President’s Column: Giving Thanks Between War and Peace
When is a war actually over? In the weeks after the August ceasefire between Israel and Hezbollah, I had the opportunity to listen to a wide range of Israelis express their concerns about the fragility of peace.
This is still a sober, reflective period in which Israelis are trying to learn from what they call the second Lebanese war. I am always struck by the seriousness with which Israelis young and old relate to national issues. But what impressed me even more is their energy and resilience in putting things back in order. A few weeks after nearly 4,000 rockets had fallen on northern Israel, I saw Kiryat Shmoneh, the city most often hit, fully functioning. Homes and businesses were nearly all restored. People were out barbecuing, and mothers were buying kids school supplies. Israel was doing in days what would take most countries months.
A view of the forests and pastures told a different story. In the cities, glaziers and masons could repair buildings quickly, but there’s no way to replace 60 years of patient, loving planting and nurturing. A million trees, hand-planted one by one, were killed; the ecosystem of the forests was badly damaged. I also saw grazing cattle locked in pens, no longer able to feed themselves in the bare fields. But let me tell you something about the spirit of Israelis: They were out there picnicking in the burnt forests as if to say, “We’re not going to be defeated.”
At the Meir Shfeya Youth Village, high school students were filling the rooms that had been the summer residences of families that fled the rocket fire in Nahariya. At Hadassah-Neurim, students were swimming in the pool that had offered relief to children evacuated from the immigrant absorption center in Safed. Young Judaeans on Year Course were sleeping in the bunks used by deaf families from Ma’alot. There were bills to pay, and we could take care of them with the money you so generously contributed through the Hadassah Emergency Fund.
What we need to do now is to focus on tourism, tourism and more tourism. Israel was experiencing a bountiful tourist season before the war began in July. But the hotels are empty again; the very least we can do is fill them. Trust me—this is no sacrifice. You’ll find it all: delicious food, fine wines, new sights and golden sunsets.
Despite the war, despite the threats from Iran, Year Course is 10 percent larger than last year. I met the 437 outstanding high school graduates from 35 states, Puerto Rico, Canada and England who are studying and volunteering in disadvantaged neighborhoods, becoming library storytellers, working with the elderly or helping teachers in school. The Israeli media interviewed them, curious about what impelled them to come in such difficult times. They all expressed a deep commitment to Israel—and they were just beginning Year Course. What dazzling Jewish leaders they will make once they go back to their communities. I’m so proud of them I could burst.
Like all of you, I’m getting ready for Thanksgiving at my house: turkey, cranberry sauce, pumpkin pie—the whole works. Thanksgiving is such a beloved holiday, both in its profound meaning of gratitude and because we can fully take part as Americans and as Jews. We can never take the blessings of the United States for granted. We don’t have to hide our synagogues behind walls or storefronts as so many communities in Europe do even today. Unlike some of our brethren past and present, we go to bed each night with a sense of peace and security.
Thanksgiving was inspired by Sukkot, the harvest festival in which our ancestors expressed thanks for the crops they gathered and for Divine protection. As Americans and as Jews our values are often intertwined. There’s nothing more American than understanding that with the privilege of freedom comes responsibility, and there’s nothing more Jewish than knowing kol Yisrael arevim zeh la-zeh, we’re responsible for each other. Amid the holiday feasting and the joy of being together with family, let’s reaffirm our commitment to one another and to the sacred work of Hadassah. Happy Turkey Day!