(May 9, 2016 / JNS) By Jerry Silverman/JNS.org
Israel’s Yom Ha’atzmaut—Independence Day—is particularly meaningful to my family. My uncle brought his family to the country from Poland in 1936, and he and my aunt fought on the streets of Tel Aviv in the War of Independence in 1948. My grandmother’s sister and her husband escaped the Nazis, making aliyah in the 1930s. My brother, sister, first cousin, and their families all have made aliyah. Two nephews and a niece are now serving in the Israel Defense Forces.
As I was growing up, Israel was an ever-present part of my life, and my father consistently spoke of the Jewish state from his pulpit. I’ve visited the Jewish state more times than I can count and have seen Israel’s economy boom and its technology prowess grow. Its accomplishments and innovations are astounding, including its leadership in water desalination and conservation, medical advancements, agricultural technology, and computer savvy. These Israeli achievements have helped change and improve the way we live today.
I’ve also seen diversity and inclusion growing and readily accepted, particularly in Tel Aviv, and I’m proud that later this month the Jewish Federations of North America has such a large LGBTQ mission leaving for Israel, where President Reuven Rivlin has been invited to welcome participants.
Israel is a magical place where strangers invite one another to share Shabbat meals, and before you know it, you are extended family.
But this magical land also is one of contradictions and challenges that leave me in a constant struggle as I try to understand my relationship with Israel. Gender fairness, religious pluralism, income inequality, the lack of affordable housing and the discrimination that Ethiopians and Israeli Arabs face are all issues that leave me frustrated and wondering why this magical country is unable to also deal with these challenging issues.
Then I remember that as we celebrate Yom Ha’atzmaut this week—going from the solemnity of Yom Hazikaron, Israel’s Memorial Day, to the joys of independence—the modern State of Israel at 68 is a young country, still maturing and finding its way.
As Israel matures, Diaspora Jews have a role to play. Yes, we must acknowledge Israel’s flaws and push it to improve, but that should never preclude our standing together with Israel. That hit home for me nearly two years ago as Israel frantically searched for three kidnapped Jewish teenagers only to learn that they had been murdered.
I spent time with the teens’ families both during the search and after, developing close personal relationships. I was struck by their strength, and how in the face of such tragically horrific acts, they called for unity among the Jewish people, urging us to come together in both good times and bad.
It is toward unity that I believe we should strive—not a unity that is blind to Israel’s flaws, but a unity that inspires us to help Israel improve and continue to grow. And, so on this 68th anniversary of the State of Israel, I say Baruch Hashem, praise God that we have an Israel in our lifetime. Four out of five of my children have experienced a year in Israel on Masa programs. My nephew will be honored on Yom Ha’atzmaut for his exemplary service in the Israeli navy during a ceremony at President Rivlin’s house. He, his siblings, and his first cousins are my family’s next generation of Israelis.
I have always believed that we have been given a gift and a miracle: Torah, the gift that frames our history and the values we should live by, and Israel, the miracle that, despite its challenges, is ours. We are blessed.
Yom Ha’atzmaut sameach.
Jerry Silverman is CEO of the Jewish Federations of North America.