I have just returned from my first “post-apartment” visit to Israel. Traveling with the Zamir Choral Foundation, my beloved Jewish singing circles, so to speak, I spent 1 glorious week touring our Jewish State on a bus with an intergernerational group of people who, like me, love to sing Jewish music! I added 4 more nights to my trip to finally attend the Israeli Zimriyah, a music festival I was familiar with from family and friends. As a result, I flew back home to New York all day yesterday, August 9. Sitting on the plane, I mused over the sacred synchronicity of the date. Exactly seventeen years ago, on August 9, 2001, the essence of my Zionism, that deep in my gut Hope that is married to Faith, was challenged, by terror and fear, at its core. In other words, the bitterness of life in the Jewish State became part of my experience. From that moment on, my life in Jerusalem and my Zionist activism, would be a quest to find enough sweetness for me to sustain both that Hope and that Faith.
I brought my children to Jerusalem during the summer of 2001. Despite the Second Intifiada, we made the decision to spend a second summer in our new Jerusalem home. The children went to Ramah Day Camp, I studied Hebrew several mornings a week in an ulpan and we celebrated Shabbat with a growing circle of friends. At the time, I chaired the Cleveland-Beit Shean Region Partnership 2000 program. On that Thursday, August 9 in 2001, Sarah did not want to go to the Biblical Zoo with camp; so it was that she and I ended up at what is now the David Citadel Hotel, eating lunch after visiting my attorney and finding ourselves attending Rabbi Danny Gordis’s talk to the WHF’s 2001 Israel seminar.
A short time later, as I was picking Rachel and David up at the Goldstein Youth Village in San Simon, I learned of the bombing at the Sbarro pizza shop on Ben Yehuda. Sarah and I had been 10 minutes from there just a few hours ago; our friend Ira, had he not been coming to our home to babysit, would have been at that corner, waiting for a bus. Several hours later, while David and I were eating pargiot with Rhona in Talpiot, I learned of a terrorist attack outside the gates of Kibbutz Merav, located in our Partnership region and I learned that a young soldier from Beit Shean had fallen in Tulkarm. His parents had been to Cleveland on our Partnership’s Community Builder’s program. I immediately knew that on my last full day in Israel for the summer, Sunday August 12, I would be traveling to our Partnership region to pay a shiva call and to visit the wounded. But not before hosting then New Jersey Senator John Corzine for Shabbat dinner, on Friday August 10, on behalf of AIPAC. I was also honored to host my teacher Avram Infeld, who was AIPAC’s guest scholar. At that moment I knew that we were swirling in the middle of a moment in modern Jewish history.
My daughter Rachel was 11 at the time, old enough to accompany me on that difficult last day and represent the next generation of passionate Zionists. I know that my ability to empathize with the primal wails of Rachel Reshef, mourning her son Davir, was deepened by having my daughter by my side. I never shied away from exposing my children to the difficult side of life in Israel. Our family experiences truly represented, in a way rather unique given that we never fully planted ourselves in our Jerusalem home, all those parts of life in the modern Jewish State, “the bitter and sweet”.
Seventeen years later, yesterday, August 9, I flew home to NYC sitting next to a very successful (think Start Up Israel) Israeli father of three who after fifteen years of living abroad, in Singapore, in San Francisco and on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, had just brought his family home to Israel. The reason for bringing his family home was simple – he was going to ensure that his children had strong and proud Israeli identities. I delighted in being next to an Israeli who was inspired by that sacred sense of Zionism, the Hope grounded in that Faith in the Jewish enterprise, that gut feeling that had prompted me to make a home in Jerusalem. In other words, “Hatikvah.” He was taking this very short trip so that he could fly his teenage son home to Israel after summer camp in Pennsylvania. I smiled, remembering how Rachel flew solo to Israel in July of 2000 after first session of Ramah Darom, as my parents had to cancel their trip due to my Dad’s illness.
My parents did make it to Israel the next summer, that turbulent summer of 2001. I’ll never forget how my mother, the proud daughter of a sabra (Pop was born in the Old City) described the obvious gunfire from Bethlehem that we heard in the courtyard of Kol HaNeshama as the slamming of the metal gates. My father, a veteran of the Korean War, knew better. As did I after several weeks in a very tense Jerusalem. Seventeen years later, I left a Jewish State again under siege, this time from missiles and rockets fired by Hamas from Gaza. But still, my seatmate, the archetypal successful Israeli, had enough Hope and Faith to bring his family home. For him, the sweetness of being an Israeli in the Jewish State outweighed the potential bitterness that is inevitable when Zionist dreams meet Middle East reality.
On Monday morning, the first stop on our Zamir Israel @70 Chorale tour was in Tel Aviv, in Declaration Hall, where we listened to David Ben Gurion proclaim the independence of the State of Israel. We then sang a version of Hatikvah (a new version) by composer David Burger in that space, filling the room with our voices singing the words of hope that inspired our People. From there we began our journey across the land, meeting people from the north to the south, singing the songs of our people as we rolled. As this was not a political trip we managed to stay away from the most difficult issues roiling our People; however, as we happened to be in Israel with an overtly Zionist organization, we of course engaged with the reality of life in Israel in the hot summer of 2018. Wherever we went, from Sderot, where missiles have just fallen, to Yerucham, where we experienced the joy of the sprinkler in the desert; from the cosmopolitan center of Tel Aviv to the majesty of the Old City, from a Druze village to the stalls of the Machne Yehuda, we took with us our hearts, our souls and our songs.
In the final stanza of Naomi Shemer’s jewel,“Al Kol Eileh” we pray,“Guard for me, oh Lord, these treasures, All my friends keep safe and strong, Guard the stillness, guard the weeping, And above all, guard this song.” As I reflect on my Zionist journey of the past 17 years, I simply say, Amen. Clearly, what my heart needed to heal, was to be present on the land, amongst the people, in the modern Jewish democratic state of Israel, and to be a guardian of our songs. For seventy years the songs of our people, those ancient and new, have provided the Hope and Faith that have always inspired our People.
It took seventeen years and a seat on the bus for me to reclaim my Hope and my Faith. That my trip was framed by the singing of Hatikvah in the beginning and sitting next to an Israeli living Hatikvah at the end, is a narrative written by the Divine. Yet, as I reflect on this year’s August 9, I keep hearing “Al Kol Eilah”, knowing deep in my soul that going forward, there will always be enough sweetness as long as I continue to sing our songs.