My friend Rivka and I have known each other since beginning college in New York in 1985. Although we remain in touch, we are not part of each other’s daily lives so I was not sure who to expect among the guests when I attended her daughter’s Bat Mitzva. To my surprise, many people from various parts of my life joined the celebration: Some were friends from pre-aliyah days; some people who I had originally met through Rivka I hadn’t seen in many years; while others I knew from work or through mutual friends.
As Rivka and Moshe spoke about their daughter, Yaffa, they expressed pride that Yaffa was growing into a woman with a genuine love of Torah, of the Land of Israel and of her people. Surrounded by people from different parts of my life, some of whom I have known for over twenty years, I also thought how special it is to be part of this country and our community of friends.
In the last month, I have been particularly aware of the different communities of which I am a part.
The end of the school year brings with it an exchange of students. Josh Sklarsky of Voorhees finished his first year at MIT and after having spent a summer in Israel and then a year, has returned to staff a summer program for Young Judea. As his “home away from home” we were among his first stops in Israel. While welcoming him, Marti Dembowitz of Cherry Hill called us. She too had been here in high school and been one of our adopted students, spending Shabbatot and Haggim (holidays) with us. Marti spent this year studying at a Yeshiva before beginning her studies at Brandeis. She called us from the taxi on her way to the airport to say goodbye and to thank us for being part of her unforgettable experience over the past year
When Josh came, we were just finishing up a meeting with our insurance agent. The meeting was conducted in English, but in a South African accent. As part of the “Anglo” community in Jerusalem, most of our service providers and friends are English speakers, be they British, Australian, Canadian, South African or from the United States.
However, not all of our interactions are with Anglos or even Jews. Being American allows us to forge connections with other populations, giving us a common language with others, unavailable to all Israelis.
We recently hosted Christian college students visiting Israel as part of the Israel Experience Program traveling throughout Israel gathering information and gaining experience. They return to college with their new-found knowledge acting as Israel advocates. I was surprised at the extent of their understanding and was able to relate to them without any cultural barriers
In contrast, I was recently reminded that I do business in the heart of the Middle East. I met Mahmoud and Abed in Jerusalem’s Old City. They called me into their shop to hear in my own words how I was proposing to help them enter the American market through the Internet. They did not want to read through proposals or the terms and conditions of a contract. They did not want to pay for our services with credit cards as most of our clients do, but only with cash. They wanted to look me in the eye and evaluate me as a potential business partner – a very different way of doing business than Western standards.
I am also part of the greater Israeli population. Still serving in the IDF Spokesperson’s Unit as a senior reservist, I was recently called to offer them advice. The army is a right of passage into Israeli society that I passed through many years ago, and as a reserve soldier, it is still a force in determining part of my identity.
However, as someone who votes in Israeli elections and as an active member of Israeli society, I also help to mold Israel’s future. This month I was selected to chair a committee charged with finding a new teacher for my son’s nursery school. In this role I sat with other parents, all of whom are native Israelis and, in Hebrew, discussed the resumes of applicants and our priorities in selecting a teacher to raise the next generation of Sabras.
Like Rivka and Moshe’s daughter Yaffa, my children have the privilege of being raised in a society that nurtures who they are. My son Shemer is finishing first grade. To celebrate the end of the year, his school had a fair at school to which parents were invited. With different ethnicities from Israeli society represented, my wife had her hair braided in cornrows by Ethiopians, Shemer made pita over an open fire and I enjoyed the homemade cakes from the bake sale.
Before the fair started, I sat in on Shemer’s class as they said their morning prayers. They concluded their service singing Israel’s national anthem, Hatikva (The Hope). As I watched a room full of first graders singing the concluding words, I could not help but have an overwhelming sense of pride that regardless of where these children’s families immigrated from, be it France, Russia, Canada, Iraq, Germany, Ethiopia or America (to name a few), these children are the fulfillment of that 2000 year old hope, free to be who they are, “lehiot am hofshi bartzenu” (“to be a free people in our land”).