Finding our commonalities at the Rosh Hashanah table - opinion

As we look at the Rosh Hashanah table and remember who we have lost, let us also look around the table and look at the new faces joining Israel.

 THE WRITER glances at his mother at a family holiday dinner. (photo credit: DORON ALMOG)
THE WRITER glances at his mother at a family holiday dinner.
(photo credit: DORON ALMOG)

This will be my first Rosh Hashanah without my mother, Bat-Ami “Tami” Avrutsky.

She would have been 94. In her youth, during the British Mandate, she marked landing spots on the beaches for the waves of illegal immigration that arrived by ship in the dark of night, carrying refugee Jews. The ships were not allowed to reach British harbors, so they anchored in waters a few hundred meters off a deserted beach.

Shrouded in darkness, my mother helped indicate where the lifeboats on board could be lowered safely so the new immigrants could disembark. She and her friends made it possible for these new olim, Holocaust survivors who came to Israel after 2,000 years of exile in prayer and yearning, so they could build their future here.

A vision for Israel

Today, in my position as the chairman of The Jewish Agency for Israel, I am continuing to help implement the vision of my mother and her friends, the founding generation.

Continuing aliyah and the dream of the ingathering of the exiles and strengthening the connection with world Jewry, who have a significant role in steering the future of Israel as a Jewish, democratic, liberal, and free state.

 Dina & Barry Kornblau with their family after making Aliyah to Jerusalem just in time for Yom Yerushalayim. (credit: NEFESH B'NEFESH)
Dina & Barry Kornblau with their family after making Aliyah to Jerusalem just in time for Yom Yerushalayim. (credit: NEFESH B'NEFESH)

Immigration to Israel has been the main engine of growth since its development, and even today could be a dramatic variable that will affect its character and values ​​in the years to come.

After my brother, Eran, was killed in the Yom Kippur War, my mother headed the Yad LaBanim branch in Rishon Lezion, because she channeled her personal feelings of loss into the process of healing other broken families.

Her generation put valor over the self, put country over politics, and sacrificed so we could have the state we are lucky to witness today. In their mind, nothing was more important than creating a state that all Jews could call home.

The things left unsaid and the achievements left unknown

As my heart breaks knowing she won’t be seated at our table this year, I know what I would have told her if given the chance.

I would have relished telling her about the triumphs. I would have told her about the thousands who made aliyah this year, the dedicated workers who served at The Jewish Agency’s 26 absorption centers around the country that house some 400 olim each, from 40 countries around the world. Each one of those olim is motivated and eager to begin life anew in Israel.

As Jewish families worldwide prepare their Rosh Hashanah table, every table will be unique in its own right. The setting may differ, the people around it will be different, but all the most important components like wine, challah, good food, and love will always be present.

In many ways, the Rosh Hashanah table is a metaphor for Israel itself. The country brings together people of diverse backgrounds, each with their own hopes and aspirations for the new year and each with their own opinion about what’s best for the nation. Yet, despite our differences, we can come together lovingly.

This is true for The Jewish Agency for Israel as well. Naturally, an organization with such a global presence is bound to include a variety of opinions. But we all agree on what is most important – keeping world Jewry safe and ensuring that each Jew has access to a dedicated Jewish community.

We’ve had many challenges on that front – whether it’s helping to bring Ethiopian olim home or rescuing Ukrainian refugees from their war-torn country, our employees and partners on the ground mobilized instantly to bring them to safety. These efforts were made possible by our dedicated staff but also generous donors from around the world who truly embrace the concept that all Jews are responsible for one another – the same motto that governs The Jewish Agency.

I’m grateful to American Jewry and Jewish Federations in particular, who contributed generously to these causes and have stayed loyal to the tradition of helping Israel that dates back to the country’s founding in 1948, when the lion’s share of support came from the United States. I’m, of course, also grateful for world Jewry and our dedicated partners at Keren Hayesod and the World Zionist Organization for their unwavering support.

Israel is indeed strong, but it feels easy to be strong when you have brothers and sisters around the world in your corner. This partnership between Israel and world Jewry is a strategic asset and bringing our souls closer together is my wish for the year to come.

With all the internal conflict we’ve experienced recently, it’s easy to lose sight of that bond. However, a new year is also an opportunity for a fresh start. We can now press the reset button, and all gather around this metaphorical Rosh Hashanah table to hear each other out and attempt to settle our differences, but never lose focus on what unites us.

However, this does not mean that we should be discouraged. Rather, we have work to do. The conflicting sides in Israel all come from a place of love for the country. Let’s channel that love into productive dialogue.

The Jewish Agency is hard at work ensuring there are safe havens for all Jews and that Jewish communities around the world are thriving. The Jewish Agency Campus Israel Fellows are working at Hillel centers in more than 75 universities across the continent.

They engage in strategic partnerships with students on campus, national organizations, and various Hillel initiatives to respond to antisemitism or anti-Israel activity on campus. We empower students to be their own advocate and never, ever be afraid of who they are.

Additionally, last month, three planes coordinated by The Jewish Agency took off from Gondar to Addis Ababa, carrying some 150 passengers including Israeli citizens, Jewish Agency staff, and program participants as well as approximately 50 aliyah-eligible Ethiopian immigrants, and airlifted them to safety.

And in Ukraine, we’ve continued to support Jewish life there while operating Jewish summer camps, training future leaders of the Jewish community, and operating aliyah centers for olim who wish to escape. These are all initiatives we can all get behind, making our organization more relevant than ever, even in such a polarizing time for Israel and Jewish communities.

As we approach Rosh Hashanah and look back at a year of tumult, it is important that each of us keep in mind that most Jews actually agree on these most important things: That Israel is important; that Jews are in peril and must be helped at all costs; that Jewish life is worth living for.

But as my family gears up for the holiday, I can’t help but think back to the conversations I would have had with my mother. Along with Israel’s victories, we would have also quietly spoken about its tragedies like the story of Maxim Molchanov, a soldier who made aliyah from Ukraine and was killed at a checkpoint at 20 years old – the very same age my brother was killed in battle in the Yom Kippur War.

Our conversations would have touched on the good and bad, the joy and sadness, because as Jews we show solidarity when we’re vulnerable and rejoice when we’re strong.

On this Rosh Hashanah, my wish for the Jewish people and the State of Israel is that the coming years bring great aliyah, a stronger relationship between world Jewry and Israel, with closer connections, unconditional love, and acts of kindness, generosity, and magnanimity to unite the rifts between us.

I hope and pray that the vision of Israel’s Declaration of Independence is fulfilled and that Israel becomes a Jewish, democratic, free, and liberal state that is stronger and more united than ever.

The writer is chairman of the executive of The Jewish Agency for Israel.