It struck me first with the shift in our Shabbat table conversations. For years in New York, our table was filled with high school students swapping war stories about grades, college entrance issues and of course the Great Debate: SAT vs ACT. Normal stuff for a family raising teenagers. But not since we moved to Israel two and half years ago. Now, our Shabbat table conversations are less likely about university or academic aspirations. The conversations about the future are mostly about the army. What unit will you serve in? How are you preparing? Will you get in? Are you scared?
I should have known. But despite the dozens of Israeli day parades, Yom Hazikaron and Yom Ha’azmaut programs, frequent trips to visit, sending two daughters to gap year studies abroad in Israel, finally making aliyah and building a home in Israel, I never knew.
I never knew the sacrifice every Israeli family makes when their child is required to enlist and join the army at 18. Of course, I ‘knew’ this is the reality in Israel. The weight of that reality was too foreign and abstract for my head or my heart to really KNOW.
Knowing it and living it are profoundly different. Week after week, watching boy after boy and girl after girl draft to the army and come home for Shabbat with their shaved heads (boys only), their injuries and extreme exhaustion has been surprisingly difficult and emotional for me. March is one of the three months that combat units draft, so this is a big month and I am thinking a lot about this. Instead of celebrating college acceptances, I am watching all of our neighborhood children officially begin their service.
I feel guilty and ashamed that I never fully understood or appreciated what is actually going on in Israel or the profound sacrifices the people living here are forced to make for all of us. It took living here and experiencing the shift in our Shabbat table conversation with my children and their friends (and my daughter’s beginning process toward army service) for me to start to understand how very far away I always was, and I suspect many diaspora Jews are, from truly understanding. And that’s troubling because we need to find ways to strengthen the connection between diaspora Jewry and the Israeli people. It’s a key ingredient for a strong and vibrant Jewish future because we have a shared destiny.
Sadly, there are many forces actively eroding this vital connection and the support of diaspora Jews for Israel. Whether it’s the rising anti-Israel sentiments in the news, in government and politics, at the UN, on college campuses, within progressive movements or whether it’s simply ignorance, we need to make a deliberate effort, now more than ever, to engender connection, understanding, and empathy between Jews from all over the world and the Israeli people.
It is natural that many diaspora Jews inadvertently take Israel for granted to some extent. I certainly did. But we all need to know. We can’t forget how precious Israel is, and how precarious her existence remains. Most importantly, we all need to develop a deeper appreciation for the young men and women who are forced to serve and defend Israel FOR US. Yes- for you and for me and for all of the Jews across the globe.
Because imagine what the Jewish community would be without Israel? You can ask the more than a dozen French classmates of my daughter, who were shipped to Israel to start high school, while their families made arrangements to leave France because they understood they had no long term future there.
Let’s make this Yom Hazikaron different. Before we celebrate Israel’s 70th, let’s do whatever we can to feel the weight of the Israeli soldiers’ sacrifices being made every day for the safety and security of you and me, the Jewish people and the Jewish homeland. Let’s strengthen our connection to each other and stand together resolutely for nothing less than a vibrant and enduring Jewish future.