Jason Greenblatt served as the White House special envoy for the Middle East during the Trump administration. In part two of my interview with Jason, he shares details about his family, his Jewish upbringing, and the book he wrote that was inspired by a family vacation in Israel.
Jason started the conversation by sharing details about his parents’ survival from Nazi-occupied Hungary.
“I grew up as the son of two Hungarian immigrants. Like so many Hungarian immigrants, my mother was proud of her Hungarian heritage. I spent a lot of time with some of their childhood friends and relatives and they didn’t hesitate to talk about how they grew up in Hungary and what happened to their families during the Shoah. Their stories were chilling and shocking, but also inspiring. This generation, against all odds, had a measure of stamina to raise strong Jewish families, strong American citizens, strong Zionists, and build new homes in their new land.”
Jason continued, “My father’s family was fortunate to board one of the last trains that allowed Jews to legally flee Hungary. My paternal grandmother had tried to get all the necessary visas for her family to flee Hungary, but she was having such a difficult time. She needed numerous visas and by the time she got the next one she needed, one of the visas had already expired. My father, who passed away a year ago, told me that one day, after his mother had tried and failed for months, a German diplomat gave my grandmother the visas she had eluded. They escaped and eventually reached the United States. Another version of the family story is that it was a German soldier, not a diplomat, who gave her the last visa and literally shoved my grandmother and her family onto the train on Shabbat and warned them that they would do it if they didn’t go this train would never get out.”
“My mother’s family wasn’t quite as fortunate, but compared to most, her family was very fortunate. My maternal grandfather was sent to a labor camp somewhere in Hungary. The rest of the family was loaded onto a deportation train and knew they were being sent to Auschwitz. The train was diverted just a few kilometers from Auschwitz when a bridge along the route exploded. They were eventually sent to a camp in Austria, and my mother’s family was liberated by the Soviet army. After the war they returned to Debrecen, reunited with my grandfather, continued to live in Debrecen until the Hungarian Revolution, then they fled Hungary and moved to the USA.”
I asked Jason to describe what it was like for him growing up in Queens, NY.
“My parents worked very hard and long hours to make ends meet, but it was a comfortable life. We belonged to the Young Israel of Forest Hills, which was a friendly, large synagogue. I went to Yeshiva Dov Revel, a local Jewish day school, where I had good teachers. I spent a year at a Yeshiva High School in Queens and then transferred to Yeshiva University High School for Boys in Washington Heights.”
“I think I got a pretty solid education in all the yeshivas I attended,” Jason recalls. “Of course, the education then is not comparable to the education my six children have received in their yeshiva day schools over the past 20 years. But I don’t think it would be fair to try to compare them. Many communities are significantly wealthier today than they were then, and far more money is being spent on Jewish day schooling. Although the Jewish model of education today requires a lot of work and many argue that it is unsustainable without change, education today is vastly better because the resources are better. I remember going door to door to neighbors as a kid with a pushka (Jewish charity box) to raise money for my elementary school, which was facing significant financial challenges. Education today is much more advanced in many ways. But I had dedicated teachers, Rebbeim and Administrators who worked hard to give us the best they could at the time.”
“I spent every summer at Camp Raleigh, an orthodox Jewish dormitory camp,” Jason continued. “My kids still tease me when they see me bumping into old Raleigh friends because we greet each other with the same exclamation, ‘It was the best camp ever.’ I was also fortunate to be able to do a teenage summer tour in Israel when I was 16. It was a pretty typical middle-class modern Orthodox Jewish upbringing in the 1970s and 80s.”
I asked Jason, “How did his Jewish upbringing contribute to his success?”
“I’m sure it helped me become what I’ve become. I am a committed Jew, proud American and proud supporter of Israel because of this education. My education, my parents, my family including my extended family, my jobs, my summer camp, they all shaped who I became and who I am. But I’m always striving to improve. I’m always looking for ways to improve and I try to learn from everything and everyone I meet.”
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Jason shared details of a book he wrote based on a family trip to Israel.
“My wife and I love to travel. We have traveled extensively with our six children over many years and I have always planned a very detailed itinerary for each trip. We wanted every trip to be fun, exciting and educational too. We wanted to promote family cohesion with our trips and also experience shared experiences. As time went on I found more and more friends asking us to share our itineraries with them, especially for Israel. So I decided to publish a travel book about Israel.”
“In the book,” Jason continued. “We covered some history of Israel, tips on what to expect in Israel, travel tips in general and for families specifically, and a complete 12-day itinerary for a family vacation in Israel for families with a relatively large age range of children. We wrote about what went into the planning and logistics of bringing a family with teenagers and younger children to Israel and what to consider. People spend a lot of money on their vacations and we wanted to help them make the most of a family trip to Israel.”
“The book is entitled ‘Israel for Families: An Adventure in 12 Days: An Innovative Guide to Exploring Israel and Enriching Your Experience.’ It’s still available on Amazon, and some of the things we wrote about remain among our favorite things to do, including touring the City of David, shopping at Mahane Yehuda, an outdoor market in Jerusalem with amazing food, and pushing off cliffs . This summer we dumped two waterfalls in Israel in the Golan Heights. I admit, I’m a bit older now, so I was definitely more scared this time. One was about 200 feet down. But I did it! That’s in addition to the many incredible Jewish and historical sites. There is so much to do there and you never get bored.”
To conclude our interview, I asked Jason to share details about other books he has written.
“I’ve written two other books on planning family vacations. Traveling is a big hobby of mine and has become one of my family. We wanted to share our experiences in planning and running great family outings. We do active travel. Of course, travel needs to be fun and relaxing. But our philosophy is that fun times and exciting times like ziplining, parasailing, hot air balloon rides and similar things must also be balanced by museums and other educational experiences, learning about the local culture, trying to meet locals and learning about the places that you visit.”
“We wrote about this experience and approach in our ‘Guide to Planning the Perfect Family Vacation’. The book is available on Amazon. Some of the websites and tech tips mentioned in the book have changed. The philosophy and approach of planning great family trips that bring parents and children together allows for a great time while they learn and grow. This is very necessary.”