On the morning of October 27, 2018, I arrived to Israel for a week-long mission with the Jewish Agency, as part of my role as the Director of Israel and Overseas Operations at the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh. Several hours after I landed, the worst anti-Semitic attack in the history of the United States took place in Pittsburgh, killing eleven Jews and congregants at the Tree of Life, Dor Hadash and New Light congregations. Minutes after word of the attack got out, my phone filled up with messages, phone calls and offers of support from people all over the world. But what struck me more than anything were the interactions I had with everyday Israelis in the days following the attack. These interactions left an impression far different than the one many American Jews hold of Israelis today.
One day after the attack, I learned that a spontaneous vigil for the victims from Pittsburgh was being held that evening in Zion Square, at the bottom of Ben Yehuda Street. I knew I needed to be there, and joined up with a group of women from Pittsburgh also in Israel with the Federation-funded Jewish Women’s Renaissance Project (JWRP). Upon arrival to the vigil, I was struck not only by the hundreds of people in attendance—but also by who they were. In fact, most of the people in attendance were pre-army or post-army youth, and many of them were modern Orthodox men wearing a kippah on their head or modestly-dressed women. I was awestruck when I listened to these young Israelis sing a prayer until then foreign to me, entitled “Our brothers“. The words to the prayer were so simple yet so very powerful, praying for the safety and redemption of the whole house of Israel wherever they may be, in times of trouble or when in captivity anywhere in the world. Tears rolled down my eyes as I witnessed this beautiful prayer being sung by young Israelis in Jerusalem on this crisp fall evening, exactly one day following the brutal murder of members of my Pittsburgh Jewish community. When I learned that this is a prayer for the safety of Diaspora Jews sung every Shabbat in most Orthodox congregations in Israel, the irony felt palpable.
After all, we live in a time when trends and research show that American Jews, especially younger generations, are growing more and more distant from Israel. We live in a time where many progressive American Jews feel that the current Israeli government, and by extension the people of Israel, do not represent their core Jewish values. We live in a time when the Ashkenazi’s Chief Rabbi David Lau’s statements following the attack were irresponsibly taken out of context by the media to imply that the Tree of Life congregation was not a synagogue, offending many American Jews. We live in a time where many American Jews are under the perception that Israelis simply couldn’t care less about them.
My experience in Israel post-October 27 proved the exact opposite to be the case. Every Israeli I met throughout that painful week—whether it was Yuli Edelstein, the Speaker of the Knesset, who met with me and the JWRP women simply to show that he cared, the cab driver who told me how he couldn’t stop crying after he heard about the attack, the young religious Jews praying for the safety of Jews in the Diaspora, colleagues from the Jewish Agency who were shocked to their core by what had happened, or our partners and friends from Pittsburgh’s Partnership2Gether region, Karmiel and Misgav—felt as if the attack on the Tree of Life, Dor Hadash and New Light congregations had happened in their backyard, not thousands of miles away. The Israelis I met throughout that week took the October 27 attack personally. Their people had been attacked. The sense of brotherhood was profoundly deep.
This connection cannot be taken for granted. It has to be nurtured not just in times of tragedy but also in times of peace and prosperity. As the Jewish Agency’s platform for connecting Diaspora Jews to Israel in partnership, the Federation-funded Partnership2Gether program has successfully served as a bridge between Jewish communities around the world and Israel. Through Partnership2Gether, a Diaspora Jew’s relationship with Israel becomes less abstract and more personal, and vice versa. It’s no surprise, then, that following the attack on October 27, the first reaction our partners from Karmiel and Misgav had was to drop everything and fly to Pittsburgh to show their support and solidarity.
There is, of course, plenty Israelis should be doing in order to strengthen their relationship with American Jewry; the reverse holds true for American Jewry too. And while focusing on how to close the growing rift should be a priority for both communities, we cannot lose sight of all that is still good, lest we risk losing it as well.
Kimberly Salzman is Director of Israel and Overseas Operations at the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh. The views she expresses in this editorial are her own.