The lights were dim, every seat taken, in the packed Young Israel of Oak Park social hall. We listened intently to stories from IDF soldiers and watched a tear-inducing video of the 67 Israeli youth slain in the most recent military defense campaign, Protective Edge.
Their faces across the screen could have been the faces of any Jewish youth in this city, or any other city around the world. They were our boys and girls, our children, our brethren.
After the solemnity of the Yom HaZikaron commemoration of Israel’s Memorial Day, the crowd transitioned to celebration for Yom HaAtzmaut, Israeli Independence Day, with freilich singing and dancing and a fervent version of Hatikvah. We all knew the words.
We are American Jews, but Israel lives in our hearts. Born in a land of freedom, abundance and opportunity, some of us still weep when we touch ground in eretz Yisroel, when we see mezuzahs on shop doors in Tel Aviv, when we walk down a Jerusalem street and know that everyone we pass is just like us, from the same lineage, the same fundamental belief system.
Am I hopeful in using the royal “we”?
Because I was sad to learn that a mere few programs for these two important days were available for participation in my local community, when I assumed that all Jews, regardless of denominational affiliation, would come together to celebrate the miracle of the Jewish State.
Although we may practice in varying and different ways, we are all Jews. And Israel is the one place on the planet where we are all welcomed with open arms, protected because we were born of this lineage, and invited to participate simply for showing up.
Throughout history, our people have been shunned, attacked, and persecuted toward the precipice of annihilation. It happened not quite a century ago, and some of the survivors still walk amongst us, testimony to the worst side of humanity.
The global tension today could lead to such a horrific repeat of events – if not for the state of Israel.
And yet, so many American Jews don’t feel that tie, that tug of homeland, that latent fear that while we are safe today, we may not always be, and Israel is our one and only salvation. It’s not only my Gentile friends who ask, as I prepare to visit the Holy Land, “Is it safe?”
Which may explain why there was such a dearth of programs in metro Detroit last week to commemorate Yom HaZikaron and Yom HaAtzmaut.
On these days, truly, I expected to see our community come together across political perspectives to celebrate the fact that we have a Jewish state which looks out for us – as we must look out for it.
My friends who’ve made aliyah posted on their social media pages about the magnificence of an entire nation stopping its normal routine to play solemn music and remember the fallen. The entire country.
In the video at YIOP, a beautiful young Israeli girl invited Detroit Jews to come to Israel “and maybe you will stay.”
I feel that way every time I arrive in Israel. I want to stay. I want to live in a land where I am not a minority, and where the mirror image of my brethren is the proudest, strongest, most impressive image of a Jew.
I truly hope I can one day own property and reside at least part-time there, calling Israel my home in more than a metaphorical sense.
Yet, American Jews can be complacent about our identity; we don’t have to defend it. We almost take it for granted.
And over there, across the world, on that tiny verdant landscape that is always under siege, our brethren are fighting every day of their lives for the right to exist. To protect us should we need their protection.
They think of us; I’m not convinced we are truly thinking of them.
It seems we in the Diaspora should do our part to support Israel – not only because they are our brethren but because one day, they may be our last hope for survival.
I don’t mean to be fatalistic. I just look at the events of history and I can’t rest easy in the freedom we enjoy today in America. It’s quite a new thing. And as soon as we say “it could never happen here,” it’s like we’re tipping the balance away from our favor.
I am not Orthodox nor do I want to be, and so I searched for festive celebrations in Conservative and Reform hubs. The only combined program I could find was at YIOP, where I was welcomed anyway.
Among my Orthodox friends, several have children who have made aliyah and are serving in the IDF. While they worry for their safety, they are incredibly proud, too, of their Zionist zeal. One Orthodox friend said that five of her friends recently bought apartments in Jerusalem.
That’s commitment to the Jewish state – even if they only visit once or twice a year. It’s investment in what they believe is important.
There are places on the globe I really want to visit: Scandinavia, South America, some ports in Asia, Alaska’s peaks and Hawaii’s volcanoes. I’ve spent incredible time in India, Bali, Italy, England, and I am better for my travels. My husband has heard the perfect silence of Antarctica, describing it in words that I can only hope to experience one day.
But there is only one place that draws me back again and again, and that’s Israel.
It is our salvation and our pride. It is the perfect example of what it means to be a strong and capable Jew. It is the smartest nation on the planet, fierce about its people, poetic in its political musings.
I am proud to be an American.
I am even prouder to be a Jew.
I hope next year, my community will truly come together to commemorate the common thread among us, which is Israel.