Reflections on Israel at 70
The Jewish Chronicle invited leaders from a broad swath of the greater Pittsburgh Jewish community to offer their thoughts and reflections surrounding the historic milestone.
An ever-evolving homeland
Whether growing up in Wisconsin, making aliyah from Ethiopia or serving in the Israel Defense Forces, Israel has always and will continue to have a special place in my family’s hearts. Our connections to Israel are both emotional and personal.
Besides being the homeland of the Jewish people to which we proudly belong, it is also the place where my wife and I met nearly 29 years ago while in Jerusalem attending an ulpan for young new immigrants to Israel. It is the place where I proudly served in a combat unit in the IDF and the reserves for several years. It is also where our daughter was born.
It is more than a country or destination to visit; it is part of our daily identity as Jews. Although there are multiple security and social challenges within Israeli society, we are still incredibly proud of this country and our connection to it. The technological advances and social entrepreneurship, as well as the ingathering of Jews from a multitude of nations across the diaspora is amazing.
Israel at 70 is a miracle in and of itself, and we are proud to have our own deep connection, as well as see our own children develop theirs. We are looking forward to witnessing, first hand, many more years of peace, prosperity and growth in our ever evolving homeland. PJC
Brian Eglash is the chief development officer and senior vice president at the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh.
We need to have the difficult conversations
The 2017 Pittsburgh Jewish Community Study revealed that 59 percent of Pittsburgh’s Jews have visited Israel. With such strong connections to Israel, our community is uniquely positioned to discuss the great successes and great challenges facing the State of Israel.
Actions carried out by leadership here and in Israel influence our attitudes and identification with the Jewish state. On its 70th anniversary, while we note significant contributions of Israelis in so many fields, we must also recognize that many people are experiencing a crisis in their relationship with Israel.
There’s a crisis when:
• The government of Israel does not fulfill its commitment to creating a sacred, egalitarian prayer space at the Western Wall;
• Peace initiatives are dormant;
• Pastors are given a platform at the opening of the U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem, when they have spoken openly and disparagingly against Jews, Mormons and Muslims; and
• The Israeli prime minister addresses Congress with a provocative speech against a nuclear agreement with Iran after pleading for one at the United Nations only a few years earlier.
On this anniversary, we ask: How can we create safe, respectful spaces to explore diverse points of view? How can we engage more people in what some call “the forbidden conversations?”
We may not solve problems or create a consensus. However, we must respect one another, learn together in our democratic, pluralist community and engage with our communal leadership here and in Israel to strengthen our local and global Jewish community.
We must find ways to participate in courageous conversations about Israel. PJC
Stefi Kirschner is a past president of Congregation Beth Shalom.
A transformative visit to a holy wall
I grew up knowing Israel was the Jewish homeland, but my connection was really established when I became a Jewish professional. For almost 30 years, I have shared the highs and lows of Israel and the Jewish people: the euphoria of Oslo, peace with Jordan, the assassination of Rabin, the second intifada, peace proposals by Barak and Olmert, various incursions into Gaza to destroy missiles and tunnels, and the 2006 war with Lebanon, when my colleagues and I sold a million dollars of Israel Bonds in one night at the JCC.
All of that pales to an experience that had an unexpected effect on me: Shabbat at the Kotel. My first trip to Israel was in 2010. We had been at the Western Wall on a Thursday afternoon. While many people were praying, it was a visit to a religious site with historical importance. But when we went back the next evening, the plaza was crowded with thousands of people singing and dancing.
After singing a few songs, I saw the most amazing thing. A yeshiva, whose students did military service, came skipping and dancing single file into the plaza. Most were wearing white shirts and black pants. Those off duty from the Israel Defense Forces were in uniform and had their machine guns strapped over their heads and shoulders.
Everyone was welcome to step in to take part in the celebration of Shabbat. It was like I was in la la land. I get chills writing this: To me, the Wall is everything. I look forward to my next visit to the Kotel, which will be very soon. PJC
Stuart Pavilack is the executive director of the Pittsburgh chapter of the Zionist Organization of America.
A closely personal relationship
I vividly remember the endless bus trip from Jerusalem to Kibbutz Hazorea in 1985. I didn’t know a soul, spoke fewer than a dozen Hebrew words and had never traveled overseas. But I had a longing to experience Israel, to learn the language and connect to people on their terms — not mine.
The journey took me from the kibbutz to community service work in Ashkelon to running a day camp outside Tel Aviv. I learned to manage in a tiny apartment with few amenities, aerograms, monthly 10-minute phone calls to the United States, a municipal bus pass and a weekly $25 stipend. I met Jews from Mexico, Brazil, France, Holland, Iraq, Iran, Egypt, Yemen and Ethiopia.
I accompanied 30 school children twice a week on city buses to the Israel Tennis Center by myself. I helped turn an abandoned bomb shelter into a teen activity center in a neighborhood where delinquency surpassed high school matriculation. I filled Shabbats with more dinner invitations than I could ever accept and feasted on kubbeh, injera and couscous.
I became one of the “family” at a Yemenite henna celebration. I limped through a misdiagnosed broken foot, a bout of colitis and an apartment robbery. I discovered resilience, passion and leadership in ways I never could have experienced in the States.
Since that magical year, 26 trips back to Israel have been filled with new relationships, experiences and opportunities. For me, Israel is “personal,” with extended family, community and an intrinsic sense of belonging. PJC
Brian Schreiber is the president and CEO of the Jewish Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh.
They’re not your children, they’re ours
In 1982-1983, my husband was granted a mini-sabbatical, so we rented an apartment in Netanya in order to spend the winter in Israel. Our girls were very young; many people thought they were too young to make this trip. But our sense was that we wanted Israel to be so much a part of their lives that their first trip should be one that they were too young to remember.
The municipality allowed us to pay a small tax and enroll our 4- and 5-year-olds into the local public school. And we all learned so much that winter. I finally learned why the trees grow at such a crazy angle, after watching the brutal wind whip across the Mediterranean Sea. I learned that doctors you met on the street would have no qualms about stopping into your apartment to check on a 9-month-old’s funny rash.
The most poignant lesson was one I learned upon arriving a half hour late for school pick up one day. We pulled up to find the teacher sitting on the steps with our girls. I was all apologies and asked what she would have done if we were even later, and she answered calmly, “Of course, I would have taken them home with me.”
Of course. Silly Mother, these aren’t you’re children, they’re our children.
We learned that lesson again and again in Israel. When one of the girls had a tantrum in a grocery store or another was crying on a city bus, a complete stranger would offer them a slice of freshly pealed apple or pull out a puppet to entertain. It is only in Israel that you get the very clear message from strangers on the street, who will stop traffic to retrieve a dropped toy or cross the street to let you know the baby’s sweater should be buttoned in this weather.
Silly Mother, these aren’t your children, they’re our children. PJC
Lisa Steindel is the council immediate past president of NA’AMAT USA Pittsburgh Council.