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Saturday, July 26, 2014

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This year, let’s truly celebrate Israel

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On Erev Yom Ha’atzmaut, I addressed hundreds of Canadian students who attended the March of the Living program. They had come from Poland, marched to the concentration camps during Holocaust Remembrance Day and were now in Israel, at a huge Canadian-Israeli celebration marking that difficult transition from Israel’s Memorial Day to its Independence Day.

What could I tell them that they didn’t already know? Did I need to tell them how lucky they are to be living as Canadians in 2012 and not as European Jews in the 1940s? Did I need to tell them that, as Liberal MP Irwin Cotler’s parents told him, there are some things in Jewish history that are unimaginable but not unendurable, because they actually happened to us? Did I need to tell them that Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel is correct – following such evil, all we really can do is be silent, yet we must never be silenced, because we can never forget what was done to us, to our people and to humanity?

I decided to start with a personal message – and a challenge. I said that while I had heard about the trip’s great success, I was skeptical. Was the trip a success? Like most operations, it takes time to see lasting impact.

The trip’s success would not be determined by the experiences or emotions or friendships of the moment. The success would emerge next month, next semester and next year. Was this just another trip, just another photo album, just another series of moments to post on your Facebook page? Or was this experience life-changing? Did it make anyone more moral, more concerned with their own personal behaviour? Did it make anyone more community-oriented, more committed to making their own slice of the world better, more just or more caring? Did it make anyone more committed to Judaism, the Jewish People, Canadian values or humanity? 

None of these questions could be answered glibly, immediately. The answer has to be etched out, moment by moment, mitzvah by mitzvah, value by value. The answer would come gradually over the short term and the long term, by the kinds of people they choose to be, the kinds of deeds they choose to do, the kinds of ideas they choose to champion and the kinds of morals they choose to uphold.

Meanwhile, I said, as those thoughts and values percolate – let’s celebrate. Let’s celebrate a free, proud Israel. And let’s celebrate Israel with all five senses.

Let’s rejoice in the sounds of Israel, from the medley of happy, healthy kids shouting as they play in Jerusalem’s playgrounds – which include the Old City’s ancient alleyways – to the awestruck quiet on Yom Kippur, when through custom not compulsion, few Israelis drive.

Let’s delight in the smells of Israel, with the Galilee and Negev in full bloom after a winter of real rain, and that drooping purple plant, the wisteria, entrancing with its sweet fragrance as we wander Jerusalem’s streets.

Let’s celebrate the sights of Israel, particularly the juxtaposition of old and new that I witnessed as I ran the Jerusalem half-marathon this year with thousands of others, starting with the symbols of modern Israeli statesmanship – the Knesset, the Supreme Court, the Foreign Ministry – and then cutting through the Old City on the way up to the new neighbourhoods of Arnona – and back!

Let’s appreciate the tastes of Israel, particularly the flavours I savour just by waltzing down Jerusalem’s Emek Refaim – from Joy’s modern fusion to Kaffit’s creative choices to Marvad Haksamim’s Sephardi delicacies to Buffalo Steak House’s entrecote to Sushi Rehavia’s Sushi, and to my new discovery, thanks to my daughter, the eclectic 54HaMoshava. And all are kosher!

And let’s toast the soft touch of Israel – it feels right to be a part of the Hebrew revolution, in which pigs-in-blankets (mini hotdogs in buns) become Moshe be-teva, Moses in a basket. It feels good to be in a place committed to building an idealistic Zionist “us,” not just indulging the never-satisfied “me.” It feels grand to contribute to an experiment in nurturing a liberal democracy with a Jewish sensibility, a modern country proud of its ancient past, a start-up nation that’s also a values nation.

And in that celebration of this extraordinary country, we can also celebrate our own rebirths, our own commitment to take our new experiences and stretch, becoming the best people we can be.

This column appears in the May 3 print issue of The CJN

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