“Bless the State of Israel with its promise of redemption. Shield it with your love. Spread over it your shelter of peace.”
— Prayer for Israel
Siddur Sim Shalom
After visiting Israel last week during the country’s eight days of warfare with Hamas, Rabbi Daniel Yolkut compared the Diaspora Jews he left behind with tribes of Reuben, Gad and Manasseh.
The Torah teaches, Yolkut said, that as Israel prepared to cross the Jordan into the Promised Land, these tribes petitioned Moses to remain behind in the fertile Jordan Valley.
“Moses says to them, ‘will you let your brothers go to war and you sit here?’” Yolkut said. “Well, last week, our brothers and sisters went to war, and we need to understand what that meant.”
Yolkut, spiritual leader of Congregation Poale Zedeck, was one of the featured speakers Monday at a community rally in support of Israel at the Jewish Community Center in Squirrel Hill.
The rally, dubbed “We Stand with Israel: A Gathering in Solidarity,” and organized by the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh, drew hundreds of people from across the city and suburbs, many waving Israeli flags as they crowded into the standing-room-only Levinson Hall.
Yolkut, who traveled to Israel days after the fighting began with a mission from the Rabbinical Council of America, paid a shiva call on the family of a rocket attack victim, delivered toys and coloring books — collected by his congregants — to displaced children and saw a country building an “unprecedented ring of defense” in the form of the Iron Dome missile defense system.
Together, he said, these things describe what it means when Jews must go to war.
Skip Grinberg, chair of the Federation’s Community Relations Council, opened the rally by putting the situation in Israel in stark terms.
“Hamas has directly targeted Israeli citizens while Israel has gone to great lengths to avoid civilian casualties in Gaza,” he said. “Our sympathies go out to the innocent victims on both sides that are caught in the violence.”
But, he made clear, “Pittsburgh’s Jewish community stands in solidarity with Israel, and its right to defend itself.”
Federation Chair Louis Plung described seven ways Pittsburgh Jews could support Israel, including, he announced, joining an upcoming mission from April 28 to May 5, 2013, the highlight of which will be volunteering at service agencies in Pittsburgh’s Partnership2Gether communities of Karmiel and Misgav.
After visiting Israel on this year’s Mega Mission, Plung said he lamented how much more the Jewish state could have accomplished in its 64-year history had it not been forced to commit so much of its gross national product to defense.
Yet, he said, Israel would always do what it must to defend its people.
“History has shown we are an immovable force when we stand together as one,” Plung said.
Making his first visit to Pittsburgh, Elad Strohmayer, Israel’s Philadelphia-based deputy consul general to the Mid-Atlantic Region, said it’s “so easy to support Israel in its time of need. You standing here tonight proves that it is.”
However, the 31-year-old diplomat said he felt “conflicted” about asking American Jews to support Israel. On one hand, the country needs help from American Jews, yet on the other, it is a “resilient” country.
“It’s not easy to break the people of Israel,” Strohmayer said, noting that even as Hamas rockets reached the outskirts of Tel Aviv for the first time, his friends living there still went out to enjoy the city’s nightlife.
“They said they were not going to let the rockets break our spirit.”
And even as the cease-fire takes hold, Strohmayer said Israel will face a new challenge on the diplomatic front this week when Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas asks the U.N. General Assembly on Thursday, Nov. 29, to recognize Palestine as a nonmember state.
Nov. 29 happens to be the 65th anniversary of the historic U.N. vote to adopt the partition plan, which created the State of Israel.
The United States and Israel oppose the P.A.’s unilateral move — U.S. law, in fact, prohibits funding to international bodies that recognize a Palestinian state — saying only direct negotiations can create a Palestinian state.
“We need to avoid this,” Strohmayer said.
(Lee Chottiner can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)