Mark Your Calendar Now: January In Israel

Former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg defied the FAA ban on Ben Gurion Airport on July 22. (CC-BY Rubenstein, Wikipedia)

My heart breaks every time I learn of another Israel Defense Forces soldier killed in Gaza.  The intensity I feel hit even closer to home with the deaths of Max Steinberg, 24, of Los Angeles and Sean Carmeli, 21, of South Padre Island, Texas.  Like me, they were “lone soldiers,” the title given to volunteers from abroad who have no parents in Israel.  This week Max and Sean’s parents will travel to Israel to say goodbye to their sons one final time.

I will never forget the moment when I first began to understand, if only a little, the sorrow of losing a child.  As a lone soldier, I was “adopted” by a family living in the suburbs of Jerusalem.  This family, my family, is one of far too many Israeli families whose children were cut down by terror.  On July 26, 2001, their son, just 17 years old, was murdered in a terrorist attack mere inches from his father, Shmuel.

On the 5th anniversary of the death of the adopted brother I would never know, I was granted leave from my infantry unit to be with my family.  I spent the day before the azkara, the annual memorial ceremony, preparing with Shmuel.  Together, we drove around the community—while he waited in the idling car, I would jump out and post homemade signs on telephone poles to announce the upcoming memorial.

But we didn’t post signs on every pole.  When we passed a pole without posting a sign, undoubtedly he would tell me, “we only posted signs on this pole the first year,” or “I stopped posting signs there two years ago.”  “Why?,” I naively asked.  Shmuel told me that his son’s funeral was attended by thousands of people, most of them strangers.  The prime minister had personally written and the president had visited their home.  But in the ensuing years the crowds died down.  The letters stopped coming.  This year, the majority of guests would be family members.

In that moment I realized that for Shmuel, not only was the memory of his son sacred, but so too was the struggle to preserve it.  No detail of that struggle, no matter how seemingly insignificant, was too small to forget.  As I sat in the car, a terrible thought crossed my mind, “at the 10th, 15th, 20th, memorial, who will stand with Shmuel?”

There was a time not long ago when American Jews stood up as one to confront evil

Above my desk sits a photograph of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel marching arm-in-arm with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in Selma, Alabama.  More recent still, on a cold December day in 1987, 250,000 Jews marched on Washington, DC to free Soviet Jewry.

It’s been said that the today’s American Jewish diaspora is no longer capable of providing anywhere near that kind of support, numerically or morally.  Although we have broken every barrier of academic and professional achievement, we are sadly the most ignorant generation of Jews ever with regard to our own practices and history.  Years of intermarriage, assimilation, and low-birth rates have taken a toll so great that even the most optimistic demographers are predicting our demise.

But I believe in my millennial generation.  Millennial Jews have been given unprecedented gifts such as Birthright Israel, Meor, AIPAC/Saban, CAMERA, Chabad on Campus, ROI, the David Project and many more.  I believe we are willing and able to assume our place in the rich line of Jewish activists.

As the co-founder of Aluf Stone, the IDF veterans association for lone soldiers, over the past several days many people have asked me: “What can I do?”  It’s the right question to be asking, but it’s a question that should have been asked long before the latest fighting began.  If someone is not already equipped with the facts, it’s very difficult and not terribly rewarding to advocate for Israel in a news and social media environment teeming with “irrational hatred of Israel.”

However, no matter where our individual starting points may be and no matter how we express ourselves religiously and politically, all friends of Israel must begin right now to prepare for the day after the rockets stop falling.  Tragically, we must also prepare for the day they fall again.

What must we do to arm ourselves for the challenges that lay ahead and to show Israel that we stand by her side?

Years of leading trips to Israel for Birthright Israel, youth groups, and my business school classmates at Cornell University have convinced me of the need to physically go to Israel.  With the news of the Federal Aviation Administration ban of Ben Gurion Airport on Tuesday, an action which has serious political, economic, and psychological ramifications for Israelis, there has never been a more important time to go to Israel.

In defiance of the FAA ban, former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg courageously flew to Israel, “to express solidarity with the Israeli people and show the world that Israel’s airports remain open and safe.”

Judging from the remarks of Chief Rabbi of Israel runner-up David Stav, it is little wonder that the former mayor and others, such as American philanthropist Lynn Schusterman, were met with open arms.  Even before the ban Rabbi Stav recently said, “it is important to arrive now in person, to show moral, spiritual and physical support, not just through words but through action.  There is no substitute for the national impact of waves of people who travel thousands of miles.”

Former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg is joined by Lynn Schusterman, American philanthropist, and Nir Barkat, mayor of Jerusalem, in a meeting with a stranded delegation of Teach For America corps members.

Unfortunately, most of us are not able to fly to Israel at a moment’s notice.  But with a little lead time many of us are able to travel to Israel and, most conveniently, almost all of us face a slowdown in work around the winter holidays.

That’s why today I am launching a campaign called: January In Israel

The purpose of January In Israel is to encourage young Jewish and non-Jewish friends of Israel to do just that, spend part of January in Israel.

January In Israel is a clarion call to those who are tired of the futility of Facebook posts and mass emails.  It is a call to those who want to put their money where their mouth is and their feet where their heart is.

January In Israel is an “unmission” trip, but it is an unmission with a purpose.  It is not associated with any organization or ideology—events and experiences will be explicitly optional and often spontaneous.  There will be a schedule, but no itinerary, no mandatory dates, and no bus.

January In Israel participants have the opportunity to meet with soldiers and mourners, thinkers and builders.  They will become inspired and they will inspire.  They will learn and they will teach.  (Thanks to a gracious offer from White City Shabbat, participants can reduce costs and increase friendships by opting to stay with local hosts.)

What is our goal and how will we measure our success?  January In Israel endeavors to inspire 36 young friends of Israel to follow in the footsteps of leaders such as Michael Bloomberg and Lynn Schusterman to: stand with Israel, in Israel.

After the rockets stop falling, the real work begins.  The least that we can do is to go to Israel.  Together we can make sure that Shmuel and all the other parents whose sons and daughters will never come home, are not standing alone.

Today I pray that the fighting ends quickly.

In January I hope to see you in Israel.

For more information on January In Israel and to sign up, please visit:


About the Author
Matt Ronen is a service year advocate, combat veteran, social entrepreneur, and founder of Service Year Corps, the first corporate sponsored national service program. Matt received his MBA from Cornell University and BA from Colorado College, where he was President of the Student Body and Campus Manager for Teach For America. Originally from Ohio, Matt is a veteran of the Israel Defense Forces and co-founder of Aluf Stone, the IDF veterans association for lone soldiers. Matt was named to the American Express 50 Under 40.
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