The last time I had attended the annual AIPAC policy conference in Washington was exactly 35 years ago as the college representative from the University of Pennsylvania. I had been sitting at a table on Locust Walk—clogs dangling at the hem of my faded jeans, bellowing and beckoning the students hurrying past to plant trees in Israel—when I was swooped to join the ranks of Israel campus activists, in an era when everyone had a cause. I remember taking photos with politicians but not much else from the AIPAC Conference in 1977. And then, cascading years of grad school, kids, and work detoured my lobbying pursuits.
I travel to Israel so frequently that I have completely lost count of the number of times I have landed at Ben Gurion. How was AIPAC not on my radar? How did I book flights to Tel Aviv without considering booking a room in Washington?
The past few weeks’ worth of national and local papers have been filled with the text of the speeches delivered at the 2012 AIPAC Policy Conference and political analyses of these words. This essay is not a transcription of what was said, but rather one woman's reflections of her soulful experience.
You rush, post-sundown on Saturday evening to Penn Station at 34th Street in New York, and it feels like the old Central Bus Station in Jerusalem on a summer Saturday night when Richie’s served the best pizza in town, or like being at the Miami airport the morning after Pesach. The entire planet feels Jewish.
Sunday morning DC is swarming with suits. You listen to brilliant speeches, rise to your feet in pulsating applause, in a room larger than you have ever been in before—but it feels like home.
You start talking to the people next to you, behind you, in front of you, saving their seats and offering energy bar snacks, and you find connection within one degree of separation.
At early morning breakfasts in the hotels, at crowded lunch tables in the convention center, at regional buffet dinners, it is like speed dating. Jews and Evangelists, Caucasian and African American, young and old, seriously frum and radically Reform, we are all aligned.
You introduce yourself and listen: Boca, Detroit, LA, Atlanta, Chicago. Parents and teens, husbands and wives, groups of friends, singles. Your roommate from junior year at Hebrew University in 1979, your jeweler on 47th Street, a neighbor from 1985 Einstein Medical School housing.
You walk to a Starbucks two blocks away for some air and caffeine, and everyone there is wearing the telltale badge proclaiming our shared mission in DC this week.
You stand in the hotel elevator at midnight, and by the time you stop at the sixth floor you have bonded with other passengers whose legs are similarly collapsing from the exhilarating, exhausting day that will keep you awake all night with excitement. We are one nation, electrified by our collective energy. The speeches leave us wet-eyed, and pride swells our hearts high into our throats. Shimon Peres, Bibi Netanyahu, Brigadier General Shaike Bareket, nearly 2,000 involved university students, moving film clips, packaged kosher food, Idan Raichel music, yarmulkes that seem to be growing in number as Jewish identity rules.
As I stood in serpentine formation with fellow Israel supporters to hear Prime Minister Netanyahu, passing through the layers of Secret Service protocol, I felt cushioned by the protection of both the American and Israeli security forces. And I could not help comparing the relaxed and friendly lines I was standing in, with thousands of compatriots, to the lines our parents and grandparents helplessly stood in 70 years ago in Europe.
We walked in a sea of spirited solidarity, waiting to hear the leaders of our free world; they marched in a miasma of misery, starving, unanchored in a world that abandoned them and ripped their lives apart. Our inspection warmed me, I was only too glad to watch my eyeglass case being unzipped and then returned to me; theirs led to indignity, deprivation, destruction. The irony was overwhelming: the very program we were all so patiently waiting to experience was established to assure a safe harbor for our people. We were gathering together to renew a uniquely granted and fragile insurance policy.
So mark your calendar for next year’s AIPAC conference, March 3-5, 2013. Our blessed generation needs to proactively keep Israel alive. The power of the AIPAC Policy Conference has reignited me and it may do the same for you. It may be the most inspirational days of your life.