I want to share with you an astonishing, only-in-Israel story, built over three days last week. It reflects the uniqueness of our people and the collective memory which keeps us vibrant.
On Monday I took the day off to accompany a few non-Jewish, first-time Israel visitors to Yad Vashem. Through the entire visit we discussed the meaning of belonging to the Jewish people, the fact that our Peoplehood feelings are perhaps stronger than our religious affiliation, as well as the power of our personal stories and vivid memories.
One of the most emotional exhibits at Yad Vashem is the hall that tells the story of the Hungarian community, which almost totally perished towards the end of the war. My guests were so moved by the emotional testimony about a family that was separated upon their arrival by train to Auschwitz and of the 16-year-old daughter who managed to survive the death camp but lost her parents and siblings on that day.
The next day, Tuesday, I joined some of my colleagues for a day of touring with the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC). This major partner organization of our Federation is known to many for its work in taking care of Jews in need around the globe. However, it is hardly known that it is deeply and widely involved in the welfare system of Israel and it is a long time strategic partner with the Israeli government in various initiatives. You can see what we saw on our tour here.
Our last stop of the day was in Nir Galim, a small Moshav near Ashdod. We went there to see a photography project (Tzilum Be'Gil) that JDC is running for elderly people, particularly Holocaust survivors. We learned about the project and saw the exhibition, then one of the participants told us about her personal poster. The woman, 89-year-young Magda Ungar, started to share her life story and suddenly I got goosebumps when I realized that this was the same story we had read the previous day at Yad Veshem. That Magda is the very same 16 year old who lost her family in Auschwitz. She is now proudly showing us her art photo, which was based on the very last moments she and her mother were together. The scene was stuck in her mind since then and now she is here showing it to us through her photography. What are the chances?
Then Magda said something really powerful – she said that she and the Jewish people won the war. The proof is her four children, ten grandchildren, and sixteen great grandchildren. She said that we all need to stick together as a people and keep the memory from dor le’dor as our energizer.
The next day, Wednesday, was our Federation Annual Meeting. The keynote speaker was Avraham Infeld, a long-time scholar, teacher, and mentor. He talked in his unique and passionate way about the power of our peoplehood over religion and about the “M chromosome” – the unique impact of Jewish memory on Jewish history. My unusual personal experiences at Yad Vashem and Nir Galim in the previous two days were a perfect example of that.
In a blog post, Rabbi Mark Cooper of Oheb Shalom in South Orange reflected on the same concept and came to the same conclusions. He wrote:
“In seeking to define Judaism, it’s not uncommon to ask this question: Are Jews a religion, a nation, or a race?... But perhaps the best definition of what it means to be a Jew is that we all belong to a people, one that shares a common history and a destiny. Our strength and our future lie in the simple adage that says ‘Kol Yisrael Areivim Zeh Ba-ze’: All members of the people of Israel are responsible for one another. Perhaps that simple phrase is the most profoundly important of all Jewish teachings.” It says it all.
I will continue to share with you my stories from Israel, but my wish is for you to experience this notion yourself. There is nothing like coming here. In Israel these concepts, theories, and memories come to life. Federation’s CommUNITY Mission, October 2018, will be a wonderful opportunity to develop your own global connections, collect your own stories, and discover your own, sometimes hidden, M Chromosome.
Drishat Shalom and Lehitraot