In 1990, when I was 16 years old, I went to Israel for the first time as a participant on a six-week trip to Israel with 45 other teens from the East Bay. I had dreamed of visiting our ancestral homeland for many years, and I was the first person in my family to walk on the land described in the Torah. Touching the Kotel, the Wailing Wall, was an experience I will never forget.
I returned to Israel in 2000 as part of a three-week graduate program seminar and then again in 2012 on the Jewish Federation's first community trip. My connection with Israel has deepened each time I have gone, and I have appreciated different aspects of the country and the people.
I share this in my column this week as tonight marks the start of Yom Ha'atzmaut, Israel's Independence Day. This year's celebration is extra special because 75 years ago, Israel officially became a country, and this year's celebrations reflect it.
Israel has a unique place in the heart of the Jewish people. It is where our story and our religion began and will always be a direct tie. And yet, most American Jews have never set foot in this place. But still, these same people feel a deep connection to the country.
Last week I met with our Consul General of Israel, Dr. Hillel Newman, to prepare for his Town Hall Meeting on Monday, May 15. (I hope you will join us for this extraordinary opportunity to hear from the leading Israeli government official in Southern California.) During our conversation, we discussed what is taking place in Israel and the challenges American Jews face because of decisions made by the Israeli government. Remember, whatever happens in Israel, non-Jews look to us to either explain or even sometimes have to defend these decisions. And is often the case Jews are blamed because of the misconception that because we are Jews, we must support Israel and all of its decisions. This perception has placed Jews in a state of duality, and we continue to grapple with this as we try to understand its implication on our lives each day. As this perceived belief of us being directly tied to Israel continues to grow, many Jews feel forced to either defend Israel or question its leaders and be seen as "turning our back" on our Jewish homeland.
No other people have to deal with this duality like Jews do. No other religion is so directly tied to a nation as Jews are to Israel. And yet, when I weigh the alternative, Israel no longer existing - us no longer having a country that takes its role of protecting Jews all around the world so seriously – I will take these challenges time and time again, as long as it means Israel will continue to exist.
My connection to Israel has evolved over the years. Do I always agree with decisions that are made in Israel? Absolutely not. But I also know that since I am not an Israeli, nor do I live in a country surrounded by people who want its complete destruction and actively work to make that happen every day, I am not always able to understand or grasp why certain decisions are made entirely. And even so, I will continue to stand with and by Israel on the world stage and celebrate and appreciate its existence as it celebrates its 75th anniversary.
Happy birthday Israel, and may you have many, many more!
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