Every trip I make to Israel seems to yield an unexpected highlight. My latest trip, incorporating my first Pesach in Israel for 49 years – and my wife’s first-ever – was no exception.
There is no need for me to recount the anticipated highlights and joys – connecting again with our precious grandchildren (and their equally precious parents), no less memorable for the fact that our previous trip was just four months ago (the one before that had been four Covid-dominated years prior, so there was still a lot of making up to do!). To have our three generations seated at a Pesach seder for the first time was very special. And if we were a little uncertain as to how we would manage keeping a second Seder while everyone else was embracing chol ha-moed, and observing an eighth day of Pesach while the rest of the country was already enjoying pita and pizza, we need not have worried. Our daughter and son-in-law waited on us like royalty and three of our grandchildren joined us for our second-seder engaging again with the Hagada even though they didn’t have to! Their excellent questions and observations corroborated again for me the truth of the Talmudic saying (Baba Batra 158b) that “the air of Erets Yisrael makes one wise”. The rasha, tam and she’eino yode’a lish’ol paragraphs were of academic interest only!
Our daughter’s mirpeset (back balcony) in Ramat Bet Shemesh boasts a truly magnificent view of the Judean hills not to mention close encounters with flora and fauna of many kinds, particularly birdlife. On a clear day one can even view the Mediterranean coastline at Ashdod 45 kilometers away. My son-in-law pointed it out to me just in case I was missing the “home girt by sea”! A short, twenty-minute car ride away from Bet Shemesh is Eshta’ol, another understated scenic spot famous historically for being the launching-pad for Samson’s heroic exploits (Judges 13:25) and site supreme for family photographs! And we even managed to take in a wedding – at a hall adjoining a quiet, out-of-the-way moshav called B’nai Re’im – of the daughter of a former Sydney colleague.
But as I say, these are treasured moments and experiences one comes to expect when visiting Israel. What I could not have anticipated is the sight I would see in Jerusalem on visiting the Kotel haMa’aravi.
I have been to the Kotel on busy days and quiet days. Days when I have been assailed from all quarters to join a minyan and days when I have had to recruit my own. Balmy days when I have davened outside and hot or rainy days when I have entered the covered area of the Wall. Days when we have bumped into many people we knew and days when we have recognised nobody. But never have I been inspired in quite the same way I was on this visit.
Our first ‘take’ when we arrived at the Kotel and saw the plaza filled with rows of young men and women in uniform was: we have infiltrated a graduating or swearing-in ceremony for new IDF soldiers Exciting, I thought. But then we heard their voices uplifted, singing Gesher tsar me’od as if their lungs would burst, followed by a rekida (dance). I saw that most of the male soldiers were sporting kippot. I thought, I must investigate further who this special group are.
That’s when I became really excited!
I found out that none of these 150-plus soldiers were born Jewish. In fact none of them were Jewish – yet. They were sincere geirim- and giorot-elect, pursuing a conversion course under the rabbanut. They had completed the academic part of their conversion process which was why they were celebrating. They still had three months during which they had to practise Judaism prior to appearing before the Beth Din in Jerusalem hopefully for completion of their process.
I found out that some of them were from Ukraine and figured that many of those would have had a Jewish grandparent (or maybe even parent) on the ‘wrong’ side. My admiration for them grew exponentially. Here were individuals who would have been eligible to come to Israel and serve in IDF even without formally converting, thanks to the Law of Return’s “single grandparent” rule, but had decided that wasn’t good enough. They wanted to be properly Jewish!
I thought: we are living in times more remarkable than the epoch of the Purim miracle! At that time, we are told, rabim mei-amei ha’arets mityahadim, many in the Persian empire “professed themselves Jews”. The Vilna Gaon explains that these were not true proselytes; rather it was in their self-interest to “support the victorious team” They were “Jewish-ish”. Not like these idealistic young men and women who were happy with nothing short of the real halachic Jewish deal.
While many acculturated Diaspora Jews take their Jewish heritage so much for granted that they find themselves unable to convey its richness to their children and grandchildren, an exponentially-increasing number of outsiders are discovering for themselves the abiding truth of Torah Judaism and pursuing their dream in the land of our forefathers and at our most holy site! I could not help but recall the stirring lines in the Ve’ye’etayu poem sung on Rosh haShana: In Your presence they (outsiders) will pray soldier-like (be-chila) and crown You with a corona of splendour! (So glad to reclaim that C-word in its positive meaning!)
Oh, and a postscript. Throughout the month we were in Israel I didn’t encounter one single hafgana (demonstration). Bet Shemesh is a model city where charedim, dati’im and secular live side by side. But we visited Jerusalem and skirted Tel Aviv too! Maybe I have my head in the clouds or buried in the Judean sand, but from what I saw, rumours of societal fissure or, worse, breakdown in Israel are (thank G-D) wildly exaggerated. \
Long may they remain so!