Israel at 70 and me

It is hard for me to think about Israel at 70 without taking it very personally. That is because we share the same birthday year and I am named after the State. However, our early years couldn’t have been more different. While Israel faced physical, military, economic, and spiritual challenges to survival, a poor country absorbing thousands of refugees, survivors, and immigrants, my early years were spent in a comfortable home in New York City.

My parents, Polish immigrants who came to America in the years before World War II, lost close relatives in the Shoah. They viewed Israel’s creation as a personal and miraculous redemption of the Jewish people after suffering great losses. When I was born they expressed their gratitude by selecting a meaningful name that honored the Jewish people and signified a new hopeful beginning. I guess it is not surprising that I would have a lifelong identification with Israel.

Everyone who has been to Israel remembers their first trip and the feelings it evoked. Mine was in 1962 at age thirteen, when I travelled with my father to meet his closest surviving family members, especially his sister who he hadn’t seen since 1937. Not only did I discover many loving relatives, but I fell in love with Israel, viewing it as my second home. Over the years I have returned numerous times to visit: as a tourist, Zionist camp counselor, student, Social Work intern, Sar-El volunteer, and ulpan student.

Since I believe that we live in a historically privileged time in Jewish history when Jews have their own state, I didn’t want to squander this opportunity in my lifetime. I also wanted to demonstrate my love for Israel to my children and grandchildren. Like many of their generation who were born long after 1967, they naturally have a different existential experience of Israel.

Since 2012 I began visiting annually to do pro-bono teaching in social work and family therapy, as well as hands-on efforts. I interacted with professionals, students, and projects. To my delight, these visits felt like a drug-free high, and deepened my connection to the incredible beauty of the land, the spirit and ingenuity of the people, and the vibrant life-affirming culture that is uniquely Israel.

On one of those visits, as I was sitting in a small park in Tel Aviv, reflecting on the pervasive anti-Zionism and Israel-bashing on college campuses and in world forums, I decided to write a book in honor of Israel’s (and my) 70th birthday. My idea was to highlight the many individuals and groups within Israel who are engaged in the holy work of tikkun olam. I wanted to inspire the next generation about Israel’s many “humanitarian” startups that show the creative, caring, can-do spirit of helping others that is part of the Israeli character.

My idea became a labor of love that turned into Miracle Nation: Seventy Stories about the Spirit of Israel. Reaching out to many remarkable people, I invited them to tell their stories, starting with the Shoah, Israel’s birth, and immigrant absorption. The major core of the book are stories that illustrate Biblical and humanistic values such as protecting the environment, saving a life, pursuing justice, inclusivity, loving thy neighbor, and compassion for the poor, the vulnerable, and the stranger.

The book has heartwarming examples of efforts to improve the lives of Jews and Arabs, apply technology to third world problems, and seek peaceful coexistence with neighbors. Together the stories form a tapestry about Israel’s role as a “light unto the nations.” I wanted to reiterate Herzl’s Zionist dream, that of creating not just a political homeland and place of refuge, but working towards a more righteous society. I agree with David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s visionary first prime minister, that while Israel may have warts, challenges, and contradictions, it is still a miracle.

The process of writing Miracle Nation has brought me even closer to the Israel I love. So this year, as both Israel and I celebrate the ‘big 70,’ my prayer is that the Torah values and spirit of the laws that sustained our ancestors and gave the Jewish people a special purpose in the world, will continue to shine brightly within the State of Israel as guidelines that reflect divinity and ennoble mankind. Surely that will make the world a better place.

About the Author
Israela Meyerstein, LCSW-C, LCMFT, is the author of Miracle Nation: Seventy Stories about the Spirit of Israel. She also wrote Bridge to Healing: Finding Strength to Cope with Illness