The Boiling Point

Asking questions and facing danger, alumnus mines complexity of the Middle East

Tamar Willis, Features Editor

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SHALHEVET AT 20: A SERIES

Editor’s note: Shalhevet’s first academic year was  1992-93, meaning the school is now 20 years old. The Boiling Point will profile alumni from each graduating class.

All students in high school face a hard truth. One day, they will walk out the doors of high school forever and be thrust into the real world. Where will they go next?  How will they make their mark on the world?

When Shalhevet alum Zvika Krieger ‘01 asked himself these questions, the answer was the Middle East– and not just for yeshiva.  He currently serves as a foreign policy correspondent for The Atlantic, writing a column and overseeing all Middle East coverage.

He is also senior vice president of the S. Daniel Abraham Center for Middle East Peace, a nonpartisan think tank that works with leaders in Washington, D.C. and in the Middle East toward a resolution for the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Zvika returned to Shalhevet in November and shared several anecdotes from his experiences with an enraptured student body. It quickly became evident that this was not an average career path, and the room responded to his stories with an unprecedented amount of silence.

“Shalhevet taught me chutzpah,” Zvika told a special assembly in the Beit Midrash Nov. 19, recalling his years in the early days of the school.

“If you don’t make someone mad with your articles then you’re not doing it right,” he said. “Journalism is not about accepting conventional wisdom.  It’s about asking questions, and engaging with things for their substance.”

 

After earning a bachelor’s degree in Middle East Studies at Yale University and studying Arabic at the American University in Cairo, Zvika became a Middle East correspondent for Newsweek and an editor and writer for the political magazine The New Republic.

From 2006 to 2008 he was based in Cairo and Beirut, and spent some of that time in Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Turkey. Now 29, in 2010 he married a YULA girl, Ayelet Fischer, whom he knew from his days at Shalhevet.  They live in Washington, D.C.

One of Zvika’s stories began at a hotel salad bar – the only kosher option – in Qatar in 2007.  Zvika expressed some impatience at the man in front of him, who was taking a little too long to create his salad.  At some point, the man turned around and Zvika recognized him to be Khaled Meshal, the leader of Hamas.

Journalism instincts alerted, he immediately introduced himself and asked for an interview.  Before he knew it, he was being whisked away to Meshal’s hotel room, where he interviewed him about America’s role in the Middle East conflict.

After two hours, he found himself thanking the head of Hamas for his time and leaving with a gift of boxed dates.  The story appeared in Newsweek and The Daily Beast.

One might wonder how a man with the very Jewish name of Zvika Krieger could get away with traveling to certain Middle Eastern countries and interviewing the leader of Hamas.  But as he told the students, it’s simple: since there aren’t many — if any — Jews in those countries, the people he meets aren’t aware that it’s a Jewish name.

That’s the easy part of being an observant Jew traveling the Middle East.  The harder parts, Zvika said, are davening every day and, occasionally, keeping kosher, though salad bars are often an option.

In Cairo, Zvika said his apartment became a kind of local Hillel, with Jewish expats coming over for weekly Shabbat dinners.  Things got complicated when his neighbors became suspicious of these weekly gatherings and began keeping a list of people who came, noting the times of arrival and departure.

One day, the landlord’s wife came wearing a full black niqab* –  covering everything but her eyes – and started yelling at them in Arabic, telling them that they were bringing shame to their family by running a brothel in the apartment. She also threatened to call the police.

“It was a humorous interaction,” said Zvika.  “It’s hard having an argument with someone whose face you can’t see.”

 

With almost constant wars occurring in that part of the world, danger has been a steady part of Zvika’s job.  Daniel Pearl was working for the Wall Street Journal in Pakistan when he was captured and beheaded by Al Qaeda in 2002.

According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, 70 journalists were killed because of their work in 2012. The highest number – 28 – were killed in Syria, along with 12 in Somalia, seven in Pakistan and two in the Palestinian territories.  Journalists were also killed in Egypt, Bahrain, Mexico and Brazil.

In an interview, Zvika said the most dangerous situation he’d faced was hiking the mountains near the Iran-Iraq border, where there were unmarked land mines remaining from a nine-year war in the 1980s.

However, he also said that they were some of the most beautiful landscapes he’d ever seen, and he got to learn about how Saddam Hussein had oppressed the Kurds in that region.

Asked how he has escaped alive from all his experiences, he responded, “Luck, probably.”

In spite of the dangers he’s faced, Zvika said tries to maintain his Judaism as much as he can.

“I’m not a saint,” he said.  “My observance has never been perfect, but I always strive to uphold high standards.”

He said the one time he came close to breaking Shabbat was when he was driving in Northern Lebanon and a bridge had been bombed, so the car he was in needed to take a longer route.  He was in the car as the sun set, but a rabbi who once heard the story told him that technically, he may not have been breaking Shabbat.

“I feel like when I’m traveling in foreign countries I have to re-conceptualize my Judaism from communal practice to individual, because when I’m abroad I obviously don’t have a community, it’s just me,” said Zvika.

“It helps me stay grounded, because I take time off from my worldly pursuits and work on my spiritual connections. By practicing my Judaism in many different contexts, it becomes a richer experience, because each context gives me a new perspective on various practices.”

 

Zvika’s Shalhevet teachers aren’t surprised that he went on to accomplish what he has.

Ms. Melanie Berkey, whom Zvika recalled as one of his favorite teachers, agrees that he seemed destined for greatness.

“It was very obvious that he was going to do big things,” said Ms. Berkey. “He basically, in my mind, set the prototype for a Shalhevet student.

“He was in my first class, and he was the perfect example of a student who did everything but it was all self-created.  In terms of being proactive, if something didn’t exist that he wanted and needed, he created it.”

Former history teacher Dr. Jill Beerman recalled Zvika’s work on the Agenda committee.

“He showed promise, certainly,” said Dr. Jill Beerman, who taught him Honors US history.  “You knew he was going to thrive at a big university because he had such a curious mind. He wanted to learn.”

During his time at Shalhevet, Zvika co-founded The Boiling Point with another student, Natalie Neuman, in his sophomore year. He was active in Drama, co-captain of the Model UN team, vice-chair of Agenda, and part of the cross-country club.

Being a star student didn’t prevent him from rankling his teachers, though.

“The second half of senior year he kind of got senioritis and used to miss a lot of Agenda meetings,” Dr. Beerman added.  “I was pretty mad at him for that.”

 

Zvika said his career path has been mostly unplanned and unexpected. Zvika started writing for his college paper when he was a freshman, and he enjoyed it, so he did it all four years.  But his interest in the Middle East developed separately, beginning when he walked into an introductory Arabic class and fell in love with the teacher, who he described as an “Arab Robin Williams.”

The summer after his junior year, Zvika realized he could fuse his interests in journalism and the Middle East and took an internship at the New York Times bureau in Cairo.

He believes that planning out every step of the way in advance is not necessary.

“If you asked me while I was at Shalhevet what I wanted to do in the future I probably would not have had an answer,” said Zvika.

Though he used to travel once a month, Zvika said that since he’s been married, he tries not to travel overseas more than a few times a year.  When he’s not working, he spends his time playing basketball, meditating, or surfing.

“I feel like some people know where they want to be in 20 years and every decision they make is about getting to that destination,” Zvika said.

“For me, I don’t know where I want to be in 20 years. I make my decisions one at a time, and where I want to be in 20 years is the destination each decision led me to.  If I make the right decision every step it will lead me to somewhere fulfilling.”

Still, for some current students, Zvika’s visit offered a vivid glimpse into what life could be like after graduation.

“Everything he said was so inspirational,” said sophomore Shoshi Reich.  “I loved seeing a Shalhevet alumni who was so accomplished and hearing all his crazy stories.”

Related: Shoshana Cohen ’01: Giving Israeli girls a gift of Torah

Related: Samira Miller ’99: Community and family 

Related: Andy Green ’02: Dedicating his life to sharing Judaism

Related: Danielle Rohatiner ’03: A passion to teach  

 

 

 

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Meet the Writer
Tamar Willis, Editor-In-Chief Emeritus

Tamar Willis is a junior at Princeton University where she writes and serves as business manager for the culture magazine Nassau Weekly.

She joined the Boiling Point staff in ninth grade and served as Staff Writer, Features Editor, Outside News Editor and Sports Editor, winning national awards in feature writing from Quill and Scroll, the American Jewish Press Association and the Columbia Scholastic Press Association.  In high school, English and US History were her favorite subjects, and she loved to read and write, especially for the Boiling Point!

Tamar says that if she were a punctuation mark, she would be an Oxford comma or an exclamation point.  Tamar could eat sushi for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and she thinks Clueless is one of the best movies ever made.

Tamar was Deputy Editor and then Editor-in-Chief of the Boiling Point in 2013-14 school year, leading the paper to its second CSPA Gold Crown Award the following spring....

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Asking questions and facing danger, alumnus mines complexity of the Middle East