On Aug. 15, Israel lost one its most thoughtful and reflective modern Orthodox social innovators earlier this month with the premature death of journalist, author and civic activist Bracha Sheleg (58) – known to all by her nickname "Bambi." I got to know Bambi and her journalist husband, Yair, quite well over the years, while dealing with Israel-Diaspora relations (and even earlier as youngsters growing up in intersecting circles in 1970s Netanya). I developed a closer relationship with Bambi in 2011, when she won the B'nai B'rith World Center's Award for Journalism Recognizing Excellence in Diaspora Reportage.
At the otherwise very somber and emotional funeral, Yair struck a humorous chord when he recalled the innumerous times new acquaintances were misled by her nickname and instead of meeting a meek deer-like figure, encountered a fierce lioness when it came to defending her worldview and journalistic principles.
Under the typically provocative title "Two States for Two Peoples? American Jewry and Us," Bambi opened the winning edition of the magazine by taking issue with the conclusions reached by most of her own contributors. Ever the optimist about the trajectory of Jewish destiny, she wrote: "Most of the writers in this issue are not optimistic about the communal-cultural future of American Jewry and do not believe that it has enough internal strength to revitalize. But perhaps they are mistaken. Perhaps the direction of this flow can be changed through a concentrated Israeli and all-Jewish effort. And perhaps history will surprise again, as it always does, and exhibit a completely different picture from that seen by the writers in this magazine."
Reflecting on the topic of her winning entry, Bambi said in her captivating acceptance speech, "The fundamental problem of the Jewish people abroad at this moment is related to questions of identity and belonging. This is the result of weakness at the core, including the big core that lives in Israel. This core, that feels fully dedicated to the future of the people, is still not strong enough to deflect the extremist forces that insist that authentic Jewry must be defined entirely by Halachic parameters that predated the Shoah, the foundation of the State of Israel and the mass immigration to Israel that we are witness to…What should Jewish identify be after all we have been through? Should these monumental events effect the nature and content of Jewish identity from now going forward? I believe so."
The jury considerations at the time included the following: "We found, above all, that the editor, Bambi Sheleg and the crew she leads, is equipped with an impressive—even a surprising—amount of personal, public and professional courage, above and beyond what is found in journalism in general and in our topic of discussion in particular."
With a tradition of co-opting appropriate award winners onto our jury, Bambi accepted, without hesitation, our invitation to serve subsequently on the award jury, and did so with great diligence until her death, participating in the jury's meeting in late May to determine the 2016 award winners, even though she was already terminally ill. No one on the jury, including myself serving as secretary, got any inkling from Bambi that anything was awry while the deliberations went on for over two hours or, following the ruling, when Bambi made some very wise proposals for revising and improving the award structure in the future. At the meeting, Bambi also shared her frustrations with the financial challenges posed by maintaining an intellectual print journal, including the need to constantly seek and retain donors, which led her to move Eretz Acheret solely to a web version in 2012 after 66 ground-breaking print issues.
Bambi even volunteered to compose the detailed jury considerations for one of the winners, Times of Israel Diaspora editor Amanda Borschel-Dan, which she did. Unfortunately, she contacted me just days before the July 7 award ceremony to say that she was not feeling well and requested that one of the other judges present the considerations she had prepared on behalf of the entire panel. In retrospect, this communication should have set off some warning bells, but I remained oblivious until I heard the tragic, shocking news of her passing on national news—as did nearly all of her close friends who, according to her wishes, were kept in blissful ignorance about her medical condition. Only Yair and their children, who devoted themselves to her care for the past 18 months, knew the true gravity of her condition. I take some solace in knowing that Bambi valued our journalism award project so much that she made this very great effort to fulfill her volunteer undertaking, even when she was gravely ill, lending her considerable stature to the award.
It is fitting that Yair immediately accepted our invitation to take Bambi's place on the jury as a way of maintaining her legacy into the future.
May the memory and work of Bracha "Bambi" Sheleg be a blessing for us all.