Sunday morning, July 4, 1976. 5:00 am — There was a pounding on our door by the building manager of Neve Schechter in Jerusalem, where our USY Israel Pilgrimage was staying. He was pounding and screaming, “Heym Al HaDerech Habayta ” — they are on their way home!
I thought I was awaking from a horrible nightmare. Our first week in Israel with our USY high school group involved discussions about the hijacking of the Air France plane and as time wore on, the possibility of a grim outcome. Before Shabbat we were told that Israel’s Chief Rabbi had prepared a special prayer of hope that every synagogue was to read that Shabbat, praying that somehow the hostages’ lives would be spared. The hijackers had announced that unless 40 Palestinian prisoners were released from Israeli prisons, they would begin to execute the Israeli hostages every hour. In the days before, all the non-Jewish hostages had been released to freedom.
As I lit Shabbat candles with all the girls in our group, we said an extra prayer that somehow these hostages would remain alive, yet we all had doubts. Throughout Shabbat the mood was quiet and subdued. At Havadalah the USYers began to ask the more penetrating questions of how could God let this happen. We knew that Sunday and every day after would be a challenge to engage these teens in a positive manner during their first visit to Israel.
But with the noise, we opened the door and the building manager was crying and screaming at the same time. He told us to come to the kitchen where Neve Schechter had one small TV. We quickly woke up the other staff and the USYers and we all ran down to the kitchen in our pajamas — what a sight! My husband, Sam, our Group Leader, translated what the hysterical TV reporters were also screaming and yet we couldn’t quite comprehend the magnitude of this military operation.
We all went back upstairs to get dressed, came down to daven Shacharit with still so many questions and quickly ate breakfast. We were scheduled that morning to take a walking tour of downtown Jerusalem.
As we were about to board our 2 buses, we saw Israeli Air Force jets overhead, skywriting “Kol HaKavod L’Tzahal” — all honor to our army. Again, we were just stunned.
Within a short time our group was walking along Yaffo Road, across from the Main Post Office. A half block from where we were there was a crowd forming in front of an appliance store. TV sets had been placed in every corner of the store’s windows. We brought our group, had them sit on the sidewalk in the front and the most miraculous sight unfolded.
We saw the Hercules plane land at Tel Aviv International Airport, the back cargo door opened, the former hostages began to run off. Their families had been allowed to wait on the tarmac and each group began to run towards the other. I will never forget hearing someone yell, “Abba, Ani Ba” — Father, I am coming. There was no need for translation as we were sat transfixed for the next half hour watching this scene.
At the time, we did not know that Yoni Netanyahu, the Commander of Operation Entebbe had been killed, along with 2 of the hostages. We would learn more during that week.
Sam arranged for our USY group to attend the 30 day Shloshim ceremony at Yoni’s grave on Har Herzl. That also is seared in my memory, a grave that I’ve visited numerous times over these 40 years, every time I’m at Har Herzl.
This miracle is still so fresh. Forty years ago, no one could imagine that Yoni’s brother, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, would be at the Entebbe Airport today, marking this grim anniversary. Watching this ceremony and hearing the Ugandan Army Band play Hatikvah is beyond comprehension. I thank God for allowing this to happen. It has added a new dimension to our own July 4th celebrations.