Don’t Seek Mentors – In Memory of My Great Teacher, Ilia Salita (z’l)

Ilia Salita @LimmudFSU Vienna, March 2020. eJP Archives / courtesy LFSU

By Justin Hayet

Our relationship started with an awkward call to his assistant to set a meeting for my former boss. I mispronounced his name. His assistant laughed. It happened often.

I would meet him, as I met many guests of my former boss, Israel’s Ambassador to the United Nations, at the guest entrance to the United Nations on 46th and 1st. Right under the tent; I’ll be there in a blue suit. You can’t miss me. And he didn’t- that day and for the next three years.

I was 23 and lost by the strangeness of my role and the complexities of our world- and my place in it as a millennial Jewish American living through what now I realized was a renaissance of Jewish life, culture and community in the United States, Israel and throughout the world. I remember every word of our first conversation. It was February 2018. His older son, Josh, had just returned from Birthright after receiving a job offer from Google. His younger son, Robert was applying to colleges as a senior in high school. He led with a love of his family and the American dream he seized for them.

His demeanor was kinder and gentler than my world and the rush and schvitz of politics and life at the United Nations.

I asked him to mentor me as if it were a simple transaction. Sounds like a good idea, I thought. He brushed it off and assured me he didn’t have much to offer. I followed up via email.

He responded:

“I think that you are giving me too much credit but always happy to speak.”

I didn’t question it. I ran with it.

Around two years later, I found myself working directly for Ilia at Genesis Philanthropy Group, one of the Jewish world’s leading foundations that Ilia led for nearly 10 years. In our many conversations in his office, with pictures of his family and major figures glowing in the background and intentionally interspersed together, he told me a story. Around ten years prior, he first met Elie Wiesel in his role at Genesis Philanthropy Group. He came prepared as ever, formally dressed and bewildered at the prospect of meeting with, and working with, his hero. Upon entering Elie Wiesel’s iconic study, he jumps right into the work seconds after shaking Elie Wiesel’s hand.

Elie Wiesel looks at him and asks Ilia to pause. Ilia looks back. Elie Wiesel asks Ilia about his family. Ilia is curt at first and dives back into the work; but Elie Wiesel wanted more. He needed more. His work was sacred; he needed to know the man he was working, creating and partnering with in what was one piece of a larger and colorful mosaic of Elie Wiesel’s life’s work and larger contribution to the Jewish People and humanity at large.

Ilia spent the next 5 minutes, more at ease and naturally glowing, detailing the marvelous life of his family- his wife and two then-young kids. The meeting ends. Ilia, rarely starstruck, is, rightfully, starstruck. Around six months later, they meet again. Ilia, walks into that famous study, greets Elie Wiesel. Again, still he is rightfully starstruck, but attempts to rush right into the work. And before Ilia can jump into the work, Elie Wiesel asks, without a note pad nearby and but only their previous conversation imprinted on his soul and dense memory, Elie Wiesel asks Ilia Salita: And tell me, how are Josh and Robert doing?

Pure heart, pure memory and pure class.

Ilia was shocked, he recalled to me years later. Here he was: at the pinnacle of his professional and Jewish life having seized the essence of the American Jewish dream meeting- and extensively working and creating- with the one of the most consequential Jews in 5000 years of Jewish history; and here was Ellie Wiesel using his limited time on this earth to ask about the sons of a man he only met twice.

This wasn’t a story and Ilia wasn’t a mentor.

This story was a lesson and Ilia my teacher.

This story, like hundreds of others, wasn’t a talking point at some leadership retreat. It was, like everything Ilia did, a meticulous practice, a wonderous masterclass sown together by his life experiences he was too selfless to keep to himself yet too modest to explain in total epic detail.

Fast-forward to 2020, I escaped New York in early March as our world began to change. “Very smart move, Justin,” he told me. That was all I needed. A storm was coming, but he was calm and thinking, and I was reassured. This was usually the theme.

We spoke a lot over these past three years and these past few months prior to his death. For Ilia, there was no barrier between a curious millennial and himself.

Sometimes he would call me in between other calls with far more important individuals from across the globe and across the spectrum of global Jewish life; other times he was just eager to kibbitz in his sanctuary of thought- speaking on Bluetooth while driving in his car, windows down and sunglasses on. He was, after all, living the American dream.

The discussions, conversations, debates and laugher we shared grounded me from the day I met him at the United Nations and carry me through the fog of our even more confusing world today. “No one said it was going to be easy,” he would often say far before COVID clichés’ overtook social media and life became challenging. His path and life story illuminated this mantra every single day.

He was as gentle and patient as a human being (or Jew for that matter) could be. Logic and reason were his compass, love of his family was his Bible, and laughter and maybe a little English breakfast tea and strange Russian chocolates were his remedies for the absurdities of our world- both Jewish and otherwise.

And as the dust of COVID settles, because eventually as he reminded me in the early days of the pandemic, eventually it will, somehow, settle; and as a more pragmatic and more scientific view of our world begins to bloom anew with the signs of a distant spring, an effective vaccine, and the impending rebuilding of the Jewish world and our communities’ collective renaissance that COVID disrupted; I can’t help but to naturally question not only why did he leave us so soon, but also more importantly, reflect on the question: how did he spend his time with us- and for us?

Ilia’s memory is weaved throughout the pages of our unraveling history. His legacy is etched onto great symphony of Jewish icons that inspired him throughout his life and now he, tragically, joins them in death. Individuals he studied in awe and in secret as a child from the other side of the Iron Curtain; now, he joins them in the eternal, more definite, curtain. Waiting and watching for the lessons he lived and selflessly shared to bloom in the lives of those of us who had the honor to learn from- and with- him.

He didn’t belong only to me or the hundreds- if not thousands- of individuals he shared his world and time with.

Like Elie Wiesel, Ilia reached the highest being reached by only a few dozen Jews in five thousand years of history: Ilia belonged to the Jewish People.

Six words that ushered Ilia throughout his life and into mine; sketched, but not scarred, with the memory of the Soviet Union, its unfathomable antisemitism, his immigration to the Great United States in 1991 at the age of 23 with thriving optimism for its endless fruits of freedom, to be amongst his fellow free and proud Jews, living without fear and eager- forever eager- for rigorous debate and civil discourse- not in spite of his past- but for the sake of our collective global Jewish memory and its pulsing future; a future he championed.

For me, luckily, Ilia wasn’t a mentor.

In every word he spoke, in every meeting we shared, and in every laugh we stole, Ilia Salita was my teacher. He was too modest to say he had the answers, but he had something more durable: commentary, questions and lingering theories that spoke to the complexities, and often screaming contradictions, of our world and our place as Jews in it.

Mentors live in the transactional world helping you leap from conversation to conversation, contact to contact and job to job.

Teachers weave together the core lessons and moral code to guide us through the unexpected and into our destiny, but still always leaving the design up to us.

Teachers show you how to live, how to grapple and how to grow knowing that the journey, and the moral code of life that presses upon us and who we choose to become along the way, is far more important than the destination.

Teachers, like my dear Ilia, transcend- beyond the living, through death and into the eternal.

Ilia Salita, and his blooming legacy, strangely, didn’t leave us- he is still helping to build us. His lessons, moral compass and professional ethics are alive as ever through the dozens, if not hundreds, of diverse Jews in our community who he taught routinely one on one, tea by tea and by Russian chocolate. These collective minds, hearts, lessons, stories and instincts- eager to ask fundamental questions at the heart of the 2020 Jewish dilemma- will rebuild the New Jewish World.

In our final two emails in mid-June, around two weeks before he left us, he uncharacteristically ended his last two emails to me with the following:

“Be gentle”

“Be patient”

I couldn’t help but to wonder if- true to form- he foresaw what no one else could see and saw what was coming as his path, his story, began to reach its final few pages and he his final resting place. Perhaps he was winking through these two words- in a way only he could foresee- knowing I would, in sadness and unrelenting despair, look back upon every word he wrote and the hundreds of conversations I was honored to have shared with him.

Like all great teachers, he knew his student well.

He would tell me to be more patient. He always did. The path will reveal itself. He would hint for me to be gentler. Sometimes subtly. Sometimes not. The world isn’t against you, he implored me. And even if for a moment or in a struggle, it seemed like the world was against me as me being a self-centered millennial would allege; he was always in my corner. A smile, a text, a nudge, an emoji. He was there. Always.

In our hundreds of conversations, I clutched onto each word he said, each act of kindness he showed to me, his family, his friends, his colleagues at Genesis, his partners in building global Jewish life and his Russian speaking Jewish community that he championed. He remembered, and led, with his journey to and in the United States. He led with the words and humanity Elie Wiesel shared with him and transformed them into his anthem that rippled throughout his life and into ours as he not only retold this iconic story- but lived- and shared its virtues.

A lesson from one of the greatest Jews of our time to another.

He knew my flaws. I could see very few in him. He knew my strengths. I emulated his. He saw my path. I was bewildered by his.

He didn’t ever try to change me- though he probably should’ve. However, in life, just like now in death, he simply would respond:

Be gentle.

Be patient.

Mentors are mourned, but teachers live on in death as they lived in life- revealing their great lessons as we yearn for them most; imploring us to ask fundamental questions we only have the courage to face standing in the light of the man with a strange name once mistaken for a potential mentor as I stood dressed in a blue suit as a scared 23 year old getting ready to meet my teacher.

The path will reveal itself. Be patient.

Justin Hayet is forever a student of Ilia Salita. He is currently the COO of Bnai Zion.