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Sunday, December 09, 2018

Roni Kotel, Maplewood Jewish Center member and Kushner parent, with his young son Erez at the petting zoo. (Credit: Sabra Safta Sara Kotel)

Yom Hazikaron and Yom Ha’atzmaut were celebrated last week in Essex County and lauded as making a concrete link in the Jewish connection to the Land of Israel.

For the fifth year, the Orthodox shuls in Livingston, Springfield and West Orange congregated for a Yom Hazikaron observance. This year it was hosted at Congregation Ahawas Achim B’nai Jacob & David (AABJ&D) in West Orange, to a packed sanctuary.

Following Mincha, Rabbi Eliezer Zwickler, spiritual leader of AABJ&D, welcomed everyone for the community-wide celebration as he acknowledged Rabbi Elie Mischel, religious leader of the Synagogue of the Suburban Torah Center in Livingston, for his part in putting the program together.

“Tonight,” Rabbi Zwickler began, “through remembering contributions of those who gave their lives, we have the luxury of Israel’s existence.” Rabbi Zwickler stated that the following evening would be “for all Jews in the community to celebrate the 70th anniversary of Israel’s creation.” He continued, “Before 70 years ago, our people couldn’t fathom we would be here celebrating 70 golden years of our people in our land.”

Rabbi Zwickler then introduced Rabbi Eliezer Rubin, head of school, Joseph Kushner Hebrew Academy (JKHA)/Rae Kushner Yeshiva High School (RKYHS) and lieutenant (reserves) past rav of the 13th Battalion, with a question about how many Kushner graduates have served in the IDF. Rabbi Rubin announced that the graduates who have served in the IDF bring pride to our community, noting that “16 graduates are currently serving, with 50 students having served over the last 20 years.”

Rabbi Rubin pointed out that multiple communities coming together show that they share the same vision of building the future of Am Israel. He added, “What Yom Hazikaron does is it animates the individual; the loss of each individual soul is magnified exponentially over the years. Each one who died died for Am Israel.” He continued, “The people who serve do it for all our people: present, past and future.”

Transitioning from Yom Hazikaron to Yom Ha’atzmaut, Rabbi Rubin noted that during his service he was in the company of the greatest rabbinic leaders in our history. “Being Jewish,” he emphasized, “is difficult for many to understand. Being Jewish is not just a religion, but a national identity; we are a religion and a nation.”

Quoting from one of the great scholars, he stated that Rav Abraham Isaac Kook (1865-1935) wrote, “Israel is the lifeblood of the Jewish people. We must take ownership of the people in our land.” Rav Kook implored, “We must settle the land as a state.” With this thought in mind, Rabbi Rubin questioned, “Are we an ideal state?” Answering his own question, he noted, “There are still questions, and while complications in Israel are sometimes overwhelming, we are brought together by a unified vision.”

With that thought, Rabbi Yosef Sharbat, assistant Sephardic rabbi at AABJ&D, was on hand to welcome the third grade choir from JKHA, “our future,” to sing the 70th birthday song of Israel, followed by a heartfelt rendition of Hatikvah by the entire congregation. The announcement of the attendance of General Gruber from the IDF was met with a hefty round of applause.

To round out the evening there were children’s activities, live music and tables filled with Israeli favorites, including salads, mouth-watering dishes piled high with hummus and falafel balls with pita.

David Goodman of Springfield said he’s been coming every year, and noted, “It is great to have all the shuls coming together.” He added that this year has special meaning for him since his son Eitan, who made aliyah, just last month finished his tour-of-duty in the Israeli army.

The next evening, the Livingston Oval was filled with people, pets and plenty of performances as uncountable numbers of Israeli flags were seen flailing in the wind on an unseasonably cold but warmly spirited April 19 on Robert Harp Drive in Livingston. Crowds of onlookers speaking Hebrew and English were there to honor Israel’s 70th birthday as the Israeli flag was raised to great fanfare in the Essex County town.

The festival was a project of Livingston, The Livingston Committee for Diversity and Inclusion and the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ. The brainchild of Sheri Goldberg, an attorney who attends Congregation B’nai Jeshurun in Short Hills, and Rabbi Mischel, the festival culminated with an all-inclusive event for Livingston and the surrounding communities to mark Israel’s 70th birthday. The committee members ensured that there were activities for everyone and made the event Orthodox-friendly with only kosher foods sold on-site. There were also many Israeli-themed giveaways.

The schedule of events included high school students marching with huge Israeli flags, dance troupes and bands, and a petting zoo with baby farm animals for the youngsters. At the entrance to the oval, the Livingston library offered various indoor stations, including arts and crafts, a technology showcase, a musical performance and seniors reading Israeli stories to the children.

By Sharon Mark Cohen

Sharon Mark Cohen, MPA, is a seasoned genealogist and journalist who is a contributing writer at The Jewish Link.