Last week, a group of 20 leaders from 15 JCCs embarked on a Jewish journey, which began at David Ben-Gurion’s burial place in Israel’s desert and ended in modern Tel Aviv. This journey was part of JCC Association’s Israel Enhancement program, an initiative aimed to enhance JCC’s Israel programming and engagement.
JCC Association’s commitment and connections with the land of Israel and its people have never been stronger, deeper, and more significant than they are these days.
Our journey took us through Israel’s wonders, as reflected in its innovation, creativity, history, spirituality, vitality and complexity. Modern Israel began with its first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion (1886-1973), so this is where we began our journey.
David and Paula Ben-Gurion’s modest, yet majestic burial place is my favorite site in Israel as it overlooks what is known as Genesis Land, a land untouched by man; a land full of promises, hopes and dreams. David Ben-Gurion dreamed of a Jewish sovereign state and followed his desire through hardships and battles, to see his dream come true. Ben-Gurion earned the right to declare the Jewish state for all Jews, and ever since, has been a Jewish hero, my Jewish hero.
When I stand by Ben-Gurion’s grave, just in front of the majestic Negev desert, admiring nature’s might and force, connecting with this virgin land, and reflecting on Ben-Gurion’s vision, I feel complete with my human values, Judaism, Zionism and love for this country.
A few days later, we found ourselves at Friday night dinner with 10 lone soldiers from N. America, the United Kingdom and Brazil, who all shared their commitment to the Jewish people, the Israeli army and Zionist values. All had left the comfort of their parents’ homes with its familiar and secure future, and prioritized defending the Jewish homeland and its people.
And then we met Issachar. Issachar grew up in Jerusalem. He didn’t have to cross an ocean, acquire a new culture or learn a new language to serve. Israel is everything he ever knew; yet joining the Israeli army was the most courageous thing he could do, far outside his experience and beyond anything he ever imagined doing. Issachar comes from a haredi family that opposes joining the Israeli army. Once Issachar enlisted, they cut off connection with their son. Just a few miles away from home, and yet lifetime away, separated by values, believes and identity. Issachar is one of many haredi lone soldiers hugged and embraced by the Michael Levin Center for Lone Soldiers. At that Friday night dinner our group embraced Issachar and his friends, thanked them for their service and saluted their contribution. I felt more connected to my land than ever, and proud of its sons like never before.
And then, on the last night of our journey in Israel, one of the group’s participants shared something that illuminated my work in such bright, meaningful light that will forever remind me the scope and responsibility of what I do: Lenae is not Jewish, but is married to a Jew and works at one of our JCCs. She always felt that Judaism “speaks” to her and makes sense in many ways, but was never able to fully accept Judaism as her identity and definition of religion. Lenae struggled with Israel and all of its complexities, the negative publicity and for her, the troubling image she had formed. Lenae’s view of Israel conflicted with her very positive take on Judaism and interfered with her becoming Jewish.
After a week in Israel, seeing this country’s wonders, learning about its history, feeling the spirituality and, yes, discussing its complexity, Lenae experienced a very different Israel than the one she imagined. She discovered a land with which she can associate and of which she can be proud. She is now able to complete her own personal journey and convert to Judaism. Lenae made the decision to become Jewish thanks to the week in Israel with 19 other JCC colleagues!
I’m not a missionary and never was. Preaching to convert to Judaism isn’t my role and I take pride in being associated with a Movement that by definition of pluralism is as open and receptive to all denominations and non-Jews as one. However, realizing the impact one week in Israel can have on one person’s identity — how, by physically experiencing Israel through our work — people see the Jewish homeland in a whole new way, made me realize even more why I have the best job!
So yes, I consider myself extremely blessed to be earning a living from my passions, which are Israel and the Jewish people. I have lived in Israel all my life, traveled extensively throughout this amazing country, and yet, I always find something new I haven’t seen or noticed before. I get to see Israel through the eyes of our JCCs’ leaders and members — through your eyes — and what I see is so great, so beautiful, so real and so different from the way Israel appears in the eyes of critical media and through propaganda.
This Israel we all love and care so much buried just two days ago a little four-year-old girl. Adele Biton was injured in 2013 when terrorists threw rocks at her family’s car; the attack had left her in critical condition. Adele suffered from severe brain injuries and had been disabled ever since. A few days ago she was rushed to the hospital with pneumonia from which her very fragile body couldn’t recover.
Spending a week with 20 JCC leaders, following Ben-Gurion’s vision, meeting amazing lone soldiers and then once again being reminded of the painful price we pay in order to live here gives so much meaning to whom we are and what we stand for.
May Adele’s memory be blessed. May all of our soldiers — lone and native-born — be safe. And may no child, Jew or Palestinian have to pay the price for peace. Amen.
Today is Rosh Chodesh, the beginning of the Hebrew month of Adar when we sing: Mishenichnas Adar Marbim B’Simcha”, When the month of Adar arrives we should increase our joy!
Chodesh Tov, have a great and joyful month and Shabbat Shalom
Vice President & Director, JCC Israel Center