I went to Israel for the first time as a 12 year old. I hated it. The family vacation was fun, but as a whiny pre-teen, I found a reason to complain about everything: I hated the food. I hated the hiking. It was too hot. The bottled water tasted funny. I returned again when I was 16 on USY Israel Pilgrimage and loved Israel, but mostly because I loved the 65 friends on my Israel trip. As teenagers do, we goofed off, snuck into each other’s rooms at night, and had a blast. We loved Israel, but we could’ve had the summer of a lifetime anywhere.
I returned again as a 17 year old and found the true beauty of our people and our heritage – the beauty of history, the beauty of our tradition, and the beauty of Judaism alive and thriving in the holy land. I traveled to Israel several times in college, on my own, and with my wife, to explore our ancestral homeland together. And of course, as part of my Rabbinical Studies, we spent a year living in Jerusalem, coming to understand the challenges that Israel faces, the highs and the lows. We came to understand Israel not as tourists, but as Israelis.
As a Jewish educator, I strive to give our children (and our adults) meaningful and amazing Israel experiences. Jewish institutions create shuks, and Bedouin Tents. We play Israeli music and offer Gadna activities, but we also accept that there is no activity, no program, no text study, or class that can replicate the impact of actually visiting Israel. This is why a program like Birthright Israel has had such an impact on the American Jewish community. As hard as we may try to offer alternatives, nothing beats being in Israel.
This is the reason that President Obama’s recent visit to Israel is such a big deal. Yes, he has gone as a Senator. Yes, he has been as a Presidential Candidate. But now, as the Commander and Chief of the United States of America, as the leader of the free world, to visit Israel shows the unbreakable relationship between the United States and Israel.
Obama said in his initial speech upon landing in Eretz Yisrael: “I want to begin right now, b answering a question that is sometimes asked about our relationship – why? Why does the United States stand so strongly, so firmly with the State of Israel? And the answer is simple. We stand together because we share a common story – patriots determined to be a free people in our land, pioneers who forged a nation, heroes who sacrificed to preserve our freedom, and immigrants from every corner of the worl who renew constantly our diverse societies. We stand together because we are democracies. For as noisy and messy as it may be, we know that democracy is the greatest form of government ever devised by man.”
As an American and as a Jew, I’m pleased with Obama’s visit to Israel. This visit was not a mission for peace, or a fact finding mission. This trip was not even a diplomatic trip. Rather, it was a signal of America’s unbreakable commitment to Israel.
That unbreakable commitment is what sent me along with over a dozen members of the Jacksonville Jewish Center to Washington DC earlier this month for the annual AIPAC Policy Conference. Last year, there were only a couple of members of the Jacksonville delegation. This year we sent fourteen. Next year, I expect that we will send twice that.
From March 3-5, we joined over 13,000 – that’s 13,000 members of the American Jewish community, Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, Reconstructionist, and Renewal; Observant, and Secular; all Zionists, all of us committed to a strong US-Israel relationship. Included among the 13,000 was over 2,000 High school and College students, ensuring that the next generation of Jews are equally committed to this relationship. Hearing from the likes of former Defense Minister and former Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spoke volumes about how grateful Israel is of such support from the American Jewish community and from the United States.
We heard from Congressmen and Senators, and notably Vice President Joe Biden. We saw Senator John McCain, Republican from Arizona and Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, Democratic from New York, stand on stage together and say they don’t agree on anything ever – except for America’s resilient commitment to Israel.
I do not agree with all of the government of Israel’s policies. I’ve shared before the challenges that we face as American Egalitarian Conservative Jews in Israel, connecting to Israel as a Jewish State and being recognized in that Jewish State. In fact I don’t always agree with all of AIPAC’s stances. Still, there is something powerful about AIPAC supporting Israel no matter what. AIPAC supports the government of Israel and the Prime Minister of Israel. They do not endorse Israeli politicians. Whomever is in charge is who they support. It’s a powerful statement. AIPAC doesn’t even endorse American politicians. That isn’t there goal. Their goal is to ensure each political leader, each legislator, is a friend of Israel. That is why on the final afternoon of the Conference, all 13,000 attendees took Capitol Hill by storm, and lobbied every single member of the House and Senate.
Our Jacksonville delegation met with members of Senator Rubio’s office and heard from Senator Nelson. We then had an opportunity to lobby Congressman Crenshaw of Duval County and Congressman DeSantis of St. John’s County. What was most remarkable was that our youth, our teen delegates, the youngest members of our delegation, were the ones who did all the talking. Our youth took charge, becoming leaders and Pro-Israel Advocates in the process.
If this bond between the United States and Israel is unbreakable, then we, the American Jewish Community, must be that link in the chain that ensures such a commitment. We must ensure that unbreakable bond. Next year, AIPAC’s Policy Conference in Washington DC will take place from March 2nd through March 4th, 2014. Who is prepared to join us? Who is willing to travel to DC not as a tourist, not for vacation, but to be an activist, for the most important three days facing Israel’s future? Think about it. President Obama’s visit to Israel was a symbol of support. Our action lobbying our political leaders ensures that such continued support is a reality. Will you join me?
-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky