Bay Area leaders recall Rabin as quintessential sabra: tough, sweet

Native-born Israelis adopt for themselves the nickname sabra, Hebrew for prickly pear. It’s a name that local Jewish leaders this week said perfectly suited slain sabra and Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin — prickly on the outside, sweet on the inside.

Over the years, Rabin visited the Bay Area for several Jewish causes, impressing local leaders with his intellect, his straight talk and his patience.

“He had this wonderful gravelly voice,” remembered Annette Dobbs, who met Rabin several times through her work with United Jewish Appeal. “He was a very serious man who did not make small talk easily. He was gruff on the outside, but I think he was a very kindly man.”

In 1991, Daphna Noily, director of American Friends of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, spent almost two days straight with Rabin, taking him from meetings to fund-raising dinners for the university. She also remembered Rabin’s manner as stoic.

“It took a long time to get him to crack a smile. I had to draw him into conversation, he didn’t offer much,” said Noily.

After Noily took Rabin to meet former Secretary of State George Shultz at his Stanford University office, he “became much more talkative. They chatted away. On the drive home, he started to kibbitz. I said, `You look a lot more relaxed. It’s wonderful to see you smile.’ He laughed even more.”

Noily also remembered Rabin as a man of impeccable courtesy and humility. Although he chain-smoked, he asked her permission before lighting every cigarette. And despite his prominence, he treated Daphna like she was guest.

“In his hotel suite, he asked me to sit on the couch. The first thing he did was offer me a soda, which I thought was somewhat funny. He was playing the role of host. I’ve had lots of dignitaries who would never think of offering me anything. It was like I was his guest, not like he was mine,” said Noily.

Dedication to Jewish education also brought Rabin to San Francisco two more times in recent years. In both 1985 and 1990, he spent two days in the city to help raise money for Hebrew Academy, an Orthodox high school in the Richmond district.

Although Rabin wasn’t Orthodox, he expressed deep support for the school, as well as for director Rabbi Pinchas Lipner’s attempts to help educate Jewish children.

Using the school as his base, he gave press conferences praising Hebrew Academy and attended receptions at the Lipners’ home.

At these receptions, Rabin’s patience and down-to-earth character became clear, Lipner recalls.

“It was unbelievable. He would sit in a reception, and someone would corner him, noodjing him for half an hour with some question. He would always answer, and we were all amazed at his patience. He didn’t ask, `Who is this person?’ We were all impressed by that.

“Power gets to people’s heads. This man in power was never like that,” Lipner said.

Last week, Lipner showed students videotapes of Rabin speaking at Hebrew Academy. The students who had once touched the leader with their choir singing were devastated at his loss.

“It was very personal to them. He was at the school, he spoke in the auditorium. He was somebody who was a friend, who was very good to us. He did anything he could for us.”

Political consultant John Rothmann also recalled Rabin’s devotion to local Jewish students. On a visit in 1979, Rabin insisted on meeting with students on campus.

“It was after his memoirs came out, but he said, `I don’t care how busy I am,'” Rothmann said. On that visit, Rabin met with Israel Action Committees at most local universities.

Like many local leaders who had a chance to meet Rabin as he evolved from military leader to ambassador to Israeli Prime Minister twice over, Rothmann described him as a “very blunt-spoken man who says what’s on his mind.” Behind Rabin’s brevity, Rothmann said he also glimpsed a warmer side to the leader.

“I remember holding his memoirs in my hands, and his leaning over and saying `Would you like me to inscribe that?’ He wrote, `To John with best wishes, Y. Rabin. It’s something that I treasure now. It’s a part of history,” Rothmann said.

Rabbi Brain Lurie, former director of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation and current executive vice president of the United Jewish Appeal in New York, met with Rabin almost monthly in the past few years.

Their relationship was business-like, but Lurie said he had tremendous respect for the man he called “very strong, very determined, intellectually honest and vigorous.”

At one point, however, Rabin’s vigor was directed toward Lurie. Just days after returning from the leader’s funeral in Israel, Lurie laughed when recounting the incident.

At a meeting in Jerusalem two years ago, Rabin was giving a talk to a room of about 50 people. He was speaking heatedly, and Lurie recalled him “getting no more than four hours of sleep a night, running his 40-year-old aides ragged.”

After Rabin spoke for over an hour, Lurie turned to one of Rabin’s aides and suggested it might be time for a question and answer period.

“All of a sudden, I heard this `Brian!’ He barked my name because I was interrupting. I saluted him [and] remained silent. I certainly didn’t say anything else,” Lurie said.

Though he was silenced that time, Lurie characterized Rabin as someone who was always willing to give him a private meeting, to listen to his concerns.

“If I disagreed with him, it would never occur to me not to bring it to him. You did not have to be somebody that said `yes’ to him. But you would have to be clear and straightforward in your thinking, or he would straighten you out very quickly.”