In the mid-90s we lived in Boston for a few years. They were dramatic years for Israel-Oslo negotiations, peace accord with Jordan, Prime Minister Rabin’s assassination. Even though I was “living the dream,” for me Boston was not the central arena. I wanted to come back to Israel. To be part of the main game.
It is well known in the Jewish world that the community of Cleveland has given large Jewish organizations a disproportionate number of leaders. After an inspiring visit to Cleveland’s Center for Health Sciences Education, I listened to my friend David Goldberg, a long-time community leader, describe the challenges of connecting Jewish students in the universities of Cleveland with their Jewish identity and with Israel.
“It’s getting harder and harder. At a meeting with representatives of Jewish organizations active on Cleveland college campuses, someone said we shouldn’t invite Israeli representatives at all,” said David, “because whenever we do, Palestinian supporters protest loudly and violently, making Jewish students shy away from involvement in Jewish and pro-Israel organizations. It’s no longer “cool” to be a pro-Israel activist on campus; it can damage their social standing and even threaten their sense of personal safety.”
During my visit to Cleveland, I had dinner with Daniel*, a successful businessman and respected community leader. While discussing the challenges of connecting American Jews with Israel, I found myself speaking straight from the heart:
“Diaspora Jews need Israel no less than Israel needs them — and perhaps even more so. Those who prefer to ignore their Jewishness will find, as history has proven repeatedly, that someone else will make sure to remind them that they’re Jews. Israel is an anchor and insurance policy for all Jews, no matter who they are and where they live.”
I continued passionately: “Israel—which, let’s remember, is only 71 years old—is an amazing modern miracle. We returned to our homeland after an exile of 2,000 years. Brought an ancient language back to life. Are recognized for unparalleled scientific, technological, and agricultural innovation. A melting pot of immigrants and refugees, still an unprecedented experiment on many levels: human, political, religious. And to choose not to be an active participant, or even a supporter on the sidelines, in this ongoing miracle?! What will they tell their grandchildren?! Because they despised some Israeli Prime Minister or another, they decide not to participate on the playing field of Jewish history? In my opinion, every Jew should consider how to act at this time: on the field itself, in the stands, or completely out of the game.”
A few days after my trip to Cleveland, in sharp contrast, I found myself taking my soldier son to the pickup point for his return to base after Shabbat. Saturday night, midnight. Near us were other cars and other parents, stealing precious moments with their boys. Another word of encouragement. One more hug. Young soldiers, their bags stuffed with clean laundry that smelled of home. A painful transition from the indulgent embrace of the family to another three weeks of arduous training.
I tried to express my mixed feelings of pride and worry. “Son, we raised you in a country whose youth are on the fast track to maturity. But look around – we are privileged to witness a miracle. Please consider these words as ‘rations for the road’ from Abba.”
The bus pulled away. I went over to one of the other fathers, who was staring misty-eyed at the receding bus. In his 50s, he looked like a grizzled farmer. “I identify with those tears,” I smiled. “Oh, you can see them?! I tried to hide them but apparently I failed.” He smiled with awkwardness and continued: “This is my fifth. The Starting Five that I’ve sent to our IDF ‘national team’. He’s the youngest of the five. And from one player to the next, it only gets harder.”
Sagi Melamed is Vice President of External Relations and Development at the Max Stern Yezreel Valley College and President of the Harvard Club of Israel. He is the author of “Son of My Land” and “Fundraising” and can be contacted at: email@example.com.
This essay first appeared in The Canadian Jewish News.