In the desert, you can only dream about the water before you come to the oasis. If Israel is the oasis, at a distance it is a mirage.
That’s the problem with the image of Israel today. So few see Israel.
Of those who do, they are expected to say nice things because, after all, they’re Jewish.
But what if they’re black?
They are not expected to go to the oasis, to see Israel for themselves. But if they do go, their words stand out.
Because, after all, they’re not Jewish.
They’re not tied to Israel by the same emotional and political bonds of Jews who have been to the oasis.
Which is what makes Tremayne B. Smith so unusual, so encouraging and so enthusiastic.
He is a special assistant to a congressman in North Carolina, and he is traveling the country on behalf of the Jewish National Fund, speaking up about Israel.
Because he’s been there.
Because his religion — not Judaism — tells him that this is a special place.
Because he likes what he has seen there.
And because he is articulate.
Tremayne (if I may refer to him by his first name) came into my office to talk about Israel.
He developed his passion for Israel in . . . church. It’s a non-denominational evangelical church in Kannapolis, North Carolina, near his home of Salisbury, NC, population 33,000.
The church put “quite a lot of emphasis on Israel — the Blessed Assurance Church.”
Tremayne’s interest in Israel expanded when he went to East Carolina University and became student body president and a member of the university’s board of trustees. The university, with 28,000 students, “was almost the population of my town.”
As an undergraduate student he went to the AIPAC policy conference in Washington, DC (which this year just concluded). Tremayne was recruited by one of the AIPAC college outreach arms.
“I had this Judeo-Christian perspective of Israel, and then, after AIPAC, I developed a foreign policy, America-Israel perspective.”
And so, this double major in music education and political science became an outspoken, passionate voice for Israel.
Upon graduation, he went to work for US Sen. Kay R. Hagan (D-NC) for a year, then taught music for three years, and was named Rocky Mount [NC] Teacher of the Year.
His field of activism widened as he went to George Washington U in DC to seek an MA in political management . He was elected to the Student Senate.
Now he is special assistant to Cong. G. K. Butterfield (NC), chief deputy whip of the US House.
Tremayne sums up his life’s trajectory this way: “Lift as you climb.” He wants to lift not only his music students, but Israel.
During his teaching career, he kept in touch with those involved in in pro-Israel advocacy, kept up with the news and kept up with politics. He was elected vice-chair of the Nash Country, NC, Democratic Party.
From all this you might get the idea that Tremayne B. Smith is just a climber, imposing, perhaps even intimidating, giving off the political vibe of “smartest guy in the room.” Actually, he is down-to-earth, congenial, unassuming, the very opposite of pompous, while also informed and not shy about spreading the word about Israel.
Why? Well, back in DC for his graduate degree, he was approached as a member of the Student Senate to apply for the JNF Caravan to Israel.
The trip to Israel was a dream come true. It is for non-Jewish college students — 10 days at the oasis.
“We traveled the entirety of the country from Golan to Negev. We interacted with Druze, Bedouin, former MKs and other religious leaders.
“We also met with security folks, for example in Sderot [near the Gaza border].
“For me, my faith was made real. Everything I believed and had heard, I got to see. It made it all tangible.
“I knew two of the other students, one from my campus and the other because he was doing an internship at the State Dept. These were very dynamic and bright leaders, and influencers on their campus.
“I came away more informed and prepared to be more involved. One of the requirements of the trip is that we continue our advocacy on our campuses.
“At George Washington U, at a Student Senate meeting, a BDS resolution was proposed. I spoke two minutes against it. I had a deeper understanding after the trip.
“The resolution failed by one vote.
“That showed me the power of being informed and educated enough to stand up and speak out.
“I had friends who did art galleries, presenting pictures they had taken in Israel. Others went back to their home towns’ elementary schools and presented the culture and language of Israel.
“Now I am a volunteer for JNF.”
In Denver he spoke with about 20 Colorado state legislators, both Democrat and Republican, who had been to Israel.
He usually speaks to groups of 20 to 30, including young professionals and members of JNFuture.
“I speak to them about my experience with pro-Israel advocacy.
“I addressed a plenary session at the JNF national conference, with 1,200 attendees.
“My congressman is very supportive of my involvement in JNF.
“I am on the road at least once a month, sometimes twice. I’ve spoken in Philadelphia, Hoboken, Las Vegas, Phoenix, Scottsdale, now Denver, and I’m going to Boston, Albany, NY, St. Louis, then Chicago and Hollywood, Florida.
“I’m a free agent, unmarried.”
“Here is what I like about what I do: two components.
“From my faith perspective, I think it’s an honor to support those whom I believe are G-d’s children, and to be educated enough to do it with authority.
“From a foreign policy and political perspective, I am able to speak with an understanding gained from having seen a lot of the aspects of the conflict up close. I can shed some light on that.
“After hearing my life story, the people I speak to are more enthused to do more in advocacy for Israel or in whatever other route they choose. I feel I’m succeeding.
“Back in the church, they’re continuously proud of the young man I’ve become, proud that I’ve stuck to the values I was raised with. It is a choice.
“For the church community itself, it’s encouraging for the next generation that’s coming after you.
“I am an identical twin. Our single mom raised us. She is beyond proud, but not surprised, The expectation was that we would be successful and she didn’t give us any room to be otherwise. My brother is a fitness instructor.
“My grandmother was the moral backbone of the family.”
Tremayne Smith is 30.
Watch for him.
He wants to get into electoral politics himself after finishing his stint in DC and going back to North Carolina to “get back into civic engagement on the ground, helping build my community.”
He knows how to tell a story.
“I met Caleb. He was from California, a dual Israeli-American, white, Jewish. I am a southerner, black, an American citizen and Christian. We met at the Western Wall. We clasped arms, one arm around each other and one arm around the Wall itself. He prayed in Hebrew and I prayed in English, and we prayed to the same G-d for the same peace.”
Rabbi Hillel Goldberg may be reached at email@example.com.
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