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June 6, 2011 10:00 am

My Birthday in Israel

avatar by Susan Kone

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Ophel (City of David), Jerusalem, Israel. The Kidron Valley and Mount of Olives are in the background. Photo: Joe Freeman.

I recently had the honor and privilege of attending a Mission to Israel together with 20 wonderful co-adventurers from around the country.

This – my first trip to Israel in celebration of my birthday – was one of the most meaningful and memorable experiences of my life. Much more than a celebration of birth, it was a period of rebirth.

Words cannot describe the great joy we felt as we recited the Shechayanu at Mount Scopus upon our arrival in Jerusalem or the awesome and spiritually awakening experience of spending Kabbalat Shabbat at the Western Wall. We visited the biblical City of David and explored fascinating archeological excavations which revealed Jewish life dating back three thousand years. We felt a profound sadness coupled with an alarming sense of deja vu as we viewed the symbolic architecture and evocative exhibits at the new Yad Vashem Museum. With great humility we reached deep into our souls to remember the 6,000,000 systematically exterminated and the brave survivors. As we toured, we could not help but ask ourselves whether or not the lessons of the Holocaust have been learned and prayed that our leaders have the moral clarity and political courage to confront evil head on before it exacts yet another atrocious toll on humanity.

What impressed me most was the kindness, courage and indomitable spirit of the Israeli people. We were treated with the greatest hospitality by everyone we met– from young IDF soldiers to store clerks and hotel personnel to leaders in the Israeli government. It wasn’t until this trip that I really understood the very diminutive pieces of land that comprise the Jewish state and the very close proximity of those who deny Israel’s right to exist and remain determined to destroy her. This hit home when I was blowing out my birthday candles at a restaurant in the Galilee in Northern Israel and Hezbollah launched a ketushah rocket which landed nearby. It was also apparent when we visited Sderot and witnessed firsthand the shells of many of the thousands of rockets that were fired from Hamas-controlled Gaza intentionally targeting innocent civilians. We thought about the well-being of Osher Tuito, the soccer-loving 8 year old boy who lost a leg as a result of one such assault. We were given dark pink solidarity bracelets which we vowed to wear until that day comes when the residents of Sderot and all residents of Israel can live free from this omnipresent terror.

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While no people should have to live under constant attack — the Israelis do so with with grace and dignity — and manage not only to survive — but to thrive! They built a lush, beautiful paradise out of a piece of desert. They maintain a pluralistic and tolerant democracy. They developed a vibrant economy and contribute important advances in technology and biotechnology. They unearthed and preserved the ancient land of their biblical roots while helping to solve many of the challenges facing the modern world. They are nothing short of amazing!

One of my favorite days was our visit to Masada. We were enamored with the beauty of the Dead Sea and the athlete in us embraced the physical challenge of racing up the mountain. When we arrived, we were deeply moved as our excellent tour guide related the history of the brave Zealots who fought to the bitter end against overwhelming odds and chose to end their lives rather than become slaves under the Roman Empire. We looked around at each other sensing the the contemporary relevance of this tragic yet inspirational tale. We realized that on that very sacred piece of land, several thousand years ago, our ancestors stood firm for the same value we must continue to defend and promote to this very day – freedom. It is freedom that defines us, binds us and sustains us – both as Americans and as Jews. That is why the nation of our birth and the nation of our people will forever be inextricably bound.

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