Today In History - May 25, 2023

Please join us in-person for the Jewish Federation of Greater Portland’s 103rd Annual Meeting on Tuesday, June 6 at 7:00 p.m. at the Mittleman Jewish Community Center. At this meeting, we will share data from our Community Study, done in partnership with Brandeis University. I promise that you will find the information of great interest about our Jewish community. Register here.


So much has been happening in our community in the past two months and I feel like I have been on a whirlwind. I traveled to Israel twice for a total of three weeks, attended multiple Jewish organizational events, worked on closing the Jewish Federation’s annual campaign, and even went to prom with my wife for the high school she teaches at. So, instead of sharing about all of those things, I thought I would focus on just one day -- May 25 -- an important day in history.


On May 25, 1977, Star Wars: A New Hope had its theatrical release. Who doesn’t remember the opening of the movie with the words moving up the screen followed by our first look at Darth Vader? A winner of multiple Academy Awards, Star Wars revolutionized motion picture production with its groundbreaking visual effects and sound design.


You know the story…A farm boy dreams of adventure and a princess rebels against an evil Empire. The fate of the galaxy is forever changed when Luke Skywalker discovers his powerful connection to a mysterious Force, and blasts into space to rescue Princess Leia. Mentored by Obi Wan-Kenobi, a wise Jedi Master, and opposed by the evil Darth Vader, Luke begins his hero’s journey.


Sounds like a Jewish story to me -- and others. Watch here.


On May 25, 1979, Israel began her promised withdrawal from the Sinai Peninsula following the peace treaty signed with Egypt. Israel agreed to withdraw within three years from Sinai to the border that prevailed before the 1967 war. Here is an article from The New York Times.


And on May 25, 1991 the Jewish world made possible the airlift of Ethiopian Jews to Israel in Operation Solomon. Ethiopia was embroiled in a decades-long civil war and was facing a famine. Rebel forces were advancing toward Addis Ababa and the Jews there, which caused grave concern among Israeli and American-Jewish agencies on the ground in Ethiopia. Diplomats negotiated a deal with the Ethiopian government, and covert operations were arranged to enable evacuation at a moment’s notice.


After President George H.W. Bush sent a letter to the new Ethiopian President, Tesfaye Gebre Kidan, an agreement was reached on May 23, 1991, allowing Jews to leave Ethiopia all at onceOperation Solomon started the next day and concluded 36 hours later. Just days before Addis Ababa fell to the rebels.


Over 36 hours, 35 aircraft flew 14,325 Ethiopians to Israel. One plane holds the world record for the most passengers on an aircraft -- at least 1,078 people were on board, including two babies born in-flight.


Our Jewish Federation played a role in this effort with a special emergency fundraising effort. Moreover, our funding partner in Israel, the Jewish Agency, along with the Government of Israel were the main players in planning and executing Operation Solomon, working alongside and supported by organizations including the Israel Defense Forces, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (another funding partner), the American Association for Ethiopian Jews, and Jewish Federations from across North America.


I get chills every time I think about this Herculean effort.


Tonight at sundown, Jews all over the world will celebrate the holiday of Shavuot, also known as the “feast of weeks,” which commemorates when the Torah was given by God to the Jewish people on Mount Sinai more than 3,300 years ago. The holiday falls seven weeks after Passover at the end of the counting of the Omer (a verbal counting of each of the 49 days between the Jewish holidays of Passover and Shavuot).


In biblical times, Shavuot was one of three pilgrimage festivals in which Jews would go to Jerusalem and bring their first fruits as offerings to God. Today, we celebrate Shavuot by going to synagogue to hear the Ten Commandments, having festive meals of dairy foods, staying up all night to learn, and reading the Book of Ruth.


First, why dairy? There are many explanations (read here). One reason is that Shavuot is linked to the Exodus from Egypt into the Promised Land, and it is written "From the misery of Egypt to a country flowing with milk and honey…" (Exodus 3:8-17). Another one is that when we were receiving the Torah on Mount Sinai, we were pure and innocent like newborn babies are, and babies subsist on milk. My favorite is the kabbalistic idea of equating the numerical value of the word halav (milk) -- 40 (‘het’=8, ‘lamed’=30, ‘vet’=2) -- with the number of days Moses spent on Mount Sinai receiving the Torah. Thus, we eat dairy.


Why do we stay up all night to learn Torah? It is said that on the day the Torah was to be given, the Jews accidentally overslept. Now, we are making up for the mistakes of our ancestors and stay up all night learning Torah.


As for reading the Book of Ruth. Ruth was a Moabite woman who became a Jew after the death of her husband. She stays with her mother-in-law Naomi, and later marries Boaz and becomes an ancestor of King David. Ruth is perhaps the most famous Jew by choice in all of Jewish history. It is traditional on Shavuot to read the Book of Ruth. The major themes in the Book of Ruth about giving, kindness, selflessness, coincide with the giving of the Torah to the Jewish people on Shavuot. 


Here are nine other things you may not know about Shavuot.


Enjoy the Shavuot holiday (our office will be closed tomorrow in observance of the holiday), Shabbat shalom, and have a meaningful and safe Memorial Day weekend.



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