I have never been one to make a big deal about birthdays, but celebrating the birth of my homeland is an exception.
As the sun set on Remembrance Day – the day we remember Israel’s fallen soldiers and victims of terrorism – and Jewish people around the world wiped the tears from their eyes to make way for the unadulterated joy and thanksgiving we feel on Independence Day, I felt exhilarated.
After an intense day of attending Remembrance Day events at my children’s school, sitting with my neighbor who lost her youngest son in the 2006 Second Lebanon War, and listening to countless heroic war stories, I felt ready and anxious to celebrate this amazing land that I am blessed to call home.
When the clock struck 8 p.m., my husband and I packed our three flag-waving children into the car, blasted traditional Israeli music, and made our way to the communal Hallel (thanksgiving) prayers. As I watched hundreds of people sing, dance and thank God for the greatest gift bestowed to the Jews in thousands of years – our beloved land of Israel – I felt deeply emotional.
My Sabra friends watched tears fill my eyes at the communal singing of “Hatikva,” the national anthem, and seemed puzzled. “Since I’m a relatively new immigrant, this is one of the most personally meaningful holidays of the year,” I explained to them. They still seemed curious and somewhat confused, so I continued to tell them what was in my heart at that special moment.
“When you grow up outside Israel and make the decision to leave everything you know behind in order to fulfill your dream of moving to the Promised Land, Independence Day is not a holiday you take for granted,” I said. “As someone who spent half of her life living outside of the Jewish homeland, it’s the small details of life in Israel that are so moving and powerful for me.”
With songs of Hallel coming through the loudspeaker, I sat down on the sandy earth and took a few moments to reflect on my deep love for Israel and her people.
I remembered how many times while living in the US I had I longed to walk on the cobblestone streets of Jerusalem. As I prayed the “Grace after meals” blessing I would plead, “Have mercy Lord, our God, on Jerusalem Your city, on Zion the resting place of Your glory, and rebuild Jerusalem, the holy city, soon in our days.”
I remembered the synagogue of my youth, which was beautiful and full of kind and sweet people; and yet, I never felt a special spirit of redemption, a feeling that I only experience at prayer services in Israel.
I leaned back against an ancient tree, and took myself back to the day I got on the El Al flight with a one-way ticket to Israel. I stepped onto that airplane in America confused and scared, yet by the time I arrived at my new apartment in Jerusalem, I felt a sense of peace like never before.
It was like a heavy weight had been lifted from my soul.
I made aliya because of my deep-rooted belief that I was born into a special generation that has the blessing of calling Israel home after 2,000 years of exile, because of a profound faith that God performed miracles so that I can return to my roots, people and land.
Sitting in my apartment in New York, each time I would second-guess my decision to make aliya, I would remind myself: Moses only got to see the Land of Israel, I have the ability to live there. How could I turn it down? Yes, these “big picture” ideals brought me to Israel, but it’s been the small details of life in the Holy Land that have kept me a passionate Zionist, utterly in love with this once barren land that has bloomed before our eyes.
I love the street names, which are almost all named in honor of biblical heroes, founders of the nation of Israel, or philanthropists who helped develop the modern state.
I love the savtot (grandmothers) who spend their days reciting Tehillim (psalms) while sitting on park benches, in public buses and inside ancient synagogues.
I love the fact that my children are in school with Jewish kids from Ethiopia, Yemen, Morocco, Russia and many other places.
I love how people go to weddings in jeans and a button-down shirt.
I love how everyone feels like family to each other, creating an atmosphere where you can be blunt and speak your mind.
I love how when I take my babies for a walk, everyone on the street comes up to me with their opinion on whether the baby is too cold or too hot.
I love how the people of Israel have diverse opinions on almost everything, yet everyone comes together in unity during times of celebration and hardships.
I love how the country shuts down for Jewish holidays, and how on Fridays even the radio broadcaster closes his show with “Shabbat Shalom.”
I love taking family trips to biblical places like Beersheba, Jerusalem and the Judean Hills, and studying the stories that took places there thousands of years ago.
Most of all, I love living in country where every stone, hilltop and flower is imbued with holiness and sanctity, with the story and heritage of my people.
I understand how people who were born and raised in Israel might think that I’m overly emotional and sentimental when I cry each time I hear “Hatikva” being sung, yet I pray that no matter how long I have lived in Israel, my heart never hardens to the magnificent reality experienced here, and to the divine blessing being bestowed upon us all each day we are able to call this Holy Land home.The writer is senior vice president of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews.