My first trip to Israel was about 35 years ago when I was 22. I had little connection to the country but knew a little bit about its historical significance.
It was a family trip, and my father wanted his children to get an up-close and personal experience. While he had never been to Israel either, he had been very involved in raising money for Israel, most notably for Israel Bonds during the Yom Kippur War.
As we were driving to Jerusalem on our first day, heading to my first of many stays at the King David Hotel, our guide told me something that still resonates with me. We must have been driving through East Jerusalem because the ancient walled city was on our left, and the guide said, “On our left is the old part of Jerusalem, and on our right is the newer section.”
I looked at the ancient wall and concurred: That part of Jerusalem was quite old. However, I looked to my right and clearly saw that every building in that direction had been built before the founding of the United States.
I asked our guide to clarify what he meant by “new.” He responded, “That’s easy. Everything to the left was built pre-Crusades, and to the right, post Crusades.”
To quote an old film, I knew I wasn’t in Kansas anymore.
It is hard to assess the depth of history in Israel without seeing and touching it. And once you have seen it, it will touch you for the remainder of your life.
Fast-forward 15 years, and I had the opportunity to spend Yom HaAtzmaut in Israel. Nothing can quite be as diametrically opposed to the omnipresent soul, air and atmosphere of the endurance of a 6,000-year-old city as the vibrant, ecstatic and in-the-moment celebration of an entire nation.
The streets appeared filled with every citizen, young, old, religious, secular, Christian, Jewish and even some Muslim, for hours.
It was a virtual street party from one side of Jerusalem to the other. Religious men hugging IDF soldiers with guns slung on their backs. IDF soldiers spraying young kids with silly string. Ice cream parlors giving away their wares for free. Thousands of people dancing with strangers in the street.
What an extraordinary island in the world.
When I came back from Israel, my Judaism changed. I didn’t become more religious, but I did become more passionate. I wanted to take an active role in being Jewish.
I joined American Jewish Committee’s ACCESS, which had formed just the year before. In three or four years, I became the chair. Since then, I have held positions in JNF, Federation, Israel Bonds, ADL, AEPi, the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, the Georgia Holocaust Commission, Chabad, The Temple, Temple Emanu-el, ARZA, Friends of the IDF and several more wonderful institutions.
I also began traveling to Israel on a regular basis, deepening my ties to the land and the people. All of which brought me where am I today, working at the Atlanta Jewish Times, helping secure the next generation’s love, empathy and respect for and knowledge of our homeland, Israel.
Look at what one trip to Israel accomplished. They say a picture’s worth a thousand words. The Talmud says that if you save a life, you save a world. If you combine the two, it becomes very powerful.
Every time we send a person to Israel, we change that person’s perspective, and usually it’s transformative. Non-Jews see through all the propaganda and understand a thriving, entrepreneurial, democratic and free country rich with the culture and spirituality of a dozen religions. Jews begin to understand who they are and who they have been through the past 2,000 years.
That is why Birthright Israel, AJC’s Project Interchange and trips led by Christians United for Israel are so vital for Jewish continuity as well as the safety and security of Israel. These trips transform individual lives and, I believe, ultimately help ensure the survival of our little Start-Up Nation in this vast world.
When is your next trip?