I learned what a Broadway musical is. We saw “Rent,” “Mama Mia,”“Phantom of the Opera,” “My Fair Lady” and probably a few more great musicals. We enjoyed it so much! But what affected my life more than anything else, and I owe to Tucson, is the connection to my Jewish identity. I’m a native Jerusalemite. My family has been here for 10 generations but I had to go to Tucson to feel comfortable being in a synagogue.

 What big changes have occurred in your life since you left Tucson?

It’s eight years now since we left Tucson. My hair, still short, is a little whiter. I gained weight in Tucson. A lot. After eight years, in the last six months I was able to lose the extra 20 kilos I brought with me from Southern Arizona. Our children are great. Achiad has become a talented soccer player and Mica just joined her first basketball team. My wife, Yael, who serves in the IDF, was promoted twice since we came back to Israel. In 2005 she received the rank of lieutenant colonel and right after Rosh Hashanah she will become a colonel. We are all so proud of her. And yes, I still salute her every morning!

How were you involved in the Tucson Jewish community?

Back then the Israel Center was still located at the Tucson Jewish Community Center. My office was right next to the gym — not that it made me work out (am I talking again about my weight?), but it helped me to see you all sweating. Rabbis, lay leaders, professionals. It’s really interesting how many serious and deep Jewish conversations you can have with people wearing a wet T-shirt with a towel around their neck. So if people who do sports together stay together, I guess I was quite involved with the Jewish community. I also had a regular column in the Arizona Jewish Post and was a regular contributor to Rabbi Sam Cohon’s “Too Jewish”radio show.

 Would you return to Tucson to live if you had the opportunity?

No. It was an experience that changed our lives but our home is Israel.

 What has most surprised you about Tucson’s growth since you left town?

You probably can’t prevent Tucson from growing, but try to grow wisely. The feeling of a village, OK a big village, not “a city,” is one of Tucson’s advantages in my eyes. Keep it. Don’t be Phoenix!

 What would you most like to see change in Tucson if you were in charge?

In charge? Meaning to be the mayor of Tucson!? No, no. In Israel we have enough politics. We can even export some. But I have a few ideas for potential candidates for the job. No, I will not tell.

What’s the best thing about where you live now?

America was great, Tucson was the best, but in Israel I can dream in Hebrew.


For more “Wandering Jews” profiles, see Special Sections – High Holidays