Being in Israel for Israel at 75 - April 28, 2023

Yesterday, I returned home from a six day trip to Israel. I was there to represent the Jewish Federation of Greater Portland at the Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA) General Assembly (GA). Normally held in November, this year’s GA was held in Israel to coincide with Yom HaAtzmaut, Israel’s 75th anniversary.


To say it is an experience to be there during Yom HaZikaron (Israel’s memorial day) and the immediate transition to Yom HaAtzmaut (Israel’s independence day) would be an understatement. You get such a different feel for the country. The solemn and reflective mood to honor those who have fallen in service to the country and those who died from terrorism immediately changes to joy and celebration.


One of the GA “highlights” was to be the opening plenary with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. There were groups calling for JFNA to disinvite the prime minister. How do you not invite the democratically elected leader of the State of Israel? There were also questions about what kind of protests would take place inside and outside the hall. Sunday morning, it all became moot as Prime Minister Netanyahu announced he would be unable to attend.


We did have the opportunity to hear President Isaac Herzog, former chair of the Jewish Agency for Israel (he is well known to this group as the Jewish Federations are JAFI's major funders). He shared about his recent trip to Warsaw where he commemorated the 80th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising while standing with the presidents of both Germany and Poland. He thanked North American Jewry for its efforts in nation building – “with love, devotion, and commitment from the beginning.” And he touched on the current issues within Israel. He said, “I am convinced that there is no greater existential threat to our people than the one that comes from within -- our own polarization and alienation from one another. I believe that it is only through dialogue between us that we can possibly allow our moments of crisis to turn into moments of growth.”


On Monday, I made the decision to travel by train north to Akko to visit with our long time funding partners at Dror IsraelBy doing so, I missed the balagon (messy situation) when Minister Simcha Rothman, lead author of the judicial reform legislation, spoke on a panel. This is when the protesters inside and outside the hall responded forcefully. You can read more here.


While in the north, I visited the new Akko educators' kibbutz that our Jewish community provided funding to support. There are multiple educators who live in the building and work with youth throughout the area. It is also a community gathering place. While there I saw multiple refugees from Ukraine in their Hebrew learning ulpan classes.


I then traveled to the city of Karmiel where I visited the Nitzanim public elementary school. The school is in the older section of Karmiel and in one of the poorer neighborhoods. Enrollment was dropping, yet four years ago Dror Israel and their educators were invited in to change the school culture. The school has since been revitalized with a growing student population (from all backgrounds), and you could see the joy on the children’s faces.


I had the opportunity to meet with Hadar, an 11-year-old girl, and her teacher, Shani. Hadar’s family is originally from Ethiopia. Her mother passed away when she was two years old and her father is raising Hadar and her two brothers. I wish I had videoed my conversation with her as her English was impeccable. I asked her why her English was so good – she spends her evenings watching YouTube videos in English.


I ended my time at Eshbal, a small kibbutz community of educators. Beyond hoping to grow their kibbutz to 250 educators in a few years, they also operate a boarding high school for troubled teens. Similar to the pet therapy program the Jewish Federation funded at Neve MichaelEshbal offers a dog training program and horse care and riding program for these vulnerable young people.


My train ride back to Tel Aviv was filled with young soldiers in their dress uniforms on their way to Yom HaZikaron ceremonies across the country. Sadly, during that train ride we learned of a horrific car ramming terrorist attack at Jerusalem's Machane Yehuda shuk.


Yom HaZikaron began Monday night at 8:00 pm with a minute-long siren throughout the country -- another siren goes off at 11:00 am the following morning. Everyone stopped (even if driving on the highway)...stood at attention...and paid homage to the 24,213 fallen soldiers and 4,255 victims of terror. It is a chilling moment, especially in a small country where everyone has or knows someone who has lost a loved one.


Tuesday night, as if someone "flipped a switch," mourning went to pure joy and celebration for Israel's 75th. I participated in a huge celebration with over 1,000 North American Jews at the GA and then on the streets with Israelis. I have been fortunate to be in Israel multiple times for this "transition" and it never ceases to amaze me -- the pride, joy, and love for what this country has become, despite so many challenges.


My colleague, Doron Krakow, CEO of the Jewish Community Centers Association, said it beautifully about Yom HaAtzmaut:


As the sun sets following Yom HaZikaron, we usher in perhaps the single most significant milestone since her founding in 1948 -- the celebration of Israel’s 75th anniversary. Having so recently paused to remember the precariousness of Jewish life in a world without Israel (Yom HaShoah) and having spent the preceding day (Yom HaZikaron) remembering those whose lives made the celebration possible, this year’s Yom HaAtzmaut celebration should be of unrivaled proportion. A single day on which we set aside all other concerns and considerations as we revel in the miracle of modern Zionism and its achievements.


The celebration should be unbridled, uninhibited, and unconditional. We stand at the high point of the last 2,000 years of Jewish history—and we do so because we live in a world of Jewish freedom, Jewish independence, and Jewish self-determination. For one day, let’s rejoice in our historic good fortune and let the celebration ring out in every corner of the Jewish world. And then, the next day, we’ll get back to work on the unfinished business of making Israel, and all of us, the best possible version of ourselves. God knows we’ve still got plenty to do.


Shabbat shalom.


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