The Jewish people have been blessed with countless heroes and heroines throughout our history whom G-d has worked through, used, endowed with intellect and strong personality, or motivated to be leaders and/or to do outstanding deeds for our people. Abraham, Moses and Esther are just a few of the many whose character traits and deeds are recorded in Tanach.
Certainly, there have been plenty of others since the biblical age. Personalities who immediately come to mind include Maimonides, Moses Montefiore, Theodor Herzl, Golda Meir and Menachem Begin. There are myriad others.
Yet with such an array of heroes and heroines throughout the ages, none are the subject of a holiday outside of Israel widely celebrated by the Jewish people. It is mind-boggling. We must remedy this.
I am reminded of this oversight every year at this time.
Early in January each year, Jewish congregations, schools and organizations begin promoting their annual “day of service” coinciding with the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the national holiday later in the month commemorating his life and activities. King was indeed a hero for his ground-breaking and successful civil-rights activism, and by all accounts, a friend of the Jews and a supporter of Israel. Through his speeches, writings, marches and other forms of activism, he changed America and the world for the better.
There is no denying that King deserves these annual living tributes that people coalesce around to improve their neighborhoods, communities and institutions, including by Jewish congregations, schools and organizations. Yet few, if any, of those congregations, schools or organizations similarly have a day to honor the life and works of any Jewish heroes or heroines. There certainly is nothing on a national scale in American Jewry.
It seems time to address this shortcoming by selecting a Jewish hero or heroine to honor with a namesake holiday, and by having constructive activities and events as a tribute to his or her achievements and positive impact.
Abraham, Moses, Esther, Montefiore, Herzl, Maimonides, Meir or Begin: Any of them would be appropriate to designate for such a day of service in their honor and memory.
Jewish tradition teaches that there has never been a finer example of a more kind, welcoming and thoughtful human being than Abraham, the Jewish Patriarch; Queen Esther, whose courage and self-sacrifice are commemorated in the Megillah, and who is a central figure of Purim; Moses, who led the Israelites out of Egypt and delivered the Torah to our people. But the birthdate of these individuals is not known.
There are more recent heroes and heroines whose date of birth we do know.
They include Sir Moses Montefiore, an outstanding philanthropist of the 19th century who purchased land in the Ottoman territory of Palestine to ease Jewish immigration there; Moses Maimonides (the Rambam), the prolific sage and physician; Golda Meir, ground-breaking Israeli prime minister, labor leader and fundraiser for Israel; Menachem Begin, one of the leaders of the defeat of the British, paving the way for Israel’s declaration of independence, and later, a maverick prime minister.
And then there is Theodor Herzl.
Herzl was one of the leading opponents of Jew-hatred of his era. Not only did he expose it and fight it, he also came up with a remedy. It was one that most considered pure fantasy: A nation-state for the Jewish people in our historic homeland that would lift them away from Europe’s ingrained culture of anti-Semitism and serve as a refuge. It would be a legally recognized restoration by the world that would reunite a people with its land.
If not for Herzl’s vision, his courage and his insistence that the re-established Jewish state be in its historic location rather than an alternate site, we don’t know whether or not there would be a Jewish state of Israel today on the land God gave us in perpetuity, or that it would become the largest and most vibrant Jewish community in the world.
Herzl’s tireless efforts galvanized much of Jewry. Representatives from Jewish communities throughout the world convened in Basel, Switzerland, for the Herzl-organized First World Zionist Congress in 1897, and he ignited what became the modern Zionist movement.
Jews worldwide should be grateful for Herzl and celebrate with annual communal and institutional festivities, as well as with a day of learning about Israel and Zionism, and hands-on pro-Israel advocacy.
In this year in what will be the 125th anniversary of that First World Zionist Congress, it would be apt for Diaspora Jewry to begin this new tradition.
The World Zionist Organization’s Herzl Center provides greater detail on Herzl’s efforts to re-establish Israel, his writings and his accomplishments, and the result of his dream and labors. A collection of videos in English can be found here.
So much of the Jewish community is under-informed and/or misinformed about Zionism and Israel. A day dedicated to Zionist and Israel education throughout the world would vastly improve Jewish knowledge about our history, our heritage and our homeland.
Herzl was born on May 2, coinciding with the 10th of Iyar the year he was born in 1860 (May 11 this year). It is a time when students are still in school and when the weather is pleasant throughout most of the world—perfect for gathering, learning and engaging in advocacy.
Israel already marks Theodor Herzl day on the 10th of Iyar each year. The Knesset created the holiday in 2004. On this day, there are memorial services and educational activities throughout the Jewish state.
It’s about time for the rest of the Jewish world to catch up to our Israeli cousins and to do likewise throughout the Diaspora. There must be a worldwide Theodor Herzl Day beginning this year and annually, whether on May 2 or the 10th of Iyar.
Steve Feldman is the executive director of the Zionist Organization of America’s Greater Philadelphia Chapter.