By Michael Jacobs / mjacobs@atljewishtimes.com

Opher Aviran for Atlanta Jewish Times

Opher Aviran is his usual relaxed, friendly self at the Eagle Star Awards on May 28.

Even if Ambassador Opher Aviran couldn’t wait to get home to Israel this August at the end of his five-year term as consul general to the Southeast, he would have good reason to hesitate.

Housing costs are high in Israel, and even with his oldest daughter, Reut, living in the Netherlands as a dancer and his middle daughter, Adi, staying in Georgia to pursue an acting career, Aviran and wife Talyah might need a second home just for all the memorabilia they’re taking back.

It’s not just the football signed by Alabama football coach Nick Saban or the basketball items from the University of North Carolina’s Roy Williams and the Memphis Grizzlies or the countless signed and framed photos that fill the walls of his office Midtown.

It’s the haul of awards, plaques and other recognitions being presented to Aviran everywhere he goes in his final months in the Southeast.

He received a new award named for him, the We Stand With Israel Opher Aviran Award, from Hillels of Georgia in late March. He was an honoree of the Georgia Commission on the Holocaust in April. He and Talyah shared the honor from the Friends of the Israel Defense Forces in mid-May. And he closed out May by taking home a memento from Conexx.

That’s a sampling of the hardware Aviran has received just this spring and only in Georgia. He has been active throughout his tenure in the other five states under his consulate as well — North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Alabama and Mississippi — sometimes spending entire weeks hopscotching from state to state to work with governors, attorneys general, legislators and business leaders to protect Israel’s interests.

Gifts, awards, photos and tchotchkes spread through his Midtown office are evidence of the miles he has traveled since August 2010 — and the work he has ahead of him just to pack up by the end of July. Perhaps it was convenient that container shipping company ZIM, Conexx’s Israeli Company of the Year, was just a few tables away at the Eagle Star Awards gala May 28.

“It’s been a fantastic five years. It’s a bittersweet feeling to go back home,” Aviran said. “I love Atlanta. I love the Southeast. I love the people here. We have many, many good friends,” more than in any previous posting.

The cycle of consuls general coming and going in the Southeast is nothing new. Aviran’s immediate predecessor, Reda Mansour, used the training he got in part from Aviran as he navigated a couple of wars (Hezbollah in Lebanon in 2006, Hamas in Gaza in 2008), became the dean of Atlanta’s consular corps, and departed well-liked and appreciated.

Aviran also has faced two wars during his time in the Southeast — Operations Pillar of Defense and Protective Edge against Hamas in Gaza in 2012 and 2014 — and claimed state-level legislative successes in the diplomatic battle against Iran’s aggressions. But as seen in the praise from community leaders accompanying this article, there’s a sense he has made a deeper impression.

“I’m a relatively easygoing person. I’m a warm person,” Aviran said in trying to explain why he and the Southeast have meshed. He said he’s a lousy joke teller but has a good, dry sense of humor, and that personality just fits here.

He said Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant is such a good friend that they exchange personal email messages and call each other on personal cellphones just to talk.

His and Talyah’s friendship with Nathan and Sandra Deal began before Deal took office as Georgia governor.

In December 2010, when Deal was governor-elect and the Avirans were marking their first Chanukah in Atlanta, Seth Cohen asked whether they would like to have the Deals join them to light the candles.

Sure enough, one night the Deals arrived right on time — which, Aviran acknowledged, is earlier than any Israeli would have turned up — and a close friendship developed.

One result was that the Deals offered a special video greeting to the Avirans when Georgia’s first couple couldn’t make the FIDF dinner May 19. The first lady focused on Talyah’s unsung diplomatic role, saying, “You have been a true ambassador for the state of Israel.”

Talyah that night noted that her husband’s role in the IDF decades ago was tank commander, and she said he still applies the lessons he learned in organizing a team of four to charge ahead while meeting larger objectives.

Aviran said those lessons boil down to teamwork. He said that while some tank commanders would leave their teams to clean up after exercises, he never left until the whole team was done.

“If I demand a lot of myself, I can expect a lot from others,” he said.

He also makes a point of using “we” when talking about successes but saying “I” when anything goes wrong. He said that approach of taking blame but sharing credit encourages the startup nation mentality of taking risks and being willing to fail.

It helps, Aviran said, that he has had such a strong team in Atlanta, including the two deputy consul generals who have served with him: Sharon Kabalo and Ron Brummer.

“It’s all about people,” he said.

Among the top successes during his time in Atlanta are progress in connections with the black community, including a friendship with Ebenezer Baptist Church Senior Pastor Raphael Warnock, and the growth in the annual Yom HaZikaron (Israel Memorial Day) program, with more participation from the Israeli community and roles for the day schools.

“I don’t believe really in the word ‘problem.’ There are problems, but every problem you can see as a challenge,” Aviran said. “You cannot answer every challenge in life, obviously, in private life as well as public life. But you identify the opportunities and the obstacles to address your challenges, and you identify your partners. It’s all about partnerships. It’s all about building coalitions.”

He said he always asks state legislators to seek Democratic and Republican sponsors for legislation because Israel should not be a partisan issue.

That approach has been crucial to the signature legislative effort of his term: isolation of Iran through divestment.

Georgia passed Iran divestment legislation when Mansour was consul general, and Aviran was determined to bring the legislation to other states in the region.

Georgia Attorney General Sam Olens gave that effort a boost when he invited Aviran to join him at the national convention of state attorneys general in 2011 so the consul general could meet with the AGs from the other five Southeastern states. Instead, Aviran was invited to address the full convention, giving a boost to divest-from-Iran efforts across the nation.

With help from state Attorney General Alan Wilson, advice from United Against Nuclear Iran and a bit of his own personal touch, the legislation was enacted in South Carolina.

Aviran said the South Carolina law is the best in the nation because of UANI’s input, and it has served as a model for other states.

Mississippi also has enacted divestment legislation, and a bill in North Carolina has cleared the Senate and is pending in the House. Aviran is hopeful that Tennessee will act next year.

Only Alabama has rejected Iran legislation; Aviran said he hopes his successor tries again there.

Aviran is still taken aback by the scope of the Southeastern post and the distances involved in appearing anywhere from southwestern Mississippi to northeastern North Carolina.

During our interview in his office May 20, he noted that he had his driver, Eric, bring him some 450 miles at night to get home May 18 from an appearance in North Carolina so he could be ready for the FIDF gala the next day. It occurred to him that it’s only 475 miles from Metula on Israel’s Lebanese border to the southern Red Sea port of Eilat. In effect, his driver took him the length of Israel on a quick trip back from North Carolina.

Aviran noted that the GDP of the six states the consulate covers is equal to such nations as Sweden, Switzerland, Chile and Vietnam.

His 86-year-old mother, who was born in Corsica but came to Palestine by the time she was 6 months old, called from Israel during the interview to wish him a happy anniversary, which served as a reminder of how long a five-year foreign posting is.

“Soon I’m going to be seeing her a lot more,” he said. She’s healthy but has been a widow for more than eight years. Aviran said he regrets that his father, who came from Poland as a boy with his whole village in 1929, didn’t live to see many of his achievements, including receiving a promotion to the rank of ambassador in October after 31 years in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

It’s a career that started on a whim.

“I never dreamed of being a diplomat,” Aviran said. He just went along with a friend who was taking the diplomatic corps exam, and he made it through the selection process.

Now he’s not sure what direction his career will take in Israel. He might continue to work with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, or he might try to use his contacts in the Southeast to build more connections between the region and Israel in academic or business areas.

“We’ll see. I feel confident,” he said.

His diplomatic career has included stops in Myanmar, the Netherlands and Australia, but he told the FIDF crowd that Atlanta has been his favorite post.

He knows he’ll be back in Georgia to visit Adi as she pursues an acting career with the B.F.A. she earned at Columbus State. Youngest daughter Noa is bound for military service in Israel.

“It’s been an amazing time,” Aviran said.

Sandra Deal returned the warm feelings toward the Avirans at the FIDF gala with a sentiment shared by many: “Georgia will always welcome you with open arms.”