This article was made possible with the kind assistance of the Israeli Ministry of Welfare and Social Services
It’s important to stress that the work of Danish-Jewish Friendship’s (DJF) rests on good relations, both because this makes work progress more smoothly, but especially because we wish to develop and nurture personal relations with the Jewish people. We are grateful for the leaders and managers at our partner institutions, which is why we would like to bring a farewell interview with Aviel Dagan, a highly valued partner and the leader of Maon Nachim in Netanya, who is retiring this summer. Maon Nachim is a caregiving home for severely disabled people.
Kindness and authority don’t always go hand in hand, since the one often counteracts the other. But there are leaders who manage to combine both characteristics. And this is the kernel of the man sitting across from me, Aviel Dagan, whose last name literally means “grain”. Dagan first served Israel as a soldier and then later became the manager of a caregiving institution, but he has succeeded in combining care and attentiveness with authority in the best way possible. This is an impression he has maintained from the very first day of our acquaintance. I have never doubted that our volunteers had a responsive leader with an open door and a person to whom they always could turn. At the same time he clearly has shown interest in the well-being and personal safety of DJF volunteers.
But what is Dagan’s backstory? What is the path he had to navigate to become the man he is today? And how did he end up here in Netanya? The first station in his life’s journey was to be born into a mixed Jewish-Arab neighborhood in Yaffo in 1953. Dagan is an Israeli who emphasizes the potential for coexistence between Jews and Arabs because he has lived it. This is also a value that is lived out here at Maon Nachim, where both Jewish, Christian, and Muslim citizens are taken in. Coexistence, however, needs to be cultivated due to the tensions that do exist between the various population groups. This is where the authoritative side of Dagan comes to bear. He tolerates no subversive rhetoric from one side or another among the residents at Maon Nachim. By setting clear principles and sticking to them, the everyday lives of everyone are made easier.
But let’s return to Dagan’s personal story. His parents were German-speaking Romanians, who, due to the British whitepaper, sought to enter the British-controlled Palestine Mandate “illegally”. In an extraordinary example of Jewish romance and dogged determination, they met and fell in love in an internment camp on Cyprus. Eventually, they reached Israel, where they established themselves and later were posted as diplomats to Moscow, Russia, during the Cold War, where Dagan spent three years of his youth. Not many years later, Dagan found himself fighting as part of an elite unit in the grim battles against Syria and Egypt in the Yom Kippur War of 1973. He is modest and reticent about his military career. But the few words that he does share, and the fact that he left the Army with the rank of colonel, speak their own language. He could very easily have stayed on a military career path but chose instead to reshuffle the deck and continue in a different kind of service, with the Ministry of Welfare and Social Services, from which he is now retiring. A period of 25 years, of which 15 were spent at Maon Nachim, is the balance of the time Dagan invested there.
In this connection it is worthwhile mentioning, Dagan’s leadership philosophy and approach to other people. If we start with his approach to others, it is remarkable to see the value and potential he assigns to his residents. He does not first and foremost see them as disabled persons, but rather seeks to see past their handicap. He recounts how he brought his now adult children to work and observed that they didn’t see the residents as handicapped persons but as funny and endearing personalities, with whom they enjoyed spending time. This is also the spirit that is behind Dagan’s attitude to his work. Even as a leader he is modest, and claims that he is nothing more than a handyman who has helped move things along. He is not the type of leader who believes in issuing executive orders. Character and integrity are what make people act and follow you. This is also why he has never been that inclined to pursue a bureaucratic career in the ministry but has preferred to be in a setting where he would be able to see the direct effect of his work and initiatives.
Dagan is now looking ahead to an active retirement. He is one of those Israelis who at one and the same time is both part of the past and the future of this country. His first major project will be to complete a PhD in communications. He will also be able to enjoy time with his family. His three kids are currently active-duty soldiers in the IDF, each one in important roles as a medic, artillery officer and elite soldier.
In Danish-Jewish Friendship, we will clearly miss Dagan and want to extend our thanks to him from our volunteers and organizational members. But we also look ahead to continue our cooperation with Maon Nachim’s new leader and the Ministry of Welfare and Social Services.
*This interview was translated from the Danish version, which was first published in the June 2016 issue of Dansk-Jødisk Venskab.