I know what you’re thinking. A blast in Israel? Shmuley, you mean a bomb?
I mean a blast, as in, a great time. A party. Non-stop fun.
Yes, my week in Israel for its 75th birthday was one of the most stimulating of my life. And I share it with you not to make you envious (but if you are, then it’s time for you to visit Israel) but rather to remind all us American Jews who thought the worst when I said the word blast, that what you’re reading in the newspapers is a total lie.
Not only is Israel not going down the toilet with political divisions and existential crisis, but the country is positively on fire…. Okay, there I go again. I mean, on fire, as in it’s electrifying.
I went to Auschwitz for this year’s Yom HaShoah and the next day I was in Warsaw for the 80th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising. My great hero has always been Mordechai Anielewicz, the commander of the uprising, who, together with his counterpart Pawel Frankel, hoisted the Israeli (to be accurate, Zionist, as Israel did not yet exist) and Polish flags over the ghetto in April 1943, as he and his 700 fighters held out against SS tanks and artillery out for three weeks.
Three weeks doesn’t sound like much. But consider that that’s how long it took Hitler to conquer all of France, and you get an idea of what a truly great man Anielewicz was. As I stood over his makeshift grave at Mila 18 just before my flight to Israel, where in May 1943, at the tender age of 23, he blew himself up with grenades along with most his fighters, I was in tears. It was a somber day.
The sadness continued as I landed in Israel on Tuesday for Yom HaZikaron, Israel’s Memorial Day, where the 29,000 soldiers and victims of terror are commemorated. I went from the airport to the Kotel and then to the Mount Herzl military cemetery, where I prayed at the grave of Yoni Netanyahu, the older brother of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Israel’s greatest fallen war hero. People from all over Israel were praying and crying at the hundreds of graves in the cemetery.
Then night fell, and I joined the national commemoration on Mount Herzl celebrating Israel’s 75th. It was unbelievably moving.
I had made sure to be in Israel for its 50th, 60th, and 70th Independence Days. There was no way I was going to miss the 75th! And yet it seemed a more subdued affair in terms of international participation. The hotels were not completely full. And there were not as many international and American visitors. Perhaps that resulted from the news we’re all reading of serious divides in Israel’s politics.
But the Israelis themselves would never have known it. The celebration featured hundreds of soldiers in beautiful formations, technological extravaganzas in blue and white, and the leadership of Israel with our friend Amir Ohana, the openly gay speaker of the Knesset, as the evening’s host.
Then the streets of Jerusalem erupted with song and celebration the likes of which I had never seen anywhere in my life at any time. Go to my Instagram and look at the videos. Thousands and thousands of young people jammed Machane Yehuda, Ben Yehuda, and Jaffa Street as bands played the entire night, and the people danced their hearts out.
The next day we had a BBQ with my former Oxford student union president, Ron Dermer, now Israel’s minister of strategic affairs who gave me an in-depth analysis of the judicial reform debate with his usual brilliance.
But things in Israel were just getting started.
The very next day Ron DeSantis, the governor of Florida, gave a major address for Israel’s 75th at the new and beautiful (and enormous!) Museum of Tolerance in Jerusalem. And three days later, Kevin McCarthy, the U.S. speaker of the House, addressed the Knesset as only the second speaker in Israel’s history — Newt Gingrich was the first. In a single week, House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries, for whom I had spoken on a Shabbat dinner when he was running for Congress against an avowed antisemite, came to the Jewish state, as did Steny Hoyer, the Democratic House leader and for decades a phenomenal friend of Israel.
McCarthy’s speech was a triumph, and he was addressed by both PM Netanyahu and opposition leader Yair Lapid. Amir Ohana’s introductory speech was powerful and moving, as he reminded Speaker McCarthy of the dangers posed by the mullahs of Tehran, who barbarically murder their own people and plot the annihilation of Israel. Right after the event, Amir invited me to his office and showed me that he keeps my book “The Israel Warrior” behind his desk. Talk about a salve for my bruised ego!
Two incredibly moving things. First, on Shabbat I met with Rabbi Leo Dee, the courageous hero whose wife and two daughters were murdered in the middle of Passover by an as-yet unapprehended terrorist. He reminded me that I knew his wife Lucy, of blessed memory, from Oxford, and even told me that I had indirectly introduced them. Lucy had invited me to speak at the Jewish Society on Shavuot, but I had to speak at our L’Chaim Society, so he came from Cambridge with a group of students to fill in for me. And he met her that night!
What a truly great man. Confronting a tragedy of Holocaust-level family annihilation, he asked all the people of Israel to post the Israeli flag as a symbol of unity rather than divisiveness. He spoke of how the world had to stop equating victims of terror with their perpetrators. And he launched a campaign to unite all of Israel amid the considerable divide.
Two night later, for our family, finally, after losing my beloved mother just two months ago and on the eve of my father’s third yahrzeit, a phenomenal blessing. Our son Yosef, our seventh child and an Israeli combat soldier, got engaged to a fellow soldier in Raanana, Israel, Dalia Cohen. Neither Yosef nor Dalia had to serve in the IDF. Both chose to spend their early 20s in the olive green uniform while their friends of the same age around the world got business degrees or partied. As a teenager, Yosef had traveled with me to Birkenau, Treblinka, Sachsenhausen, and many other Holocaust sites. He was so sickened by what he saw that he pledged there and then to join the first Jewish army in 2000 years so that Jewish life would be protected and have value. He is the third of our children to fight in the IDF, may God protect them all.
Hundreds of people came out to celebrate the new couple. Yosef and Dalia glowed. Rabbi Dee drove all the way from Efrat and honored us by addressing the couple.
He is a symbol for all that makes the Jewish people great. Even amid unspeakable pain and tragedy, still we choose life. Still we attend engagements. Still we applaud the joy of others, amid our own shattered hearts.
At 75, the State of Israel is indomitable, electrifying, and unconquerable. The greatest Jewish blessing in 2000 years, Israel is, yes, on fire, and going there at any time is a blast!!
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach of Englewood is the author of “Judaism for Everyone” and “The Israel Warrior.” Follow him on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter @RabbiShmuley.