From the Diaspora – with Love: Ups, Downs, All Arounds

The arts and crafts table was overflowing with markers, sparkles and lots of glue.  The cookie-decorating table was well stocked with sprinkles and colored icing (its texture a little too suggestive of the glue, in my opinion).  The bounce-house was inflated and ready.

Bring on the kids!  Bring on the parents!  Bring on the revelers!  After all, it’s Yom Ha’atzmaut.  What better reason for a party than Celebrating 65 Years of Innovation, Ideas and Independence?  (Which, incidentally, happened to be the theme for our Jewish Federation-sponsored Yom Ha’atzmaut celebration.)

In Pittsburgh on Tuesday, like in many other cities, I’m sure, we were set to pull out all the stops and throw the event of the season in celebration of Israel.  With everything in place, though, I found myself wondering…  Who will come?  How many will come?  On the heels of this week’s horrific act of terror in Boston, I pondered whether people wouldn’t just stay home, away from the crowds.  I was like the proverbial hostess who wallows in self-doubt minutes before the party is set to begin.  What if no one shows up?

I needn’t have worried.  Even before the event officially began, people started streaming into the JCC.  They came in waves, first the small children with moms… next, soon after school dismissal, the older kids and teens… finally, after 5pm, the adults coming directly from work.

Our community-wide Yom Ha’atzmaut event draws anywhere from hundreds to many thousands each year – depending on the weather.  (I’ll never forget the year our shlicha anxiously monitored the weather all that day and, at one point, turned to us and said, “I don’t know how you people live like this!”  How ironic.  With the threats and uncertainties our family in Israel has to endure on an ongoing basis, they are thankful that they need never worry about Yom Ha’atzmaut celebrations being marred by rain.)

So, how many were there at the celebration?  1,000?  2,000?  More?  It’s hard to estimate, when you’ve got activities going on in a large recreation hall and a gym, inside and outside, upstairs and downstairs.  But it doesn’t really matter.  Just seeing the people you know – and many you don’t – gives you the sense that “everyone” is there.

And they were joyous.  All of them.  The preschoolers in the gym, jumping in the bounce house, running from crafts, to cookie decorating, to the petting zoo outside.  The older kids, playing games and visiting the food vendors (who, much to my chagrin, ran out of shwarma, an apt statement about the size of the crowds).  The families enjoying Israeli dancing in the rec hall.  The teens, who had their own floor, featuring a program fair sponsored by camps and youth groups, more food and the latest trend, a headphone party.  (For those of you as out of touch as I, this involves kids dancing to the beat they hear through the headphones.  In other words, no audible music for us spectators but the somewhat unnerving vision of everyone moving pretty much in unison.  A bizarre sight, to be sure.  But, then again, it’s preferable to deafening bass or mind-numbing hip-hop lyrics.)

The crowd thrilled to a performance of the Spirit of Israel Teen Delegation, a teen performing troupe from Karmiel and the Misgav region, our sister communities in the Partnership2Gether program connecting Diaspora communities to Israel and her people.  And, for more mature tastes, smooth jazz from the excellent musicians of Israel’s Rimon School for Jazz and Contemporary Music.

In all the excitement, the noise and tumult, I didn’t have much time to process things during the event.  But afterwards I did.  And I wondered again about the implications of so many people coming into crowds and commotion with the images of the Boston incident so fresh in their minds.  At the risk of projecting, here was some of what went through my own mind…

We’re Pittsburgh, not Boston.  We’re smaller, less significant.  It’s just a community event, not one that draws people from all around the world.  Nothing to worry about… 

We’re not out in the big city.  We’re right here, in our own little community.  Sure, we can feel safe…

Stepped-up security.  Everyone on high alert, after an incident just one day before.  Couldn’t happen again… 

All naïve and stupid rationalizations, of course.  Sadly, in our increasingly frightening world, anything can happen.  To anyone.  At any time.

So, why was everyone there?  There’s only one explanation that truly makes sense to me.  They had to be there.  To make the statement that no one will deprive us of our right to live our lives.  No one will scare us into solitude.  No one will take away our right to make choices.  No one will make us stay home when we have the intent, especially, of celebrating Israel – the nation that has endured more terrorism per capita than anyone else in the modern world and manages, time and again, to set aside fear and uncertainty and keep living life as it’s meant to be lived.  Fully.  Joyfully.

So, I say to everyone out there, be thankful to Israel for yet another thing.  Be thankful for her strength, her resilience, her enduring sense of hope.  Be thankful that she is an inspiration to any of us who feel besieged.  Be thankful that she is helping us say to all those out there who would target innocent people that the good people of the world have not – and will not – give in.

About the Author
Ellen Roteman is Director of Marketing Communications for the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh