Representing Diaspora Jewry as a torch lighter at Israel’s 71st Yom Ha’atzmaut ceremony was a “great honor, for a terrible reason,” said Jeff Finkelstein, president and CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh.
Finkelstein, who was chosen to light a torch on May 8 at the ceremony on Mount Hertzl in Jerusalem, was among an assembly of esteemed leaders gathered to mark Israel’s independence before a crowd of thousands, while millions more watched the event live on television. He was chosen for the honor because of the role he played in helping the Pittsburgh Jewish community persevere and heal after the Oct. 27 massacre at the Tree of Life synagogue building.
In his remarks at the event, Finkelstein said that he carried the torch in honor of the 11 Jewish Pittsburghers who were murdered that day.
“I was asked in other press if I feel the honor of getting to light the torch,” Finkelstein told the Chronicle upon his return to Pittsburgh. “This is a big deal in Israel, and I don’t think I realized it. Someone said there are about 9 million people in Israel now, and about 8 million people watch this ceremony live on TV. What I said was, ‘It is an honor, but I’d rather not be here.’ In other words, the only reason I was asked to be there was because 11 people were killed in Pittsburgh. So it had to be in their honor.”
Finkelstein worked with a speechwriter in Israel who transcribed his words into Hebrew, which he then delivered to the crowd. An English translation provided by the Federation reads:
“I, Jeff, Jacob Zvi, Ben Nissan Hanoch and Hinda Reizel Finkelstein, carry this torch in honor of the 11 victims who loved the land of Israel and the people of Israel with all their hearts and souls and who died in the sanctification of God’s name. It is in honor of the fate and purpose, which will never be disconnected, between the Israeli society and Jews of the Diaspora from all denominations and all opinions. We are brothers! It is in honor of our Jewish schlichut (mission) against the bad and to increase the good. To the glory of the State of Israel!”
To emphasize the importance of respecting all streams of Judaism, Finkelstein deliberately repeated the phrase, in Hebrew, that translates to “all denominations” or “all streams.”
“I was being explicit,” Finkelstein said. “In my speech, it said this is about the relationship between the people of Israel and the Jews of the Diaspora, and I said, ‘from all streams.’ And I actually said that twice, which was going off-script, because I wanted to make the point in Israel that we have a very diverse Jewish community in America and we want to make sure that everyone is treated with respect and accepted.”
He also asked that in his introduction the particular denominations of the three congregations that were attacked be mentioned: the Conservative Tree of Life*Or L’Simcha, the Conservative New Light and the Reconstructionist Dor Hadash.
The Pittsburgher was honored to be among other esteemed torch lighters, “amazing people,” which included Kfir Damari, one of the founders of the Beresheet space project, mental health activist Dr. Hila Hadas and Dr. Salman Zarka, who is Druze and heads a hospital that treats Syrian refugees.
“It was incredible,” Finkelstein said of the experience. “I was standing in front of thousands of people with Prime Minister Netanyahu sitting in the crowd and Yuli-Yoel Edelstein, the speaker of the Knesset, was sitting right in front of me. And there were lots of other major officials. So it was an awesome, once-in-a-lifetime experience, for sure.”
One particularly “powerful” moment was when everyone stood to sing “Hatikvah” while fireworks were launched.
“It was really something,” he said.
Finkelstein was in Israel for just four days, but they were filled with impactful events.
On the evening of May 7, Finkelstein participated in the Yom Hazikaron program hosted by Masa Israel, which provides immersive experiences in Israel for young adults. It is funded, in part, by the Jewish Agency for Israel and the Jewish Federations of North America.
The ceremony took place at Latrun, “the site of a very bloody battle in the War for Independence, and thousands of young people from around the world were there,” Finkelstein said. “It was an amazing ceremony to be a part of. I was honored to go up onto the stage with Isaac Herzog, the chairman of the executive of the Jewish Agency for Israel, and we laid a wreath in memory of the 11 who were killed in Pittsburgh.”
The following morning, Finkelstein participated in a Yom Hazikaron ceremony at the Jewish Agency for Israel’s headquarters along with Marnie Fienberg, whose mother-in-law, Joyce, was killed in the Tree of Life massacre.
It was Fienberg’s first trip to Israel. One of the messages she brought to Israelis at the event was that although American Jews are facing anti-Semitism, “we are proud to be Jewish and are inspired by Israelis because they don’t back down,” she said.
Being in Israel for Yom Hazikaron and Yom Ha’atzmaut just six months after the attack in Pittsburgh was “inspiring,” said Finkelstein.
“People really know Pittsburgh now,” he noted. “We are seen in a positive light despite the fact that something terrible happened here. I think people really see what our community did, and how we responded and how we continue to heal, and it is turning heads around the Jewish world.” pjc
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org