Last month I traveled to Israel with 26 of my co-workers. The trip was funded by a few generous donors with great foresight. They understood something I did not: the experience would transform our organization.
The trip forever changed the way I will think and communicate about Israel. I met remarkable people like Uriel Bachrach, our shlichah’s stepfather who was part of a secret science research corps in the Haganah, and Celia Gabay, a foster parent in our partnership region who volunteers as a first responder with Magan David Adom.
I learned how the Peres Center for Peace is engaging in creative partnerships between Israelis and Palestinians. At the Taglit-Birthright Innovation Center I learned how Israeli culture has enabled remarkable innovations in every area of science and industry.
Even the sights and smells were remarkable: spring fields of the Galilee dotted with red anemones, salty ridges surrounding the receding Dead Sea, sticky pastries with bright green pistachio filling, costumed Purim revelers flooding the streets of Tel Aviv, the bustling shuk an hour before Shabbat, the pungent aroma of za’atar, and the sweet scent of just-picked lemons.
I left Israel with more than a collection of amazing experiences. I developed a better understanding of the existential threat to the State of Israel. Standing at a fence that separated a kibbutz from Lebanon, I saw a chilling Hezbollah billboard on the Lebanese side. It featured three Palestinian “heroes,” one of whom was responsible for the bombing in Argentina in 1994, and described Israel as a spider-web, fragile and insignificant.
I also saw baby onesies for sale in the Muslim Quarter with a picture of the entire country and the words “Free Palestine.” This was a frightening sign of some Palestinians’ intentions but also a reassuring indicator of a democracy where all are able to express their opinions.
I left Israel with a more nuanced understanding of the impact of the conflict on both Palestinians and Israelis. And now I know the part of me that feels pain and support for the Palestinians can coexist with the pro-Israel part of me.
Perhaps most important, I left with a clearer understanding of the need for the State of Israel. At Yad Vashem, the Israeli center dedicated to remembrance of the Holocaust, I saw a girl’s thick braids that were cut from her head by her mother who realized she could not care for her daughter’s hair in the camps. I saw another girl’s red polka dotted hair ribbon, still tied in a bow and still vivid red, the only bright object in the building. This is tangible evidence that two young girls existed and then died because they were Jews.
Yad Vashem was designed so that the first thing visitors see upon exiting the main building is the City of Jerusalem. The message is clear: the modern State of Israel is the only certain refuge for Jews, a refuge that is as necessary today as it was went it was first founded.
A bookmark from Yad Vashem is now tacked to the wall beside my desk. It bears a single sentence from the final letter written in Vilnius in 1941 by a man who perished in the Holocaust. He wrote of himself, “I should like someone to remember that there once lived a person named David Berger.” The most powerful thing I can do for all of the David Bergers whose lives were lost in the Holocaust, and all of the David Bergers who have yet to be born, is to help ensure we thrive as a Jewish community.
I’m in a better position to do this now than I had been just a few weeks ago. I’ll be a more articulate advocate for Israel and our work there, and I can communicate a richer and more passionate message about why the work of the Milwaukee Jewish Federation matters.
I want to personally thank our donors – the CT Charitable Fund, the Joseph and Vera Zilber Family Donor Advised Fund, and anonymous donors, all of whom hold their funds at the Jewish Community Foundation. I promise that your investment will make a significant difference in the impact of our organization.
Stephanie Wagner is the vice president of communications and strategy at the Milwaukee Jewish Federation.