Growing up in the United States, I didn’t enjoy Yom Ha’atzmaut. We had to wear our white buttoned-down dress shirts and dress blue pants — all of which made sliding into home plate during softball at recess a real nuisance. The day itself meant little to me. My school gathered in the gymnasium for an assembly during which they showed us a filmstrip which always began with an orange. The camera would then zoom out and we would see people wearing funny looking hats planting an orchard. This just didn’t speak to me on any level.
One year, as we sat on the gym floor prepared to see that orange again, we suddenly saw something new on the screen: “The Washington Bullets in Israel.” It was the most thrilling film we had ever seen. Our beloved World Champion Bullets traveled to the Holy Land to play a basketball game against Maccabi Tel Aviv. The movie showed some highlights from the game, and also showed the Bullets touring Israel. We could not contain our excitement as we saw Elvin Hayes at the Kotel, Mitch Kupchak on Masada, and Bobby Dandridge riding a camel. Our body language screamed: “We love Israel!”
The next year, we entered that assembly with great enthusiasm, which was extinguished quickly when the filmstrip began with that orange again.
I share this story not to criticize the Hebrew Academy in Washington, a school which provided me with an excellent education, but to shed light on the challenge that even the best Diaspora schools face when it comes to teaching about Israel and Israel Independence Day. Some schools have music and dancing. Some serve falafel and Israeli salad. Some show the film of David Ben-Gurion declaring independence and/or footage of the War of Independence, or more recent battles. Many schools do all of the above and more, and while all these efforts are admirable, the question remains: are these efforts making any kind of lasting impact on the students?
A more important question should be: what lasting impact are Diaspora schools striving for in their Yom Ha’atzmaut programming and overall Israel education?
I would like to suggest that it is time for a bold new approach to Yom Ha’atzmaut.
In schools and camps around the world, Jewish children sing the words “Nodeh Lecha” (quite remarkably, all do it with the exact same chanting tune), thanking God for giving the Jewish people the land of Israel. What is a child in the Diaspora being thankful for? That there is a land of Israel that they can visit? That there is a land of Israel where they can spend their gap year? That there is a land they can run to if they are ever in trouble?
No. The words say clearly that we are thankful for our “inheritance.” In the words of Hannah Senesh, an assimilated Hungarian Jew living in Israel who was executed after parachuting into Yugoslavia to rescue Jews about to be deported to Auschwitz: “There is one place in the world to which you do not escape, nor do you immigrate, you come home — the Land of Israel.
And this is what I believe Jewish children have to be taught. Even while living in the Diaspora, they must be told that Israel is their true home; along with the automatic implication of Israel being home — that they should strongly consider making aliyah.
Jewish students worldwide should be taught that when the British established the Peel Commission in 1936 to investigate the violent rebellion of the Arabs to better understand the Arab-Jewish tension before the founding of the state, they heard testimony from Ben-Gurion who declared: “Our right to the Land of Israel is not given by the British government or the Balfour Declaration. It is much older. The Bible is our mandate to the Land.”
Children in Jewish schools should be taught about the history of the struggle between enjoying comforts in the Diaspora versus living in Israel, a struggle that reached a climax in the time of Ezra, when Jews returned from exile and rebuilt the Second Temple. Only 42,360 Jews in Babylonia chose to return to Israel at that time. (Ezra 2:64-65) Rashi, one of the commentators in Jewish tradition, relates that the Jews who did not return “felt comfortable in exile.” (Sanhedrin 98b) Students must learn that Jews living in Germany at that time responded to Ezra’s call to make aliyah by tragically declaring that while Ezra rebuilds the “big Jerusalem,” they will stay in the comforts of their “little Jerusalem.”
Yom Ha’atzmaut is the time to teach our children the words of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks: “Jews have lived in almost every country under the sun. In 4,000 years, only in Israel have they been a free, self-governing people. Only in Israel are they able, if they so choose, to construct an agriculture, a medical system, an economic infrastructure in the spirit of Torah and its concern for freedom, justice and the sanctity of life. Only in Israel can Jews speak the Hebrew of the Bible as the language of everyday speech. Only there can they live Jewish time within a calendar structured according to the rhythms of the Jewish year. Only in Israel can Jews live Judaism in anything other than an edited edition. In Israel, and only there, Jews can walk where the prophets walked, climb the mountains Abraham climbed, lift their eyes to the hills that David saw, and continue the story their ancestors began.”
And then start the music and dance with the joy that, thanks to the independent state declared on this date, Jews from all around the world can move and live in their home and experience all that Rabbi Sacks described.
These are impactful messages that can resonate with students of all ages and provide them with something meaningful and lasting in their Israel education.
Schools should follow the example of Yeshivat Or Chaim in Toronto, which has a plaque at the school’s entrance honoring students who choose to move to Israel to serve as lone soldiers. Great celebrations should be made for the children of families who make the decision to move to Israel and take their part in their national inheritance.
It’s time for rabbis, school administrators, teachers, community leaders and parents to tell the next generation the truth: that they don’t live in their home, but that their home is available and calling them for them to return.
Yom Ha’atzmaut would be the perfect time to start.