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Wednesday, December 12, 2018

The group posing on the Aish HaTorah Center roof overlooking the Kotel.

The group posing by Ma’arat Ha’Machpelah in Chevron.

Rabbi Steven Pruzansky carrying a box of food and drinks.

The Talmud recounts how those who mourn Jerusalem will merit and see her future joy.

This most noble sentiment is expressed in a most meaningful way in Israel in the observance of its Memorial Day, Yom Hazikaron, and the celebration of its Independence Day, Yom Ha’atzmaut.

This year, the 70th anniversary of the modern State of Israel, a number of members of Congregation Bnai Yeshurun were privileged to participate in both. The program was led by Rabbi Steven Pruzansky and organized by our esteemed members Jack Forgash and Michael Roth. It was a most memorable experience.

It began with a trip to Hebron and the Tomb of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs led by Eve Harow of the One Israel Fund. Many of us joined in the observance of Yom Hazikaron, organized by Nefesh B’nefesh, later that evening and the celebration of Yom Ha’atzmaut the following night, under the auspices of the OU.

We first visited with the soldiers of the IDF in Hebron and helped resupply the food, soft drinks and snacks offered at the comfort stations set up and manned by volunteers in support of the troops. We were warmly received and were able to personally express our gratitude for their efforts and shared some words of encouragement.

The tour enabled us to see Hebron firsthand and we enjoyed a panoramic view of the city from the roof of the yeshiva. We had the opportunity to organize a minyan and pray Minchah there. As many times as I have participated in a prayer service at the Tomb, it always feels as fresh and meaningful as the first time. Much like praying at the Kotel, there is something special in the atmosphere there that enables heartfelt prayer.

On the way back to Jerusalem we stopped at Gush Etzion, a bloc of kibbutzim the Jordanians conquered in the 1948 War of Independence and whose inhabitants were massacred, even as they surrendered. As a precaution they had sent their children away to the relative safety of Jerusalem. The Gush was recaptured in the 1967 War and the surviving children of the original members of kibbutzim returned to rebuild. It is a magnificent place and testament to life and the resiliency of the Jewish people. They didn’t just rebuild what had been there; they improved and surpassed the quality of the original and created a beautiful community.

We toured the museum located in Gush Etzion and learned about their heroic story of bravery, determination, grit and selflessness. Each of the individuals, who made the ultimate sacrifice in defense of the newly proclaimed State of Israel, is memorialized. It is particularly poignant to my wife and me because of the personal relationship we developed with one of the orphaned children who survived the massacre at the Gush. Despite all the challenges he faced, he grew up to be a wonderful, successful and very warm individual and patriarch of his own family, though he did miss having an extended family. However, a few years ago, after an intense search, he was reunited with a long-lost cousin (who is mishpacha with my wife). It was one of those small miracles that are such an integral part of Jewish life. It’s hard not to recognize that God is watching over us.

We are all one big family. Lest there be any doubt, I urge you to participate in a Yom Hazikaron observance in Israel. We did and the effect was overwhelming. More than a thousand people joined together in the hangar facility at Tachana Rishona. As we listened to parents of the fallen, zichronam livracha, and saw a slideshow of the many who were killed in wars or by terrorists, we, like everyone around us, teared up. The shared grief was palpable. No one was unaffected by the experience. At our core and in our very souls we are one family and care about each other. When one person suffers, we all do.

We returned to Tachana Rishona on the evening before Yom Ha’atzmaut and the mood and atmosphere suddenly changed. We joined with everyone there in a Maariv service that included the joyous singing of Hallel. It was an electrifying experience. The harmonious song and dance embraced us all in a virtual hug. It felt like being a part of a family simcha. The partying continued late into the night.

The next morning we arose early to walk briskly to the Old City. Our destination was the Aish HaTorah center overlooking the Kotel. As we walked the Mamilla Mall, through the Jaffa Gate, past Migdal David and on the meandering streets of the Jewish Quarter, we met so many people on their way to the Kotel. We arrived at the entrance to the Aish center and identified ourselves as a part of Jack and Carol Forgash’s group. They had arranged for members of Bnai Yeshurun to pray Shacharit at the Aish center and enjoy a Yom Ha’atzmaut program. Singing Hallel that morning also took on a special significance. We were there, overlooking the Temple Mount, celebrating the 70th birthday of the rebirth of the modern State of Israel almost 2,000 years since the destruction of the Second Temple. It was an incredible experience, made all the more powerful because we shared it with our brothers and sisters from Teaneck, friends from around the world and those already living in Israel.

We then retired to breakfast at Aish and heard presentations by Rabbi Steven Burg and others at Aish. Rabbi Pruzansky delivered a dvar Torah, and Jack Forgash, as well as Rabbi Bini Maryles, spoke about the wonderful work being done by Just One Life. After Birkat Hamazon we walked up to the roof of the Aish center and enjoyed its panoramic view of Jerusalem and bird’s-eye perspective of the Kotel Plaza. It was filled with people. Rabbi Eitiel Goldwicht made some stirring remarks as he described the scene and mission of Aish. We stood there taking in the scene and then broke out in song and dance. We then witnessed the flyover by the Israeli air force marking the occasion. It was a thrilling moment and many lingered on the roof and in the Old City to soak up the festive atmosphere.

The Bnai Yeshurun program also included a guided tour, led by Chaim Silberstein. We visited Shiloh, the place of the Mishkan, Beit El and Nebi Samuel. We also toured the Psagot Winery and enjoyed a wine-tasting event arranged by our very own Chezkie Wang.

We also visited with family and friends. Many from Teaneck now reside in Israel at least part of the year. Of course, we shopped at Machane Yehuda and took in the sights, sounds and glorious tastes and smells of this open-air market. There were so many great restaurants, cafes and falafel stands to enjoy. We have got to go back soon, because there was no time to take them all in on one trip.

The mission was a wonderful, memorable and meaningful shared experience. We’re back in Teaneck now, still adjusting to the time-zone changes and jet lag. As we wake up very early each morning we can’t help but reflect on some of the bittersweet moments that characterized this trip to Israel. It was a study in contrasts. There were moments of intense introspection as we stood silently on Yom Hazikaron as the sirens blared. We cried with everyone else as we remembered the many fallen who sacrificed themselves to defend us. We shared in the pure joy of the Yom Ha’atzmaut festivities in a way that we had never experienced outside of Israel. Israel is a land of miracles and each time we visit we soak up a part of that miraculous atmosphere. I urge everyone to share in the experience by visiting Israel and seeing it all for yourself. L’Shana haba’ah b’Yerushalayim habnuya.

By Leonard Grunstein