Eva Bender, a 95-year-old Holocaust survivor who spoke at UJA’s annual staff Yom HaShoah commemoration this past Tuesday, sometimes pauses to think of the right word. She wants to be precise. She knows the details matter.
Mrs. Bender told of a happy childhood in Romania before the war. Of the degradation of Nazi occupation. Of how she was almost separated from her family during a selection, when a Nazi officer pointed her to one line and her parents to another. Of how, when he looked away momentarily, she ran to the other line, leaving behind her boot that had become stuck in the mud. She told of how her beloved father died of typhoid just weeks after they arrived in a labor camp. Of the kindness of Ukrainian peasants who helped save her family from starvation.
Now almost exactly 78 years after liberation, Mrs. Bender lives in Riverdale, as does her son. Her daughter lives in Israel, along with Mrs. Bender’s grandchildren and great-grandchildren who were born and are growing up there.
We were a rapt audience, listening to Mrs. Bender's story come to life through her carefully chosen words, aware of how fortunate we were to have her with us to bear personal witness.
Mrs. Bender’s story is also, in a way, the embodiment of this time period that takes us from Tuesday’s commemoration of Yom HaShoah to next Wednesday’s celebration of Israel’s independence. From the darkest chapter in modern Jewish history to the fulfillment of a two-thousand-year dream of a modern Jewish state.
These past few months, we’ve been appropriately focused on the dangers of the proposed judicial overhaul in Israel. We continue to urge negotiators to use the current pause in the legislative process to reach a good faith compromise.
However, it would be deeply regrettable if we let this current moment distract from celebrating the monumental achievement that is Israel at 75.
This story is very much ours, too, as UJA-Federation’s creation is fundamentally tied to Israel’s. One of our predecessor organizations, the United Jewish Appeal, was formed in 1939 for the exact purpose of providing relief to the desperate Jews of Europe and sustaining Jews living in pre-state Israel. Since Israel's founding in 1948, we've invested billions of dollars to help build a vibrant Jewish and democratic state.
Early on, we supported the massive ingathering of Jews from Europe and the Middle East, and later Ethiopia and the former Soviet Union. We’ve stood with Israel in the most harrowing moments of war and terror, sharing strength and providing the funds to ensure the country’s very survival.
Today, UJA’s funding continues to support critical human services, including care for some of the 147,000 Holocaust survivors in Israel, one-third struggling to make ends meet. We support educational and career opportunities for Haredi Jews, Ethiopians, and Arab Israelis, so they, too, can realize the promise of the ultimate “startup” nation. We’re providing services for the elderly, children at risk, people with disabilities. And we've led the way in creating programs that help victims of terror process their trauma and loss.
More important than ever, we’re also focused on bringing the diversity of Israeli society to work together and find common ground. And we support Jewish life in all its manifestations because there is not just one way to be Jewish in the Jewish state.
This morning I arrived at Ben-Gurion airport for the General Assembly, a gathering of thousands of people from federations across North America, timed this year to coincide with Israel’s milestone birthday.
Despite its many current challenges and shortcomings, I come to Israel with an enormous sense of pride to celebrate a still young and very messy democracy. I marvel at its extraordinary achievements, spanning virtually every discipline. And I'm awed by the recent scenes of hundreds of thousands of citizens (the equivalent of tens of millions in the United States) coming peacefully to protest for 16 consecutive weeks, with the keen appreciation that in any other country in the region those protests would have been met with mass jailings and far worse.
Far more fundamental, I come to Israel feeling an overwhelming responsibility to celebrate. A responsibility to Mrs. Bender’s father — and all six million that perished in the Holocaust — who never could have conceived that one day soon their descendants would be living here, raising their families in a secure and vibrant Jewish and democratic homeland.
Whatever our differing perspectives on the current situation, let’s put aside recriminations and politics next week to celebrate the miracle that is the modern state of Israel at 75. And then fully acknowledging the magnitude of the task, let's do the hard work together of shaping the next 75 years.
Shabbat shalom from Jerusalem and Yom Ha’Atzmaut sameach