When I think about Yom HaAtsmaut, I can’t help but smile. It’s not often that Israel can be talked about with simple, supreme levity. It’s the one day of the year where we’re willing, happy even, to put aside the battles and the wars and feel grateful for having our state. Of course, there is much to be done to preserve it and make it a safe place for all, but having a day to celebrate our opportunities to make that happen, makes it all the more exciting.
When I think about Yom HaAtsmaut, I also think about my grandparents. Over Passover, I had the opportunity to hear them speak about their lives as Russian immigrants to America at their synagogue. It was an unforgettable experience. I’ve known their story my whole life; I’ve seen it reflected in their work and their parenting (or grand-parenting, rather). They carry their story with them like a flag—they know what it means to be proud of themselves, and proud of their Judaism.
I can honestly say that I didn’t understand what it meant to have had family assassinated by the KGB until I heard my grandparents speak that cold, Passover day. That they escaped from terror and hiding is a gift, indeed a miracle. “When I became a mother,” my grandmother said, her eyes shining with an intensity I had not seen before, “that’s when I knew we had to get out. I didn’t want to raise my family there.” On Passover, the holiday of freedom, her message struck a deep chord: what we do, as people, to fight for our freedom is extraordinary.
A question came up at their talk that I found very interesting. Someone asked why they chose to come to America as opposed to Israel. I held my breath, waiting for the response. In that moment, I wondered, would they speak negatively? Would they say: “America represents freedom in a way that Israel doesn’t. We wanted to go somewhere safe. We didn’t believe in the Israel mission.” I suddenly remembered that I didn’t know what they thought of Israel. I remembered that I didn’t even know why they came to America.
Surprisingly enough, they came to America as a fluke. Their parents asked their Rebbe where they should go, and he directed my grandparents to America and their cousins to Israel. It was considered disrespectful to go against his suggestions, so off to America they went. At that point in their life, they just wanted to go somewhere free and safe, and thankfully that is where they ended up. I don’t know why the Rebbe sent them the way that he did, but I know that all’s well that ends well—and watching my grandparents speak, and watching their children listen, I think they found a pretty happy ending.
When I think about Yom HaAtsmaut, I think about journeys. The journey away from terror is in and of itself a Jewish journey; it is my family’s story, but it is also our nation’s story. We are lucky to have Israel, as well as America, as a secure place for Jews who are escaping terror. It is important that we remember that.
Let’s celebrate our homeland as a land we have designated for peace and safety; a land we built for not ourselves, but for each other; a land flowing with milk and honey. Chag Sameach, here’s to sixty-six years.