I hadn’t been to Israel in 17 years, since going on Birthright with a group of fellow students from UW-Madison, on a trip lead by Benjie Kaplan, the current University of Minnesota Hillel director. Since that trip, Israel just sort of existed in my memories as a place I had enjoyed, the homeland for the Jewish people, yada yada yada, but I didn’t spend a lot of time thinking about it on a daily or weekly basis.
After just returning from a trip there with my family, including my two young daughters (ages 2 and 4), where we spent time walking neighborhoods and teaching our oldest the Hebrew alphabet by ‘repeating after me’ out loud, the fire and passion for Israel and Judaism for my wife Michelle and me has been completely rekindled. We continuously asked ourselves, how can we inspire our kids to want to live Jewish lives and to value, one day, having Jewish families of their own? One baby step is a 2020 goal to focus on celebrating Shabbat each week, which is something we have been guilty of ‘being too busy’ to do regularly over the past few years.
We had stopped all over the country and drove from Haifa to Eilat (and back to Haifa again), seeing unbelievable improvements to public transportation, housing, restaurants, playgrounds seemingly on every corner, and had an opportunity to be hosted by three different relatives in different cities. Everywhere we went there was a crane in the air and new train lines being built!
All of our family there has kids that will soon be going into, are currently in, or recently have finished their participation in the military or spent time performing public services to benefit the country. Most Israeli kids finishing high school take a trip to Poland to experience the concentration camps and then they ALL come back for a visit at Yad Vashem for a fresh education of the Holocaust. This is done so they know WHY it is so important for them to serve in the army or in whatever other service role they choose. Instead of going off to college and spending their Saturdays at football games, or Thursday nights playing beer pong, these kids are putting their lives on the lines to defend Israel and the Jewish people. I was unbelievably impressed with my cousins that have gone through the army experience and how incredibly motivated and responsible they are as young twenty-somethings. As they embark on their professional training after their time in the army, they are mature young adults, looking to start families and prepared to take their studies seriously as they choose a career.
We walked from Mt. Herzl down a scenic tree-lined path to Yad Vashem, which serves as a high level historical summary of how Israel came to exist and why it is so important that it continues to exist forever. As we stood at an outdoor observation point at Yad Vashem, we were surrounded by young soldiers having lunch and trading sandwich selections. Looking at some of the female soldiers, I couldn’t help but to get emotional picturing my daughters in their boots, and how I would feel as a parent knowing they could be in harm’s way, but also doing their duty to protect the Jews of Israel.
When the assassination of Solemani took place late last week, and I started receiving text messages from friends back home asking when we were coming back, my first reaction was that I hope nothing happens in Israel before we leave on Sunday. As I sat at Michelle’s cousin’s Bar Mitzvah on Saturday, I was embarrassed with myself for being so selfish. Looking around the room at 200 Israelis enjoying the nice luncheon with friends and families, and living their lives. Having missiles pointed at them from every direction is their everyday reality. There is no 10-hour flight overseas to relative safety for any of them. Staying at AirBnBs where one of the bedrooms is a bomb shelter is just another part of life there.
Israel is not a perfect country. Neither is America. There is nowhere in the world that is. You can disagree with the policies of the Israeli government and with the conditions in which the Palestinians are living. I am not an expert on Israeli politics and won’t pretend to be. But the fact is that the Jews have built an unbelievably amazing miracle of a country over the past 72-plus years. One that should be celebrated and one that should be revered for its importance as a safe haven for global Jewry, particularly in this era of rising global anti-Semitism.
We must ensure that Israel remains strong and that we support politicians in this country that value our slice of Jewish Democracy in the middle east. We must stand strong in the face of anti-Semitism. We must be proud of who we are as Jews and ensure that we pass down the values of what being Jewish means to each of us to the next generation.