I recently guided the appropriately named “Pioneers and Heroes” Taglit-Birthright group for the “Amazing Israel” provider. The educational rationale behind the ten day trip was to travel the length and breadth of Israel whilst studying about and learning from the lives and actions of the young pioneers and heroes who built up and defended our Jewish homeland.
In the north we marveled at how the early young eastern European pioneers (chalutzim) had transformed what Mark Twain described back in the 1860’s as a “heartbroken and dreary land” to the lush green paradise that stretched before our eyes. In Jerusalem, at the Mt. Herzl military cemetery, we saw with our own tear-stained eyes, and the heard the stories about, the price we have paid, and continue to pay, to keep our homeland free. On the fortress of Masada in the Judean Desert, after hearing the harrowing account of the demise of last free independent Jewish commonwealth (with the exception, in the early second century CE, of the brief three-year rule of Bar Kochba) for almost 1900 years, our entire group shouted out with all of their Jewish pride AM YISRAEL CHAI! (“The people of Israel live!”) and we heard our own voices echo back across the chasm of the two thousand awful years which we did not have control of our destiny, and had to rely on the pity of our host nations.
Whilst studying about the heroic and selfless lives of Zionist icons such as Rachel Bluwstein, Chaim Nachman Bialik, Chana Szenesh, Eli Cohen, Jonathan Netanyahu, Alex Singer, Yitzchak Rabin, Natan Sharansky, Ilan and Assaf Ramon, Roi Klein and Michael Levin, among many others, my thoughts were turned to our own group.
Here were forty American Jews, many who came to Israel despite the “wise” advice of their concerned parents and friends back home, who had chosen to boldly fulfill the first commandment the first Jews Abraham and Sarah received, that of Lech Lecha (“you go”). They came as pilgrims to explore the land and our traditions, and to meet the people of the land. They left overwhelmed by the glory of Israel, truly feeling the importance of being links in the chain of Jewish continuity. They met, and travelled with, eight Israeli peers, defenders of our land, and were amazed by their willingness to give the best years of their lives, and if necessary their very lives themselves, to keep the torch of Jewish freedom burning bright. Truly these Israeli youth carry on the tradition of the Jewish pioneers and heroes who came to give and not to take, and are so selfless in their pursuit of a better future for the Jewish people.