Yom HaAtzmaut Sameach!
We are writing to you from Tel Aviv, where the sun is rising on the morning of the 5th of Iyar, Israel’s 75th Independence Day.
We have anticipated this day for a long time. Three years ago, in the midst of the Covid pandemic, the leadership of the Jewish Federation system made the extraordinary decision to move our 2023 General Assembly from its usual October/November dates to April to be in Israel for Yom HaZikaron – Israel’s Memorial Day – and Yom HaAtzmaut – Israel’s Independence Day. While we understood then the significance of Israel reaching 75 years of statehood, we could never have anticipated the intense feelings this moment would bring.
The special “Israel at 75 General Assembly” began on Sunday night in a joint convening with the Jewish Agency for Israel, the World Zionist Organization and Keren Hayesod (which raises funds for Israel from around the world). When the leaders of all four organizations, each of which had been deeply involved in the creation and growth of the State of Israel for a century or more, stood together on stage to open the evening, our sense of pride in the historic achievement that we had helped create was overwhelming.
When Israel’s President Isaac Herzog took the stage and addressed the thousands of delegates from every corner of the world, we could not have felt more welcome or more included in Israel’s global family. The evening was uplifting and joyous. And Monday was full of rich learning and conversation, with an especially inspiring talk by two women – Chani Sabag and Amira Jabar-Qassem – an Israeli Arab and a Charedi woman, who, through a program organized by our partners at JDC, have started a business together and are models of what a truly shared society can look like.
As has been reported extensively, we were also greeted by thousands of Israelis who are protesting the current government’s discussion of judicial reform. We have written to you about this issue many times before, and are continuing to update resources and information to help you to follow this issue and educate your communities.
The divide over these issues here is deep, and the anger by the protestors at the conduct of the government cannot be overstated. Many protestors registered for the General Assembly to try and engage our delegates directly; others protested outside the convention hall and outside our hotels. Some even greeted our delegates when they landed at Ben Gurion airport!
The overwhelming majority of those who came to our events to protest reached out in respectful and sincere ways. A small minority, however, were determined to stop government officials from participating with us. Prime Minister Netanyahu’s decision not to address the Sunday night session was disappointing, as were the attempts by some protestors to disrupt a panel discussion during Monday’s General Assembly program. Nevertheless, each was a reflection of what is happening across Israel today. This is a state of affairs that is important for us to fully understand, and to remain engaged with long after the General Assembly is over.
Yesterday, delegates to the General Assembly and dozens of local Federation missions fanned out across the country to participate in Yom HaZikaron ceremonies with our Israeli brothers and sisters. For those of us accustomed to Memorial Day in the United States, Yom HaZikaron comes as a revelation. Israel is a country that is so small, and that has sacrificed so much. Everyone has in their family or among close friends a solider who has died in the defense of the nation or has been a victim of the too-numerous terror attacks in Israel’s history. Yom HaZikaron is thus intensely personal, a day of individual and collective national mourning. We began with a program on Monday evening at Latrun, the site of one of the worst battles in the War of Independence. Young leaders from MASA taught us how schools, businesses, synagogues and Israeli cities commemorate the day. Here are some pictures from the day. We will send many more when we return home.
Beyond attending various ceremonies for Yom HaZikaron, the two of us also had the privilege of being at a memorial service in the city of Elad, which is one of Israel’s fastest growing cities; it is not far from Tel Aviv. Just last Yom HaAtzmaut, four terrorists invaded Elad’s Yom HaAtzmaut celebrations, killing four people, wounding others, and traumatizing everyone. We stood with Mayor Israel Porush and the other town leaders and we dedicated a memorial. It was a powerful moment that encapsulated all the emotions of this week--sadness and grief, but also determination and pride--as we stood amidst new playgrounds and school buildings being built to house the burgeoning number of children in that dynamic city.
Last night we marked the transition from Yom HaZikaron to Yom HaAtzmaut with a huge party co-hosted with the incredible Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Greater Boston mission. We reflected on the events of the day, and then sang and danced the night away. Fireworks lit up the sky as we brought an exhausting but unforgettable day to an end.
And now the sun is rising on the first day of Israel’s next 25 years. We wouldn’t be truthful if we didn’t tell you that we are experiencing a mix of emotions: exhilarated and exhausted, proud and worried, hopeful and yet aware of how much work needs to be done. But we are also grateful beyond words to be among the most fortunate generation of Jews in history--to be among those who get to participate in the ongoing project of the building of a Jewish state. We are in the middle of a story as dramatic as any biblical narrative, and that is both awe-inspiring and humbling.
We have sung Hatikvah, Israel’s national anthem, many times on this trip, including last night to mark the beginning of Yom HaAtzmaut. Each time has been extraordinarily meaningful. Perhaps this week we felt even more powerfully the words “ עוד לא אבדה תקותנו, התקוה בת שנות אלפים" -- our hope is not lost -- the hope of two thousand years. Indeed, our present is a miracle, and our hope for the future burns brighter than ever. And we know we are part of a historic journey of thousands of years that did not begin and will not end with us.
We can’t thank our Israel at 75 co-chairs Shawna Goodman and Jeff Schoenfeld enough for their leadership of this extraordinary conference, along with all who came to Israel, our wonderful professional colleagues in North America and Israel, and all of you for all you do for the Jewish people and your communities.
Yom HaAtzmaut Sameach!
Julie Platt, Chair
Eric Fingerhut, President & CEO