The Power of Personal Stories

July 21, 2020

By Allison Nagelberg

Red Alerts are sounding on my phone announcing that rocket warnings are going off in Israel near where my daughter lives as she prepares to serve in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). Her kibbutz is less than ten miles from the Gaza Strip. There is no denying that these warnings are alarming for me in the United States, and even more so for Israelis who must run to bomb shelters in under 15 seconds. These notifications have unfortunately become part of my daughter’s life, but her connection to Israel is so powerful that she has chosen to make this land her home. After spending her college career as a tireless pro-Israel campus activist, she feels that the next step along her journey is to defend the country in person. As anyone who has visited Israel knows, most days, it doesn’t feel dangerous in Israel at all. It feels upbeat and energized, emotional, spiritual and inspiring. It is a fantastic place to raise a family. It is natural to have the cab driver wish you Good Shabbos or Chag Sameach. It feels normal to argue with a stranger in the supermarket and then have that person invite you for dinner. It feels amazing to see Christians and Muslims and Jews and people of all faiths worshiping near each other. It feels like every day that you run into someone you know. It feels like home – because it is, indeed, the center of our Jewish world.

Our Israel stories are intensely personal; and these are the stories that will change hearts and minds. I distinctly recall arriving in Israel almost 50 years ago and watching my grandfather, who was visiting along with me, kiss the ground of Eretz Yisrael. Decades later, I get emotional looking at the immense kosher mezuzah at Ben Gurion Airport. The words of the prayer Shema Yisrael are meticulously written on the parchment of this mezuzah: “You shall love the Lord your G-d with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your might.” These salient words must be written “upon the doorposts of your house and upon your gates.” The essence of Judaism is love of G-d. This emblem – a testament to our love of G-d – stands at the gateway to the land of Israel and profoundly touches the souls of Jews.

My teachers in Jewish Day School taught me to cherish the Torah. Everything we could ever want to know about how to live a meaningful, ethical life is wrapped up in our sacred scroll. The first and last letters of the Torah – bet and lamed – together spell lev, meaning heart. The Hebrew word lev also refers to the mind. From the emotional perspective of the heart, and from the intellectual perspective of the mind, Israel is inseparable from the Torah. G-d’s first commandment to Abraham, the first Jew, was to go to Israel. G-d and Abraham made a covenant that if Abraham and his descendants would follow G-d’s commandments, then G-d would protect them and give them the land of Israel. This covenantal relationship permeates the Torah: Israel is mentioned hundreds of times; more than half of the Torah’s 613 commandments depend on Israel; and G-d repeatedly promises to bring the Jews back to Israel and make Israel the Jewish homeland. Jews have always prayed to return to Israel. Ahavat Tzion – love of Israel – is at the core of who I am as a Jew and it is the spiritual guidepost for Judaism.

Cousins on my father’s side of the family fled Romania to live in Israel. The bitter history of anti- Semitism propelled them to take refuge in Israel. Dear friends of mine left America in the 1970s to settle in Israel. These friends have now given my daughter the key to their home to use whenever she has a break from her army service. Throughout successive waves of immigration, the Holocaust and astounding victories in repeated wars, Jews have never stopped striving to return to Israel. Notwithstanding the destruction of two holy temples, numerous exiles and ongoing threats of terror, Jews have had a continuous presence in the land of Israel for thousands of years. Israel’s Declaration of Independence proudly affirms that Israel is inextricably linked to Judaism and to all Jews in the Diaspora, declaring “the Land of Israel was the birthplace of the Jewish people” where their “spiritual, religious and political identity was shaped.” In my own life and in our collective Jewish history, Israel is the cornerstone of Judaism.

Attending a Jewish wedding recently, the celebratory hora continued with unparalleled joy for a half hour. The hora is ubiquitous at Jewish simchas everywhere. No longer just a dance of chalutzim, the hora symbolizes the inseparability of Israeli and Jewish culture. A few months ago, I was part of a packed audience waiting for hours at a synagogue in New Jersey to see the cast of Shtisel. Jews of all backgrounds thrill to see stellar Israeli programming like Shtisel and Fauda garner positive media attention. Traveling in Italy during college, I bonded with a family that hailed from Morocco as we communicated easily in Hebrew. Immigrants to Israel learn the same Hebrew language that has been spoken since Biblical times; this language was, in fact, reborn with the founding of the State of Israel. I celebrated Passover and Shabbat in Italy with this Moroccan family; Seders and Shabbat dinners are integral to Jews in Israel and to Jews in every corner of the world.

A year ago, I had the honor of hearing Israel’s Shalva Band perform. Shalva – an outstanding center that changes the lives of people with disabilities – showcases the unbelievable musical talents of some of its participants. The song, I See Something Good Within You, was written by Shalva vocalist Anael, who is blind. She poignantly describes how she “looks” in the mirror and sees something good, close and worth loving. The Shalva Band made it to the final round in Israel’s competition to represent the country in the Eurovision Song Contest. They ultimately elected not to compete in the last round of the contest because as observant Jews, they did not want to compete on Shabbat. The directive to be a “Light Unto the Nations”, Or LaGoyim, was foundational to the establishment of Israel in 1948 and has continued to be the mandate of the Jewish people. TOM – Tikun Olam Makers – matches global needs with brilliant inventions to “repair the world”. Netafim is a desert irrigation system that has revolutionized water access. IsraAid brings swift, effective disaster relief to ravaged communities. And Israelis have developed ReWalk, helping paraplegics to walk and even enabling a disabled Israeli war veteran to complete a 10K race.

In April 2019, Israel became the seventh country to orbit the moon. The name of the spacecraft, Beresheet, comes from the Torah. Although Beresheet’s touchdown was ultimately not successful, this mission, which was followed on phones and computers around the globe, allowed the Jewish State to demonstrate that it is a tiny nation with big dreams, and the capability to achieve them. These innovations are the essence of Jewish culture, brought to fruition in the fertile and daring ecosystem of Israel, to illuminate the world with creativity and innovation. The touchstone of Israel’s centrality to Judaism is that rather than be victimized or delegitimized, Israel sets an example for others to emulate.

It goes without saying that Israel is not perfect; its leaders and citizens are fallible, as is true of leaders and citizens of every other country. But Israel is a vibrant democracy, where people loudly call attention to the shortcomings of their society. The very nature of Judaism is to question and challenge. Having struggled for so long for the right of self-determination, Jews expect more of themselves and do more for others. Israel sets high standards for itself and does not take lightly any failure to live up to those standards. Despite all of its travails, Israel has ranked ahead of the United States, Britain, France, Italy and numerous other countries in the annual World Happiness Report.

My daughter will begin her service in the IDF in a few weeks. She feels that if she is going to live in the Jewish State, she must also serve the country in the military as almost all Israelis do. Her story of love for Israel and the Jewish People is compelling. People are often inclined to forget facts and figures, but they do not forget stories that move them. Israel’s centrality to Judaism infuses all of our individual narratives. Sharing these unique narratives will resonate as we help to shine Israel’s light on the world.

Allison Nagelberg’s essay was a winner of the Combat Anti-Semitism Abraham & Sarah “Israel in Me” essay contest.