More than 20 years ago I rode a bus through the night from Chicago to Washington DC with a group of Hillel students. Earlier this week, I once again rode a bus through the night – this time from Massachusetts to Washington DC, with my own children. Although the details of the two trips were different, the message was the same: When there is a crisis in Israel, we show up. When Jews around the world are hurting, we don’t stand idly by. Rather, we take action, we put aside the differences that all too often divide us and come together, visibly and proudly, as a strong, united Jewish community.
It was certainly powerful, two decades ago, as a young Jewish professional, to share this message with dozens of Hillel students – to see them take such a significant step on their own Jewish journeys and begin to understand both the beauty of community and the sense of responsibility that comes from binding yourself to the Jewish people.
It was another thing entirely, as a not-so-young Jewish mother to share this message with my own children, who, in the not-to-distant future, will go off to carve their own Jewish path. That is why, for me, the pre-event, student rally was the most powerful piece of my experience in DC. I watched my children watch other people their age stand in front of tens of thousands of people and – during a time when it is all too easy to feel completely powerless and hopeless – proclaim their ability to make a difference, and remind all the other students in attendance that “you can too.”
When the crowd at the front got to be a little too much, we moved to the outskirts, where one of my kids managed to find some of his life-long friends who we hadn’t seen in quite some time. One of these friends kept exclaiming, nearly in tears, “I can’t believe this is real, that we are here, together, in-person, in DC.”
As a lifelong Jewish professional, married to another lifelong Jewish professional, I take for granted the joy that comes with reconnecting with old friends at Jewish gatherings. It was heartwarming to watch the next generation experience this joy for the first time– especially during these difficult and dark days filled with far too many tears of sadness. I saw these young people take comfort in being in one another’s presence, and lean on one another as they stepped up to claim their own place in American Jewish history.
Just to be sure I am being honest and not sugar-coating the whole experience, the decision to go to DC with my teenagers in tow meant that there was a fair share of whining, and waiting, and grumpiness, and tiredness – but I would do it all again in a heartbeat.
On a global level, I walked away from the experience knowing that we stood with Israel, we loudly called upon the world to bring the hostages home, and we proved that we would not cower in the face of rising antisemitism. On a very personal level, I had the experience of imparting two powerful lessons to my children: First, as difficult as things may seem, there is always some action we can take to make a difference. Second, we never need to feel alone as we strive to make this difference. Rather, we can find strength in our friends and community. Being an active, involved, and committed Jew, means that we will find these friends wherever we may travel.
Twenty years ago, I thought I was experiencing a once-in-a-lifetime gathering in support of Israel in our nation’s capital. It has been hard to accept that, this week, we had no choice but to gather again, under circumstances that were even more horrific than the last time. I can only pray that, soon, there will come a time when urgent gatherings of solidarity in response to traumatic crises are no longer needed, and instead, we can come together as a strong, visible, and proud Jewish community in moments of joy and celebration.