By Larry Gordon
It just may be that after all these years of contrasts and conflicts in Israel, I have finally had an epiphany of sorts. The diversity here amongst Jews in a relatively small space is startling. They all go about their lives as if it were nobody’s business. This place is continually fascinating inasmuch as it has changed so much while simultaneously not changing at all for hundreds and perhaps even thousands of years.
And then there are the immensely impressive crowds. Over the last two weeks here in our true homeland, I found myself in the thick of three such crowds to tell you about.
First, on a Monday night at the end of June, my dear friend and a man with his finger on the pulse of our people, Dr. Joe Frager, took us along with Governor Mike Huckabee to Caesarea for the celebration of the 19th anniversary of the Taglit-Birthright program and the 400,000 young people who participated in the program.
It sounded like an interesting event. We were going to be joined for the celebration by philanthropists Miriam and Sheldon Adelson (the casino mogul from Las Vegas) and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife Sara. Four thousand young adults who had just arrived in Israel participated in the celebration. They were spending part of their summer on the all-expenses-paid program, which strives to connect Jewish youngsters from around the world to something Jewish, in this case the State of Israel.
The program continues to be wildly successful in drawing young people to Israel over all these years. It was pointed out by both Mr. Adelson and the prime minister that the program was the brainchild of former Meretz Party leader Yossi Beilin, who was present in the audience as well. Beilin was also the initiator of the Oslo peace process back in 1993. As Mr. Adelson said, although his and Mr. Beilin’s politics are polar opposites, he still feels a debt of gratitude for his initiation of the program. Beilin, though out of the Knesset today, remains an incorrigible leftist. The fact that concessions to Israel’s enemies only result in more demands and talk about greater and more dangerous concessions does not seem to trouble him or people like him.
But this was not a night about political philosophies or struggles. It was about young people, perhaps without even realizing it, becoming attached to the land of Israel for life.
There were disco music, performers, dance numbers, and singers. There was no talk about Torah or the history of the attachment of the Jewish people to the land. The evening was dominated by feel-good music, fraternization, and making friends during an exciting week or two of summer that lay ahead.
After all these years, the purpose of a program like this is a response to the increasing distance between young and not-so-young people and Israel. This country needs the support of world Jewry, especially in the face of all kinds of efforts to undermine and challenge the legitimacy of the state of Israel.
The theory at play here is that it matters little how the establishment goes about making that connection occur. The important thing is that it happens somewhere and somehow. If it has to start in an old Roman amphitheater in Caesarea, then just let it be and watch it grow from there.
Netanyahu noted that most of the time Israel has just one ambassador to each of the countries with which it has diplomatic relations. Through the Birthright program, he added, Israel now has more than 400,000 ambassadors out there.
If you want a more elementary suggestion of the logic of this program, just observe how children line up in shul near the designated distributor of candy for a lollipop or some chocolate on Shabbos morning. What does eating candy have to do with going to shul? I suppose we can hypothesize that young children identifying the shul experience with the sweetness of candy can only work to develop a positive orientation toward the experience as they mature.
Here in Caesarea two weeks ago, there was heart-thumping musical candy that attracted these kids with a formula that has been proven to work in terms of developing a kesher, or connection, on whatever level possible between young Jews and Israel. So how that connection is created at this point really matters little. Before there can be a fire in the heart, there has to be some kind of ignition from somewhere.
The second crowd to tell you about was that almost wall-to-wall crowd in the Machane Yehuda market on Friday morning. We did not need to buy any food for Shabbos, but we did so anyway. The market on erev Shabbos is a hustle and bustle, with shopkeepers hawking their products, everything from fresh meats, fruits and nuts, pastries, wine, cheese, Judaica, and so on down the line. The temperature was in the 90s during the day on Friday and the crowd probably pushed it over 100 degrees.
In some ways, the crowded market is a physical manifestation of what it looks like to prepare for Shabbos—the day that seems to be the focus of the week here regardless of your level of religious commitment. The crowds streaming through the market have eyes constantly on the clock, awaiting the arrival of Shabbos. I’ve never been there too late in the day on Friday, but they say that about 90 minutes before Shabbos the prices on items fall dramatically. For now, full price is just fine and part of feeling the heartbeat of a people as we set our designs on Shabbos. It is hot and sweaty in the market, but it doesn’t seem like anyone pays any attention to that reality.
And finally, of course there is that very congested and, this week, overheated trek to the Kotel on Friday night to welcome the Shabbos. This week, in addition to all that the experience offers, there is also an airless dimension to it. There are lots of people moving in a slow line approaching the metal detectors. No air.
It is about 7:30 p.m. and the stifling aspect of a very warm day is not moving off. That late-day Jerusalem breeze must be behind schedule, but no one is complaining. Later, sometime in between the swaying with kavanah, welcoming the Shabbos, and dancing with the soldiers, the breeze kicked in, the L‑rd’s air-conditioning system went on, and things were much more manageable for the rest of the night. We had dinner with 30 or so other guests on the rooftop of our dear friends Leah and Moshe Shlas, overlooking the Har HaBayit, a vantage point I’ve marveled at and enjoyed for the last 25 years. We left at about 1 a.m. The next morning at the Tzemach Tzedek Shul in the Old City, Reb Moshe told me that he was fabrenging until 5 a.m.
On Saturday night, when an Arab cabdriver overcharged for a ride down to the Malcha Mall, I asked him why he was charging so much and he offered a one-word answer, “Shabbat.” How could I have argued with him about that? v
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