Rabbi Yehoshua Fass, Co-Founder and Executive Director of Nefesh B’Nefesh and Zev Gershinsky, Executive VP of Nefesh B'Nefesh, with new Olim at Ben Gurion Airport today.
(photo credit: BEN KELMER)
My great-uncle Tzvi Weiss, known in my family as “Uncle Hershy,” passed away this week at the age of 96. My late grandfather’s younger brother, Uncle Hershy was a Holocaust survivor, and not just a survivor but also a savior. During the last days of the war, Uncle Hershy saved my grandfather’s life by carrying him during a death march, thereby preventing the Nazis from shooting him as they did everyone who fell to the ground.
Then in the most difficult days following the war, Uncle Hershy hustled – doing business in a few countries – to support my grandfather and seven other survivors who needed time to heal.
When faced with the decision of where to move after the war, Uncle Hershy would not hear of any option other than Israel. He moved here, served in the IDF in the War of Independence and the wars that followed, got married, started a family, worked hard in the same job at the Haifa Port for decades, and raised children who served in the IDF and built businesses – and then saw his grandchildren do the same.
To me, Uncle Hershy represents the tens of thousands who built Israel on the ruins of the Holocaust. He symbolizes the Zionist spirit that was determined to do whatever necessary to create something special in this land. And they did it with resilience and optimism. These pioneers built this country through blood, sweat and tears, handing everything we need to us on a silver platter. Those of us who moved to Israel in recent years owe Uncle Hershy’s generation – the greatest generation – the greatest gratitude.
As I was reminded with Uncle Hershy’s passing this week, the last of that generation is now disappearing. Sadly, the pioneering spirit that led them to establish Israel against all odds – the engine that drove all of Israel’s developments over the first 70 years – is dwindling with them.
Israel thus finds itself at a crossroads. It is a crisis that can be described in two words: “What now?” We have a state. We have stability. We have overall security. We are here for any Jew who wants to take advantage of the Law of Return.
So now what? Do we simply remain in neutral, put the state on cruise control and enjoy the fruits of the labor of Uncle Hershy’s generation? Or do we find a way to mirror their pioneering spirit and strive for more? Israel must choose the latter.
WITHOUT A PIONEERING energy and drive to newly create something special in this land, we will see a decline in the spirit of service and purpose needed to survive in this neighborhood of the world. The challenges that Israel faces on a daily basis do not allow for slipping into neutral. There is no such thing for a country like Israel. If we are not moving forward with passion and idealism, then we will wake up one day to the worst possible crisis – a generation that asks itself: “What we are doing here, and why bother?” I believe English-speaking immigrants must become the driving force behind the renaissance of that pioneering spirit of Uncle Hershy’s generation. When I was elected to serve in the 19th Knesset, I was afraid I would not be accepted or respected by my colleagues since I had not “paid my dues” by serving in the IDF. I quickly learned that the opposite was true: MKs from across the political spectrum had tremendous respect that I and my family chose to come to Israel from North America.
They were actually amazed by this decision – which they defined as my “sacrifice” for the state – and expressed how our aliya had reignited their own passion for Israel and Zionism.
Indeed, we chose to immigrate to Israel – we didn’t make aliya because we had to, but because we wanted to. And this encourages Israelis. It reminds them that something special is happening here. My son’s IDF commander recently told me he was inspired by “how ‘Americans’ who move to Israel strive so hard to serve in the most meaningful ways and take so much pride in their service.”
All too often, English-speaking immigrants – many of whom were leaders of their communities in their countries of origin – take a back seat in Israel due to the language and cultural barriers. But Israel needs us, just as it needed the pioneering generation that has all but passed. Our fresh Zionist spirit must become felt everywhere – in national and local government, in every political party, on school boards and in neighborhood leadership. We have what to say, and Israel is eager to listen.
Uncle Hershy and his generation showed us the way. They believed in Israel and Zionism with passion, and that empowered them to establish the state. Now we must rise to the challenge. May each of us find a way to take the passion that led us to choose Israel and help influence it, infusing this country with a renewed belief in itself and what it can become.The writer was a member of Knesset with the Yesh Atid Party and executive vice president of government and community affairs for Innovation Africa.