We landed on the eve of Yom HaZikaron, Israel’s Memorial Day. Two hundred New Yorkers on the UJA-Federation William Rosenwald Mission, a third of us never having been to Israel before.
We had come from different places — lay leaders, rabbis, agency executives, people who know Israel and UJA-Federation well, others with little knowledge and eager to learn. Young and old. Five trip-winners via a Facebook essay contest.
We had left New York to see the Jewish state and celebrate our past — and we did. But even more powerful was seeing ourselves reflected in Israel and glimpsing its brilliant future, one we continue to have a role in shaping together.
On that inaugural night, our first lesson was about sacrifice. We felt the deep heartache that Israelis experience on Yom HaZikaron. Israel’s former ambassador to the United States, Sallai Meridor, conveyed how, in a country so small and so threatened, there is no one untouched by loss. If the lost were not family, they were friends, neighbors, classmates, and colleagues. And yet, despite these losses, grief and negativity have not permeated the marrow of society. Over the next 24 hours, we experienced the transition from the heaviness of Yom HaZikaron to the joy of Yom HaAtzma’ut, Israel’s Independence Day; sorrow giving way to unabashed celebration. Two days encapsulating 65 years of history, the essence of Israeli resilience and optimism.
We began on a note of remembrance, but quickly became consumed with understanding the complexities of Israel in real time, seeing what tomorrow holds, and discovering where we fit in. Everywhere we went, we saw the impact of the New York Jewish community. It was in the faces of new immigrants; in the gratitude of impoverished Holocaust survivors and elderly immigrants from the former Soviet Union; in the creativity of artists and the energy of social activists breathing new life into Jerusalem.
In this ancient country, we were exposed to many change-makers who are creating it anew. We met Yityish Aynaw, the first Ethiopian Miss Israel. The entrepreneurial, secular mayor of Jerusalem, Nir Barkat, reminded some of New York’s own mayor with his visionary spirit. We heard from the minister of finance, Yair Lapid of the Yesh Atid party, carving a new political path. And Natan Sharansky, hero of the Jewish people, now chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel, reported on his proposed solution to the Women of the Wall controversy.
Lesser-known Israelis impressed us with their innovative spirit, too. One of Israel’s young entrepreneurs described his ingenious entry in the worldwide Google challenge to land a spaceship on the moon. Each of these change-makers has faced seemingly insurmountable challenges, and each was determined to persevere — daring us to rethink the status quo, too.
We were ever aware of the place of UJA-Federation and the worldwide Jewish community in building the country. We have helped bring three million olim to the country since its beginning. And today, we are continuing that building in important new ways, supporting pluralism, bridging divides among the country’s many diverse groups, engaging Israelis in what it means to be Jewish and part of a global people.
When, toward the end of the trip, we met with Shimon Peres — the 90-year-old president who has lived through all of Israel’s modern history — we might have expected a look back in time. But when asked to identify his proudest moment, he answered without hesitation, “What we will accomplish tomorrow.” At that point, we shouldn’t have been surprised. This is Israel, a country 65 years young, always looking forward, a mindset that has seen it through many challenging days and galvanized progress in so many sectors of society.
On Yom HaZikaron day, a group of us visited a kindergarten in an absorption center for new Ethiopian olim, 5 and 6 years old. Some had arrived in Israel as recently as two weeks before. The “old-timers” had been there since August. We had provided the funds to bring them here and give them a chance at a better life. The memorial siren sounded, marking the loss of all who came before them, the men and women who gave their lives for this land. The children stood silent — their small faces solemn, expectant. Right before our eyes, the future was meeting the past. We have been authors of this unbelievable story, and we have had the privilege to witness it unfolding. When we returned home, exhilarated, we knew that those children, we New Yorkers, native Israelis, Jews everywhere — we are all part of the destiny of Israel, as we have been for 65 years, as we will be far into the future.
Alisa R. Doctoroff is chair of the Board of UJA-Federation of New York. She has been nominated to become president this summer.