Lawrence Witt

A letter to my daughter on the eve of her seminary year in Israel

Your great-grandmother would have given up everything for the privilege that you are about to undertake

Dearest Malka,

In the midst of all the shopping, packing, shopping, planning, shopping, goodbye parties and did I say shopping, I did not want to forget some important thoughts that I would like to convey to you before you leave. I decided to put my thoughts to paper as you embark on what will no doubt be a year of learning, opportunity and personal growth at Midreshet Torah Ve’Avodah.

Strangely enough, your academic year in Jerusalem will mark the first time in your life that you and your namesake, your maternal great-grandmother, Malka Honigwax Z”L, will be close to one another, at least in spirit. You will live a short bus ride from her resting place in the sacred soil of Jerusalem on Har Hamenuchot.

While you share a name with your late great-grandmother and while you probably share many of her attributes from what I am told — your world and the world of your late great-grandmother could not be any more different. By the time your namesake was your age, her world had already been shattered into pieces. Her dynastic family of Hungarian Rabbis abruptly ended with the murder of her father and 12 of her 15 siblings. As you know from the stories that Mommy and Grandma shared, she survived the hell of Auschwitz, married Saba and re-built a beautiful a life and family embodied by Chesed and Tzedekah.

How different would her world have been if she found that magic cave that the Israeli Nobel Prize winning author S.Y. Agnon wrote about in his folk tale – a magical cave that could transport one from wherever they are in the world on the one end to the Land of Israel at the other end.

Your great-grandmother would have given up everything for the privilege that you are about to undertake. The idea of getting on an airplane and landing in the State of Israel 10 hours later to undertake a year of studying, travelling and volunteering is something that your namesake could not even have dreamed about.

Moses himself (and 1900 years of Jews that came after him) did not enjoy the Zchut that you now have.

Appreciate this gift. Every day, every step, every class and every page your learn. We are living in a golden age and as foreign as the concept may seem to you (and to me!) – there was a time, not very long ago, before both you and I were born, where the privilege of studying Torah and walking freely in the streets of Jerusalem would not have been possible.

Cherish the fact that you will walk on streets named after prophets, biblical figures, kings, Jewish heroes, Rabbis, scholars and builders. Streets like Rachel Imenu, Hillel, Bruriah, King Hezkiah, Maimon, Rav Kook, Jabotinsky, Begin, Meir, Tchernikovsky, Gruner, Raziel, Montefiore, Wingate, Heleni HaMalka and of course Wallenberg. Learn about as many of them as you can. Learn the stories behind the street names Ha’Arbaa, Ha’Asarah, Ha-ayin Chet, Mishpat Dreyfus, Asirei Tzion and of course Kaf Tet Be’November. Nowhere else in the world can you walk on streets with names like Shema, Mishmerot HaKehuna, Oneg Shabbat, Sanhedrin and HaTechelet. Jewish history – your history – literally comes alive with every step.

Take stock of the little things – like the sign above a seat on the city bus reminding passengers to give up their seats for the elderly with a verse from the Torah portion in Vayikra, or a sign on the bus reminding you what day of the Sefirat Ha’omer to count, the picture of the Lubavitcher Rebbe or the Baba Sali on the bus driver’s dashboard or the mussar schmooze you may get from your taxi driver, who will also be a political pundit by the way.

Even though you will live a short walk from the Western Wall – every time you enter the Old City and see the Kotel should feel like the first time. God forbid that feeling should ever grow old.

When you are there – listen carefully for the sound of the Shofar and understand that there was a time not very long ago when this sound was considered illegal and the simple, but defiant, act of blowing the Shofar at Kotel often landed the “offender” in a British mandatory jail.

When you visit the the tomb of the Matriarch Rachel and you see the words of the Prophet Jeremiah – “For your work has its rewards and your children shall return to their border” – appreciate the profundity of those words as you witness the prophecy coming to fruition before your very own eyes.

You will have the opportunity to walk and hike all those places that your wonderful Tanach teachers at Hebrew Academy taught you about. Walk in the footsteps of Avaraham Avinu and King David. Take in the water fall at Ein Gedi that served as the inspiration for Shir HaShirim. When you visit Bnei Brak – remember that this is the place where Rabbis Eliezer, Yehoshua, Elazar Ben Azarya, Akiva and Tarfon were recounting the story of the Exodus all night until it was time to say the Shema, a story that we recount in the Pesach Hagadah.

Fulfill the commandment “Kum Hitalech Ba’Aretz Leorchah U’Lerochvah” (Get up and walk the land through its length and breadth).

Every time you pass the Shoresh Junction on the Jerusalem-Tel Aviv highway, I hope that you will think about Jason (Yehoshua) Friedberg Z”L, a product of – really the very best of – our Montreal Jewish community.

And when you climb the winding highway to the entrance to Jerusalem and you pass the rusted burned out armored vehicles on the side of the road – never take those memorials for granted. You must never forget the boys of the Harel Brigade who commandeered those vehicles in 1948, many of whom were Holocaust survivors, who literally paved the path for you to the Jerusalem of today with their blood, sweat, tears and ultimately their bodies.

When you have the urge to visit the graves of the righteous, you can certainly travel to Amukah, Meron and Tiveria, as I am sure you will at some point during the year, but you can also just take bus number 10 (not sure of the light rail stop number..) and get off at Mount Herzl – Israel’s National Military Cemetery – and pay homage the heroes who have made the ultimate sacrifice in defense of the State of Israel and her citizens.

On Friday afternoon, when the bustle of the city and commerce starts to wind down, traffic dwindles, when the golden hue of the sun sets on Jerusalem and you hear the siren ushering in the Shabbat bride – embrace and bask in the weekly spiritual reset and recharge that, perhaps more than any other place in the world – is intertwined with Jerusalem. Enjoy that feeling – which you will experience about 40 times over the next academic year – as you will spend the rest of your life trying to replicate it.

Enjoy every Shabbat and appreciate every Chag. Take the time to appreciate the sites, sounds and smells.

When you go to Poland with your classmates – remember the sites, sounds and smells of those places as well. Commit them to your memory but never forget that those places of powerlessness will remain relegated to history. The State of Israel and the IDF are the guarantors of that eternal pledge.

You have grown up in a community of Holocaust survivors, many of whom are no longer with us. You bear witness to their stories. When you visit the shtetls that have you read and learned about – take their memories and bring them with you. And then when your return from Poland to Israel – “deposit” their memories at the Kotel, study in their honour, help perpetuate their everlasting victory over their murderers.

Do not be afraid to engage in Israel’s national past time – politics. Learn, debate, articulate, criticize if you must and advocate.

As you explore the streets of Tel-Aviv and Jaffa (in moderation, mommy and I hope!), appreciate the fact that in a span of a 10 minute walk you can pass Rav Kook’s Beit Midrash, Independence Hall as well offices and campuses belonging to Facebook, WeWork, IBM and Google. Never could the founding fathers (and mothers!), signatories to the Declaration of Independence, have imagined the modern, succesful and thriving State of Israel that you will get to know intimately and experience this year.

Israel, as you will also discover, is not perfect. She also has her flaws. But for the first time in 2000 years – decisions and actions on how to perfect her will be made by the Jewish people.

In closing, I want you to know that Mommy and I are proud of the young lady that you have become and the choices that you have made. Your academic rigour and now your choice of Seminary reflects both who you are and who you will become. As parents, we have complete faith that we, together with your extended family, your teachers and really your entire community have prepared you to take this next important step as you figure out your rightful place in this great Jewish story.

25 years ago, as you know, Mommy and I had the privilege of spending an academic year in Israel. We hope that, as it was for us, this year is the start of a journey for you. Wherever that journey leads you, on whatever soil your feet ultimately rest and whatever passport you hold in your hand – we hope that your heart will, like the poet Yehuda Halevi wrote, always be in the east – in Israel.

As you step off the plane in Israel this week, something that you have had the privilege of doing many times since you were an infant, know that this time it will be different. This time, when you step off the plane – it will be your last time stepping off as a tourist for after living and studying in Israel for an entire academic year – you will no doubt feel connected to this amazing and enduring story for the rest of your life.

May you have a year of bracha and hatzlacha and may it be a year of growth in your Torah study, love of Israel and the Jewish People and above all –  remember to cherish every single day.

About the Author
Lawrence Witt is a labor, employment and human rights lawyer with the Canadian firm Miller Thomson LLP. In 2017, Lawrence was co-chair of the Montreal March of the Living Delegation comprising of 250 participants accompanied by 10 Holocaust survivors. In 2019, Lawrence received the Gertrude and Henry Plotnick Young Leadership Award from Federation CJA. Lawrence is also a graduate of the Wexner Heritage Program. In the early 1990's, Lawrence studied at Yeshivat Machon Meir in Jerusalem and he subsequently served in the IDF as a lone soldier in the Armored Corps.