Israeli poet David Shimoni said, “From each Jewish heart an invisible path leads to the Land of Israel.”
Directly following the military confrontation between Israel and Gaza, I stood in a room where some 600 hearts, or more, were being drawn along that path. The occasion was a rally dubbed “We Stand with Israel – a Gathering in Solidarity” sponsored by the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh.
From the 80-something-year-old Holocaust survivor, whose heart likely traverses a path to Israel mined with painful memories, to the mother of a new oleh now serving in the IDF, whose heart navigates a path brimming with pride – and fear… From the rabbi, on a spiritual path, to the self-proclaimed secular Israeli, on a decidedly different path. To those of us whose path was literal not so long ago, as we went, nearly 300 strong, on a Jewish Federation mission to Israel this past summer.
We stood together, young and not-so-young, religious and not-so-religious, of all political persuasions, amid Israeli and American flags. We stood together in gratitude to Israel for inspiring us with her courage and resolve; in gratitude to America for supporting Israel’s right to defend her citizens – and for giving us the right to gather together and make such statements publicly.
Rallying for Israel was not new to me. Sadly, since joining the Jewish Federation staff, I’ve been to far too many rallies in support of an Israel at war or, if not technically at war, bearing the agony of war – terror attacks against innocent civilians – without the possible benefit of winning and definitively putting an end to the aggression.
But this rally was different.
With a freshly-reached cease-fire, some might have questioned the need – or reason – for holding a rally. We, who had planned the event before the cease-fire, wondered whether a perceived lack of urgency would impact attendance.
It didn’t. And holding the rally at this time gave us an opportunity to do something we hadn’t done before. To come out in support of Israel, not because we had to, but because we wanted to. Actually, because we needed to.
We needed to make a statement that we stood by Israel, not just in a crisis, but also when the crisis is averted. Not just in bad times, but in good times, too. Perhaps our Federation Chair, Lou Plung, said it best in noting, “When God asked our patriarchs, ‘Where are you?’ they answered, ‘Heneini,’ ‘I am here.’ We are here now,” he said. “We are here to stand with Israel. Now and always.”
Also remarkable was Lou’s reference to the Israel of modern legend – and to a sad reality. “I marvel at the incredible things Israel has accomplished in 65 years – from medical miracles… to cutting-edge technology… to the most basic wonder, bringing forth fruit from the desert. Who can imagine how much more the Israelis could have achieved if they had lived in peace all these years?”
Such is life in Israel. But this is not all there is to life in Israel. Which brings me to our next speaker.
Rallies being what they are, with the requisite “official” remarks always on the agenda, I’ve come to dread (is that too strong a word?) hearing from Israeli dignitaries. Perhaps I’ve become jaded by too many impeccably-crafted “kosher” speeches, their content culled from a storehouse of approved statements.
But Deputy Consul General Elad Strohmayer was ready for even a cynic like me.
He took the podium, a fresh-faced 20-30-something orator who brought us to a next level, one of feeling like we could, indeed, do something to help. Even from halfway around the world:
When people hear of rockets falling, they think of Israel as a horrible, dangerous place. We need to tell the world it’s not like that. We need to make people aware of what Israel is really like, that it’s a strong, vibrant nation whose people are resilient. Yes, rockets were falling, but the Israelis went on living their lives. They were saying to Hamas, ‘We are not going to let terror break our spirit.’
Along with educating people about Israel, he charged us with the task of advocating with our legislators:
When you support Israel, you support democracy. You support the values of freedom and human rights. These are the values of the U.S. There is a deep bond between Israel and America, two countries protecting the same values. You must urge American leaders to recognize that.
The rally went from the practical to the emotional, and back to the practical again, with comments by Rabbi Daniel Yolkut, recently returned from a solidarity mission to Israel under the aegis of the Rabbinical Council of America. Sharing highlights of “63 inspiring, frightening, exhausting hours,” he spoke of being saddened to make a shiva call to the family of a victim of the rocket attacks, being stunned to stand in a home with a wall missing – and able to look out upon Gaza.
And he spoke of our role, our obligation:
There is a haunting story in the Torah of the Israelites standing poised to go into the land, and two tribes don’t want to cross over the Jordan River. Moses rebukes them, saying, ‘Will your brothers go to war and you sit here?’
Last week our brothers and sisters went to war,” he told the crowd. “Tens of thousands of reservists – regular working people like us – left their businesses, their homes and families, to go to the south. They waited there to find out if they were going in, to fight – house to house, street to street.
There is work we must do, too, he insisted. “We must do our part to fight those who would discredit Israel on the internet and in the media. We need to be advocates.
Most of all, we need to pray. To open a siddur, to open our hearts.
Hearts that won’t need much encouragement. Hearts that are already making their way along an invisible path to Israel.