When you return to Zion, teaches the Psalmist, “it will be “as dreamers”! In ancient Egypt, it was the dreams of Joseph confronting his brothers that made possible our redemption. In June of 1967, it was a band of Zionist dreamers from both the left and right. There was Menachem Begin, the Irgun leader, who seized the moment of the Jordanian bombing of Jerusalem as a once in lifetime opportunity to recapture the Old City. There was Levi Eshkol, Israel’s prime minister, who had to make the tough decision. Then there was Yitzhak Rabin, the chief of staff, who had to draw up the plan and implement it. He too would later reveal his secret: “For years, I secretly harbored the dream that I might play a part not only in gaining Israel’s independence, but in restoring the Western Wall to the Jewish people, making it the focal point of a hard-worn independence. Now that dream has come true, and suddenly I wondered why I, of all men, should be so privileged. I know that never again in my life would I experience quite the same peak elation.”
So, it was on the day before Rosh Hashanah 1929, six weeks after the Arab riots, that Menachem Ussishkin, a secular Zionist leader, made his way to the Kotel. Having just returned from overseas, and in view of recent riots, he too felt a need to reconnect with the holy site. He was disappointed that only the custodian seemed to be there, when suddenly an elderly Rabbi Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld with a very respectable appearance accompanied by two men approached the wall and began praying with great devotion. When he finished, the rabbi approached Ussishkin and said, “You cannot appreciate how happy I am to meet a brother of mine here, one who also feels our sorrow and pain. I usually do not come to the Kotel, but today after the riots, I felt obligated to come to see the remains of our holy site. Do not let your spirit fail you. This will also pass, we will achieve our goal, we will not enter our holiest site through narrow alleyways with bowed heads, but on the main road and with our heads held high. Continue your work with faith, and… very soon, we will be privileged to experience the true redemption.”
That was the attitude of my grandfather who took me for a walk one rainy day on Canal Street on the Lower East Side in 1950. He wanted me to accompany him to buy an etrog for the holiday of Sukkot. I watched my grandfather carefully select a an unblemished citron, then hurriedly he opened the box and began inhaling its fragrance. As we walked home under the large black umbrella, he again opened and smelled the etrog. I said, Zadie, it’s raining, why don’t you wait until we get home? Moishe, he responded, “I am an old man. Sadly, I will never have the privilege of going to Israel. The best I can do is to imagine I’m there by smelling the etrog as soon as it was unpacked while the smell of the Holy Land is still fresh. But, for you, there is no rush. I’m sure you will have to the privilege to go there many times.”
For 2,000 years, Jews like my grandparents were subjected to pogroms and inquisitions in every country in which they lived. Six million perished in the Holocaust while the world kept silent. We the representatives of those generations who have been privileged to walk the streets of Jerusalem and touch the sacred walls of the Kotel have both obligation and responsibility to keep that dream alive.
I will never forget what David Ben-Gurion, Israel‘s founding prime minister, told a group of Vancouver NCSY youth, whom I took to visit him in the summer of 1971 in Sde Boker, where he had retired. He spoke these words to our group, “Today, Israel very much needs Diaspora Jewry in order to survive, and we are grateful for everything the Diaspora does for us. But I want you all to know, there will come a time when the Diaspora will be dependent upon the State of Israel, and I am confident that when that day comes, Israel will do for the Diaspora what you have done for us”.