Tag Archives: Israel

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A Chapter Closes

Shimon Peres speaking at the swearing-in ceremony for his successor as Israeli president, Reuven Rivlin, July 24, 2014. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Shimon Peres speaking at the swearing-in ceremony for his successor as Israeli president, Reuven Rivlin, July 24, 2014. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

JERUSALEM — In the midst of a grinding war in Gaza, a sometimes near-empty Knesset gallery was packed last week for an uplifting moment: what probably was the final political act of Israel’s elder statesman.

Shimon Peres — former Israeli prime minister, defense minister, foreign minister and now former president — stood before the Knesset for the last time as a public servant on July 24, just prior to the inauguration of his successor, Reuven Rivlin.

Facing his professional home for almost all of the past six decades, Peres gave a farewell speech that traced the arc of his long career, recounting
Israel’s past, defending it in its present predicament and offering hope for its future.

“We are a people that experienced unimaginable agony,” Peres said. “And we are a people that reached the lofty heights of human achievement. We made great efforts. We paid a heavy price.”

It was a toned-down ceremony due to the continuing conflict in Gaza and was an inauspicious time for Peres, 91, to be exiting the political scene.

For decades, the man who in 1994 was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for helping engineer the Israeli-Palestinian Oslo Accords has repeated over and over that peace is within reach and could be achieved in his lifetime. Yet the final months of his presidency saw the acrimonious collapse of Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations, the murder of four boys — three Israeli teenagers and a Palestinian teen — and Israel’s bloodiest military offensive in five years.

Peres is known today as a peacemaker, but he began his career in the Defense Ministry, helping to cement a close military alliance with France in the 1950s and developing Israel’s nuclear program in the 1960s. Following the 1967 Six-Day War, Peres advocated the settlement of the West Bank and Gaza.

Only in the 1980s, as Labor Party leader, did Peres become the peacenik he’s known as today. And it was only after he left party politics for the presidency, in 2007 that he rose above the parliamentary rivalries and failed leadership bids that had embroiled and foiled him over the previous few decades to become the unifying figure he is today.

Peres is the phoenix of Israeli politics. From hawk to dove, from faction leader to uniter, he has ridden the wave of Israeli history and somehow stayed afloat while others fell, faded away or died. It is that history that makes Peres one of the few Israeli leaders who could deliver the speech he did last week: at once vociferously defending Israel’s offensive in Gaza while also calling for an aggressive approach to Israeli-Palestinian peace.

“There is no place to doubt our victory,” Peres said, adding immediately: “We know that no military victory will be enough. There is no permanent security without permanent peace. Just as there is no real peace without real security.”

In a political career that spans 55 years, Peres has never prevailed in a popular election. He became prime minister in 1984 after his party, unable to form a government, entered into a unity coalition with the Likud. He also occupied the post briefly in 1977, after Yitzhak Rabin resigned, and in 1995, after Rabin’s assassination.

The peace treaty Peres yearns for has yet to be signed. But whether or not peace comes in his lifetime — though in his 10th decade he still appears energetic — his starring role in so much of Israeli history has earned him a respect that transcends political divisions.

At the Knesset session on July 24, Peres received thunderous applause from a generally divided house.

The man who succeeds him, Reuven Rivlin, is in many ways Peres’ opposite. Rivlin is a lifelong Likudnik; Peres has bounced between three parties. Rivlin wants to annex the West Bank; Peres prefers a two-state solution. Rivlin has pledged to focus his efforts on healing Israel’s internal divisions; Peres at times has acted like Israel’s second foreign minister.

Though he is no longer a government official, Peres is unlikely to disappear. He intends to continue working for regional reconciliation at his Peres Center for Peace, and he still will be a presence in the media and at international conferences.

And Peres’ story remains woven into the history of Israel — its successes, its failures, its frustrations and its resilience.

“When I return and meet the beauty and strength of the State of Israel, I find myself shedding a tear,” he said near the end of his speech. “Maybe excited slightly more than my younger friends. Because throughout my years I witnessed the entire incredible journey and the miracles of Israel.”

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Aliyah During Wartime

JERUSALEM — David and Helaine Brenner had a real Israeli welcome last week, as they prepared to leave Ben-Gurion International Airport to embark on their new lives as Israeli citizens. They ducked for cover and fled from an approaching rocket fired from the Gaza Strip.

Fresh off the special El Al flight chartered by Nefesh B’Nefesh that brought 228 new immigrants from North America to the Jewish state, the couple and their two young boys — who have spent the last several years living in Baltimore — were loading up the free cab provided by the Ministry of Immigrant Absorption when the air-raid siren’s high-pitched wail pierced the calm, morning air.

“Our kids didn’t even hear it,” Helaine Brenner, 45, said with a smile of her children, Lior, 13, and Tovia, 11. “We just ushered them to the shelter with everybody else and waited out the attack.”

The rocket, likely intercepted by Israel’s Iron Dome missile defense system, came as part of a morning barrage July 22 that prompted the Federal Aviation Administration in the United States, responding to another rocket that exploded in the town of Yehud just one mile away, to ban all flights by American operators either arriving to or departing from Israel’s central airport for little more than a day.

But two days later, as she sat with her husband and children to receive their Israeli identity cards at a Nefesh B’Nefesh ceremony at Jerusalem’s international convention center, Brenner took the whole experience in stride.

“Our second siren was the next day when we were in the rental car planning to grab something to eat,” the preschool teacher at the former Yeshivat Rambam day school said. “We pulled over, walked into a shoe store, and the staff there helped us into the shelter.”

That Brenner, who until this week belonged to Suburban Orthodox Congregation, could rattle off such details so matter-of-factly, might have appeared remarkable were it not for the similar experiences of so many others on that Nefesh B’Nefesh flight, the organization’s 51st such charter. William and Tanya Mann, a mid-50s African-American couple who converted to Judaism before deciding to make aliyah, told of scurrying to shelter the minute they arrived in their new hometown of Beersheba in Israel’s south.

“There were two rockets, and we had maybe 45 seconds. We didn’t even make it” to the bunker, said William Mann, formerly of Riverdale, N.Y. “We heard the boom” of the Iron Dome missiles intercepting the weaponry.

Before they left New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport last week, members of the immigrant group acknowledged the risk of making aliyah during a time of war. But according to Nefesh B’Nefesh founder Rabbi Yehoshua Fass, not a single person chose to cancel or even delay his or her plans after Israel embarked on its Operation Protective Edge to stop attacks from the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip.

The last time the private organization, which contracts with the Israeli government to coordinate all immigration from North America, brought a flight of immigrants during wartime was in 2006 during the second Lebanon war, said Fass. When the rockets from Gaza started falling, “we anticipated the extra jitters and that [the immigrants] would be bombarded [by family and friends] with extra questions, extra scrutiny; so proactively, we reached out to provide more strength and encouragement to them.”

Also read, Economic Impact.

The Brenners didn’t feel any pressure to change their minds in the days and weeks leading up to their move, said David Brenner.

Making aliyah, he stressed, was a lifelong dream, one reinforced during the 14 years of his marriage. A layoff three years ago gave him the opportunity to go into business for himself, and a trip last summer to Jerusalem convinced him that he could continue his work from abroad.

“We made the firm decision about a year ago,” he related. “After that, everything fell into place.”

The family had no trouble selling their home, and a fortuitous connection pointed them in the direction of a rental home in Alon Shvut that was priced “exactly according to our budget,” said Helaine Brenner.

Divine providence, they both agreed, made everything possible, but it was their Zionist beliefs that provided the drive.

“Within our family, the reason [to move] is to leave a life for our children, [a life] we hope will have meaning,” said Helaine Brenner. “But well beyond that, we feel like the State of Israel is vital to the Jewish people, and we feel like it’s our present and it’s our future.”

Rabbi Shmuel Jablon similarly said he and his wife, Becky, moved their family from Philadelphia to Efrat for their five children, ages 8 months to 17 years, as much as to fulfill a lifelong dream.

“After so many years of us speaking Hebrew to the kids, we figured that 2,000 years of exile is enough,” said Jablon. “It’s time to come home.”

His 9-year-old son, Akiva, was less philosophical, saying that he was looking forward to the Little League baseball in Efrat — a community of more than 9,000 people in the Judean Mountains of the West Bank. But he looked up from his iPad game (also baseball) to admit that he was “very excited.”

His eldest sister, Leah, said that she saw in her family’s move a message to Jewish people everywhere.

“If there’s something holding them back” from making aliyah, “if they’re nervous about missing out on opportunities in America,” she said, “they should know that Israel really is the land of opportunities.”

Turning to the security situation, their father was defiant.

“We had no intention of giving Hamas a victory by delaying aliyah for even a day,” said the rabbi, an educator who used to work for Torah Academy in suburban Philadelphia. “It’s our land, our state, and we’re not changing our plans for terrorists.

I am a Mother of a Combat Soldier

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By Amian Kelemer (as read at Baltimore’s Gathering for Solidarity on July 21, 2014)

I am a lot of things.

Daughter, sister, wife, mother.

Teacher, colleague, friend…

The one thing I am that has changed me at my core more than almost anything else is being a soldier mom. And once you are a soldier mom, you are always a soldier mom.

Being the mother of a combat soldier means transformation.

It means losing your breath every time you hear about an incident in Israel. It means unexpected tears flowing from your eyes every time the prayer for the soldiers is recited in synagogue. It means sleeplessness, restlessness, bleary-eyed watching the clock for missions to finish. It means heart racing when the phone rings.

When our oldest daughter enlisted in the Israel Defense Forces as a combat soldier in the Karakal unit, it changed me forever.

When a soldier finishes basic training and is ready to start active duty, she receives a TaNaCH (Bible) and a gun. I had the privilege of surprising my daughter by attending this special swearing in ceremony. My daughter accepted her gun and her TaNaCH wearing my father (Alav HaShalom’s) marine corps insignia. Like every marine, he fought for our home, and like every Israeli soldier, she protects our homeland.

In Risa’s ceremony, just like in every other swearing in ceremony for every unit, the energized crowd listens as an Army Rabbi recites from the book of Joshua:

Chazak V’Amatz! Be strong and courageous for it is you who will cause this people to inherit the land that I have sworn to their fathers to give them. … Behold I have commanded you: ‘Be strong and courageous.’ Do not fear and do not lose resolve for the Lord Your G-d is with you wherever you will go.”

At the conclusion of the ceremony, each soldier shouts “Ani Nishba’at” (“I swear”). That moment is full of tingling feelings and transformation. Our teenagers transform into soldiers and our mothers transform to soldier moms.

Not many American moms see their daughters swear allegiance on a Bible and a gun, let alone, lug grenade launchers that are bigger than they are. I have the honor and the sheer terror of being a soldier mom. When our daughter described looking down and seeing that she had the infrared light of a sniper’s rifle locked on her chest or told us about being alone in the middle of the night and guarding a munitions depot, my heart stopped. But soldier moms continue on. They pray and encourage – and they do not say, “Stop what you are doing and come home right now.” Even though you know that your child may never come home.

Our daughter lives her ideals and her ideals belong to each of us. She wants us to know that wherever your home may be, Israel is your homeland. She wants to ensure that she has done her part in securing our Jewish future.IMG_1800

She is taking this responsibility for all of us and we are all responsible for all of the young adults who have taken on this task.

I once learned this lesson from a young soldier. My friend invited me to pray at her synagogue in a potentially dangerous area. While she and her children walked there every Shabbat, I was scared and we requested a livui. A soldier guards from the front and a soldier brings up the rear. My friend’s children skipped ahead because the way was familiar to them and they usually walked without guards. The soldier called to me and said, “Your children must not walk past the guard in the front.” My reply was, “They are not my children.” And, what he responded will echo in me forever: “They are all our children.”

And indeed they are. We are all forever changed because we are all the parents of all of these children who have all become soldiers.

We are also soldiers in our own way – giving with every ounce of strength we have. We are the Jewish community and we support each other – we are all the parents of all of our children.

I am a soldier mom. But I know you are too. I know you are hoping and praying for the long life and success of each of our children. I am transformed and so are you. Every positive thought you have in the direction of a soldier brings down more good and strength in the world. Please keep those good thoughts coming.

In America and even in Israel, it is probable that not every one of the children we raise will be an actual combat soldier. In fact, when he was asked if he wanted to follow in his sister’s footsteps and enlist one day, my 6-year-old told me that he wants to be a speech therapist because it is a lot safer! But today, all of our children need to fight for their ideals. In the streets of America, on the college campuses and around the world, we may all need to be a little more brave and stand up for ourselves a little more.

Every Shabbat as I would close my eyes to light Shabbat candles, I would feel the air get sucked out of my lungs. Panic would well up in me. I was meant to usher in the calm of Shabbat, yet I could not find a bit of serenity inside me. I feel the same when I read the names of the boys who have been killed in action or the names of the boys who have been wounded. And when you see their photographs, many are just boys. To catch my breath, I silently sing to my daughter the refrain from the song parents have been singing for too many wars:

Ani Mavtiach lach, Yaldah sheli ktana, she zot tehiyey hamilchama haachrona

I promise you, my little girl. That this will be the last war.

While we may not be able to fulfill that promise, we can swear “Ani Nishbaat” – I swear and you swear together with my daughter and me that we will always keep the soldiers in our hearts and prayers. Our hearts forever transformed.

Send in the Clowns

jill maxBy: Jill Max, Chair, The Associated’s Israel Engagement Center

I hate the circus. The primary reason for these feelings stems from my childhood and my family’s requisite annual pilgrimage to Madison Square Garden to witness the “greatest show on Earth.” The smell of the menagerie was bad enough, but it was the clowns that really freaked me out. Fear of clowns: Coulrophobia (it’s a real thing, Google it).

When I discovered that we were going to hear from Tsour Shriqui, the Director of Medical Clowns, I immediately worried that he would bring one of their professionals with him. Fortunately, he was alone and thanks to him, I was able to see clowns through a different lens. Medical Clowns are actors who spend several months training before they are sent to work with patients in hospitals throughout Israel. There is extensive research about the positive effects on the patients they work with, particularly children, their parents and people with PTSD. The clowns are very busy these days, many have been sent to hospitals in the South like Barzilai and Saroka.

As we wound our way North through the hills to Nazareth, I was struck by the serenity and quiet in this largely Muslim Arab town. When we arrived at the Nazareth Industrial Park, perched on a mountaintop, we gravitated to the outdoor patio on the top floor and marveled at the breathtaking view.

The Nazareth Industrial Park was built 2 years ago to promote the development of industry in the Arab sector of Israel. It is the first Arab/Jewish industrial park. We learned about the Interagency Task Force on Israeli Arab Issues, a coalition of 100 Jewish Federations, foundations, religious and service organizations dedicated to learning and raising awareness about Arab society and Jewish-Arab relations in Israel.

We had the opportunity to hear from Julia A-Zahar, a leading Arab businesswoman whose company, Al Arz Tahina produces some of the best tahini and halva in the country. She is also a community activist, lay leader and the Chair of the the Masira Fund, a program for the advancement of people with disabilities in Arab society. It was an inspiring afternoon, particularly following our experiences on our way out of the Tel Aviv in the morning.

As the bus continued to wind through the mountains, I watched the sun beginning to retreat behind both clouds and hills. We arrived at Baba Yona Ranch and were greeted enthusiastically by representatives from Dalton Winery. The weather was glorious and the wines were lovely; however, we soon learned that we were not exactly going to relax and enjoy a leisurely outdoor dinner. Instead, we were divided into three teams and tasked with preparing the meal ourselves. Under normal circumstances, I would have loved this activity, but I was tired, and soon realized there were too many cooks in this makeshift kitchen. I headed back to the wine tasting and had a great conversation about what we’d learned in Nazareth with some new friends from the Lehigh Valley Region of Pennsylvania.

It was the first time since my arrival that I momentarily stopped thinking about sirens. I looked up at the clear, starry sky, breathed in the clean air and let out an audible sigh of relief.

Jill is currently in Israel on the Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA) Campaigner’s Mission.