Imagine finding out one night that your husband, who you thought was leaving for classes every night, was actually an agent in the Mossad, the Israeli equivalent of the CIA.
And then imagine that he’s being sent on an undercover mission in a hostile environment. Do you go with him?
This is what Shalva Hessel faced when one night in London, she discovered that her husband, Yoram, was an active Mossad agent and not heading off to study, as she thought.
She shared her story to a group of about 80 members of the Joshua Society of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia, all significant benefactors, during an event Sept. 7.
She sat at a table in the Gladwyne dining room of Bill and Paula Glazer’s — two of the co-chairs of the Joshua Society — signing copies of her book, Married to the Mossad.
The book, released in the United States in late July, shares the true story of Hessel and her husband going undercover for a mission in a hostile country. Reborn as Sally and Jerry, Hessel, her husband and their two young children underwent extensive training and faced danger and the constant threat of being found out. She herself got entangled in a situation that put her life in danger, she said.
“Imagine you have to go to Syria and live — imagine, I’m not saying it’s Syria — you have to be somebody else, change all your identity. Can somebody change? If you need to, you do,” said Hessel, who now lives in Tel Aviv. “And you have to get used to a different name, you have to have a new history, what school you went to — many things, so that you will not be suspicious. It’s not an easy task. But we did it, we did it for [our] country.”
Hessel, a computer engineer who also runs an investigation company with former Mossad and CIA agents, grew up in a modern Orthodox home.
“I never thought that I am 007 or I’m built from that material to do really outrageous things. I never thought that I’m brave and I can do a lot of courageous things. I’m just a girl from the central of Israel, a country girl,” she said. “If I had to look at my life, how it would look like, no Hollywood horror movie could have described what I really went through.”
Writing the book was a challenge for personal — and legal — reasons. She faced pushback from her own family, including her husband, who objected to the book, and from the Mossad itself.
The book was censored for years before its ultimate publication. Her marriage was threatened, she said, but she pushed on because it was important for her.
“It’s a message,” she said. “I had to do it [so] that everyone will know that everyone can achieve great things.”
Living undercover — and even not undercover — she had to be careful of who she talked to for fear of revealing her and her family’s identities. The anti-Semitism she experienced was “unbelievable,” she said, recalling conversations with people who didn’t know she was Jewish.
After this experience, she took account for what was important in her life, including her Jewish education. She firmly believes in the power and importance of women, especially in environments where women are kept out.
“We cannot win the fight against terror if women are not part of it,” she noted.
For her, having a Jewish education and background — she is Jewish first and an Israeli second, she said — is what she hoped most to pass to her children.
“The most important thing is to give your kids a Jewish education, that they will feel they belong to something, that they will have identity,” she said. “This was a big lesson that I’ve learned: When you live as a non-Jew, it’s easy. You have no responsibility. … You just have to live your life. … But when you’re born a Jew, you’re born with 3,000 years of responsibility, of symbols, of history.”
Her history with the Jewish Federation began when she and her husband were living for a time in Washington, D.C. Her son met Ben Kirshner while at school; at the time, Kirshner had not been to Israel. When the family moved back to Israel, Kirshner came to visit. And later, when her former guest was on a Men’s Mission trip, Hessel hosted the group in her home.
“And then they came every year. It’s a tradition,” she said.
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