BOSTON – The friendly handshakes, informal drop-ins to Shabbat services, and schmoozing at cultural events have been replaced with Zoom meetings, socially distanced introductions, and face masks with the insignia of the Israeli and American flags.
Welcome to the COVID-19 era diplomatic world of Ambassador Meron Reuben, the newly appointed Consul General of Israel to New England, who began his new post in November in the midst of a pandemic. He follows Ambassador Zeev Boker, whose two-year assignment here ended.
Reuben arrived in Boston from Israel at a time when the global pandemic upended the time-honored traditions and gatherings where a new consul general would be out and about, meeting and greeting the Jewish community. Even his ability to meet in person with the region’s diplomatic corps has been a challenge.
“Everyone has been very welcoming, but it is difficult. I would have gone to shuls and met people. I’ll get there,” the ambassador told the Journal in a recent phone conversation.
“Diplomacy is very personal. You need to be there,” said Reuben, whose foreign ministry career has spanned more than three decades, including a year as Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations (2010-2011).
But he has not altogether avoided the personal touches. He’s arranged his spacious living room to accommodate a socially distanced meeting area, spacing chairs far apart and opening windows to allow in fresh air. His first purchase in Boston was an outdoor heater that he set up for meetings on his balcony.
Reuben met Governor Charlie Baker and Boston Mayor Marty Walsh in person when he participated in the lighting of the Hanukkah menorah on the Boston Common. He also took part in a virtual menorah lighting in Connecticut with Governor Ned Lamont.
Throughout the pandemic, the Consulate office has been open on a limited basis in order to carry out its day-to-day services.
The 59-year-old Reuben was born in South Africa and lived for a few years in London with his mother. They settled in Israel in 1974, before he turned bar mitzvah age. He studied diplomacy and international relations at Hebrew University and was an air traffic controller during his military service in the Israeli Air Force.
His diplomatic posts traversed five Spanish-speaking countries, including Chile, Mexico, Paraguay, Bolivia, and Colombia.
For the last five years, Reuben served as Israel’s chief of state protocol, the go-to foreign ministry official responsible for diplomats and visiting world dignitaries. At the end of his tenure, he was behind the scenes when leaders from the United Arab Emirates made a historic visit to Israel as part of the Abraham Accords in 2020.
But Reuben, a warm and engaging conversationalist with an easy laugh, is not motivated by the titles and limelight of photo opps that sometimes come with the role of a diplomat.
“My philosophy is that titles come and go. In the end, you have to be yourself. That is the main focus that I’ve always been interested in,” he said.
He is most at home with the “nitty gritty” of diplomacy as a way to foster dialogue and understanding between different cultures, nationalities, and within the broad base of the global Jewish community.
“You don’t need to call me Consul General. You can call me Meron,” he said.
Looking ahead, Reuben is eager to engage with New England’s robust academic community, a major center of education that also attracts many Israelis, he observed.
“I think, sometimes, we don’t get a good rap” on college campuses, Reuben said. “I hope to leave some kind of mark and explain more about Israel not being white and colonialist and being a multicultural and multiethnic society, which it is. I’ll do my best to show what Israel is all about.”
He’d like to encourage more opportunities to forge stronger bonds between Israelis and American Jews across New England. Some 25,000 to 30,000 Israelis live in the region, but many are not active in synagogue life, one place where they might mix socially with Boston-area Jews.
He gives high marks to programs like Birthright Israel that bring college-age Americans on visits to Israel.
Boston’s liberal social values appeals to Reuben, who is open about being a gay man. “I’d like to be able to live my life the way I want to,” he said. He anticipates that Boston will be a hospitable environment for him and his partner.
Reuben is the proud father of two grown daughters from an earlier marriage. One is an art student at Jerusalem’s prestigious Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design. His youngest daughter is fulfilling her obligatory military service in a combat unit stationed on Israel’s southern border.
One of his fond memories of their growing up was when they would bring him one of their hundreds of children’s books. “Dad, please read to us,” they’d say.
He envisions reading Israeli children’s books to kindergartners here. It may offer the perfect way to connect a new generation of young people with Israel, he said.