Barbara Goldstein has been to the official Independence Day ceremony at Mount Herzl in Jerusalem at least 30 times before, she reckons, but this year is different. For the first time, Goldstein, the deputy executive director of Hadassah in Israel, will be one of the select few lighting a torch at the event Monday night – one of the country’s highest honors.
“Over the years I’ve brought a lot of people to the ceremony at Mount Herzl,” she says in an interview over the phone. “I always imagined... what would it be like? I was standing in Poland next to the statue of Janusz Korczak [the famous Jewish-Polish educator, who died in the Holocaust], leading a group of people on a visit, and the phone rings. We were talking about how he went with the children to the camps even though he didn’t have to. I’ve always been inspired by his story, and then I get this call. It was surreal.”
Each year, 12 torches are lit at the festive ceremony, which marks the end of Remembrance Day for Fallen Soldiers and the start of the Independence Day celebrations. Past honorees include the likes of Olympic medalist Yael Arad, billionaire businessman Stef Wertheimer and author David Grossman.
Goldstein was chosen to be among this year’s 12 because of her lifelong work at Hadassah, the American Jewish Zionist women’s group. Over the years, she has brought countless groups to the Jewish state and helped raise many millions for Israel.
“Hadassah is the only organization that has been here from the beginning,” she says. “It believes it doesn’t matter how you practice your Judaism but how you live your Judaism. I saw that’s the key, we have to overcome those barriers in America. Israel is a glue for us. You have to have practical work, and I never use charity when I talk about the relationship between Israel and the Diaspora.”
Goldstein’s passion for the Jewish people comes from her upbringing. She was born in New Jersey to a Jewish family that was already relatively wellestablished in the country, unlike most Jewish families at the time, whose members had immigrated to the New World only a generation or two before.
“My mother was very active in Hadassah, and my grandparents were very involved in Mizrahi,” she says. “My grandparents were also born in America and their parents were from Hungary. I remember they would make wonderful cabbage soup.”
The education she received at home was later fortified at the yeshiva in New Jersey where she studied.
“From Rabbi Chaim Levin, the head of the yeshiva, I got Zionism and Jewish learning already at eight years old,” she recalls. “By the age of 18, I was the national president of Young Hadassah.”
Decades before the creation of Taglit-Birthright, the program that has brought almost 300,000 young Jews on free trips to Israel since 2000, Goldstein fondly remembers how her first visit here as a young girl left an impression that led to her decision to devote her life to the Jewish people.
While Goldstein had always longed to live in Israel, she remained in the country of her birth, working for Hadassah, for decades. During that time, she would often speak of the importance of making aliya.
“I used to see these speeches of myself, and I’d come back home and tell my husband, ‘This woman has a point,’” she says. “In 1973 we did a sabbatical year, and it was a dramatic year. My daughter told me, ‘I have to come back here to live.’ She made aliya as soon possible after high school. Still, we only finally settled here in 1996.”
That year she and her husband Mordecai, who died in 2007, moved to Israel and joined their daughter and her family, who live in Meitar. One of her grandchildren is currently serving in the IDF Engineering Corps. Her other two children live in the US.
While making aliya might be the culmination of a lifelong dream, she admits that at times it can be a bittersweet experience.
“It drives me crazy, I can’t stand the people, but these are my people,” she says with her trademark sincerity. “But I don’t like living with goyim, though I’ve never had experiences of anti-Semitism. When I started voting, all I cared [about] was how they were for Israel. I knew there were 290 million [people] to worry about mortgages and not as many who cared about Israel.”
What of the future of Israel and the Diaspora? Are the ties destined to fray? “I’m always optimistic about ties with Diaspora Jews. Od lo avda tivkatenu [Our hope is still not lost]. I speak a lot to Birthright children and say, this century belongs to you. Rachel stopped crying when the children came home, and that’s the way I see the future,” she says.
“I’m sure Joshua saw all the crap here,” adds Goldstein, never one to mince words, “but despite everything, this is home.”Roll of honorThe other torch lighters are:
• Orit Dror, a member of Kibbutz Lavi who, together with her husband, donated her son’s organs after he died of a terminal illness, and saved the life of a 13-year-old girl;
• Zehava Dankner (mother of businessman Nochi Dankner), a philanthropist who supported, among others, residents surrounding Gaza, and who is involved in matters of education, security and health;
• Rabbi Shimon Rosenberg, a member of the Chabad movement, who lost his daughter and son-in-law in the November 2008 terrorist attack at the Chabad house in Mumbai;
• Sa’ar Shapira, an 11th-grade student at the Reali School in Haifa. Shapira was a volunteer firefighter along with his friend Elad Riven, 16, who ran out to help fight the fire on the Carmel and paid with his life;
• Arij Rahab, the first female Druse officer in the Prisons Service;
• Holocaust survivor Michael Goldman Gilad, who joined the police force after coming to Israel, and headed the team that interrogated Adolf Eichmann;
• Physicist and former refusenik Zeev Dashevsky, who established the Mahanayim institution to teach Jewish and Zionist values to new immigrants;
• Col. (res.) Omer Bar-Lev, who was a General Staff commander in the IDF, and today chairs Aharai (After Me), an organization dedicated to persuading youth from peripheral communities to join the army;
• Former MK Matityahu Drobeles, who headed the Settlement Department of the Jewish Agency and worked tirelessly to establish new settlements throughout the country;
• Hosha Friedman Ben-Shalom, a colonel in the reserves who does 165 days a year of reserve duty and heads the pre-military training school Beit Yisrael, which has a mixed religious-and-secular student body;
• Gadi Bashari, founder of the Sweet Heart organization, which assists soldiers, the disabled, and new immigrants of every background;
• Yobi Teshuma, who immigrated from Ethiopia in 1984 and in 2005 founded Friends in Nature, an organization committed to helping Ethiopian immigrants.