For some it’s praying at the Western Wall, and for others it may be bringing in Shabbat in Jerusalem, and for other yet, maybe just getting off the plane for the first time. For me, I felt Jewishly charged during all types of experiences while living in Israel, but my most sacred moments were standing on the corner of rte. 40 and rte. 3, about 45 minutes west of Jerusalem. Almost every Sunday morning (Sundays in Israel are like Mondays in the US), I would stand on that corner with 20-30 others. The bus was unpredictable and always standing room only (a brutal option during an Israeli summer). It tripled the travel time and was terribly impersonal, as if during a Sunday morning commute there was an expectation of silence. And so the 20-30 waiting on the corner of rte. 3 and rte. 40 would jockey for position to hitch a ride. We’d stand, all of us different manifestations of the Jewish State; some with backpacks slung over our shoulders, others with M-16’s, and still others with newborn babies, all positioned alike with our index finger extended (not the upward turned thumb) not merely as a sign of desperation to get from point A to point B, but as a collective, egalitarian gesture of the Zionist dream. Soldiers and students; religious and secular; men and women…All of us participating in what can only be described as an emphatic symbol that Israel is the home to a 6 million person family.
In Israel, the answer is “Yes…I am my brother’s keeper…”
And this plays out every day when strangers trustingly pick up strangers, sometimes driving well out of there way to ensure their passengers arrive safely at their destinations.
The conversations I had with nameless drivers, who for an hour played the role of close friend and confidant, were among the most profound during my stay in Israel. Being in those cars, or on the roadside hailing them down, was being part of a vision that Theodore Herzl introduced to the world in 1897 and which became realty in 1948, but which is as old as the Diaspora itself. Israel is, at its foundation, the home of the Jewish People. It was born out of necessity and none of us need that history lesson. But the cadence and tenure of that society, the cultural phenomenon that pulls on our heart strings as much as the land itself, is something we can’t see or measure.
Travel back in time with me to Moshe Lillenblum’s essay “Let Us Not Confuse the Issue,” written in 1882. Lillenblum was a Lithuanian Talmudist, exceedingly learned and traditional and pushed by circumstance to the writing of early Zionists like Leo Pinsker. He eventually became a fixture in Hibbat Zion:
“The nation as a whole is dearer to all of us than the divisions over rigid orthodoxy or liberalism in religious observance put together. Where the nation is concerned there are no sects or denominations, there are neither modern nor old-fashioned men, no devout or heretics, but all are the children of Abraham Isaac and Jacob…Just as people do not have identical faces nor are they not of one mind. Let each settler of the ancestral land follow the dictates of his conscience; let the Hasidim there put on Tefillin, and let the more liberal recite the Shema without Tefillin; let the orthodox send their children to the Hadarim they will establish there in the image of the Hadarim of Lithuania and Poland, and let the Maskilim set up schools patterned after the secular schools of Europe. But let no man oppress his fellow. Within our autonomous political life everything will find its place”
When Herzl published the Jewish State 5 years later, he admitted in its first pages that the idea was crazy, that the vision of thinkers like Lillenblum was fantasy:
“The plan would seem mad enough if a single individual were to undertake it; but if many Jews simultaneously agree on it, it is entirely reasonable, and its achievement presents no difficulties worth mentioning. The idea depends only on the number of its adherents. Perhaps our ambitious young men, to whom every road of advancement is now closed, and for whom the Jewish state throws open a bright prospect of freedom, happiness, and honor ¬ perhaps they will see to it that this idea is spread.”
And there I was 100 years later standing under a road sign written in Hebrew with the Mediterranean to my West and Jerusalem to my East, surrounded by Jews of all kinds waiting for Jews of all kinds to lovingly give them a ride. We ran the gamut of Jewish identity, yet all, as Herzl had hoped, bought into the very same idea.
This is why the murder of Eyal, Gilad and Naftali is all the more devastating. The rest of the world, Americans specifically, hear that the teens were kidnapped while hitchhiking and immediately react, “What were they doing, hitchhiking? How could their Jewish mother’s allow such a thing?” That the teens were hitchhiking should not be an invitation to blame the victim, though that is what its become…and for those that have entertained such a thought, I can’t blame them. They simply don’t understand Israel…that it is a place where Jews feel safe enough, secure enough, and love each other enough to make hitchhiking not only acceptable, but a way of life and an expression of the Zionist dream.
Hamas tried to steal that from Israel, from the Jews, and from me. Today we mourn the death of 3 teens whose only crime was being Jewish in Israel. Hamas hopes such a blow will push Israel over a ledge so that it looks more like the rest of the world…cynical, untrusting, suspicious…But in the name of Eyal, Gilad, and Naftali, we must embrace each other in mourning and shout out in their memory as loudly as we did before word of their death: I AM MY BROTHERS KEEPER