Yesterday was Yom Ha’Atzmaut — Israel’s Independence Day — marking 74 years since the establishment of the miracle that is the modern-day state of Israel. With all of us consumed for more than two months with the Russian invasion of Ukraine, it may feel like I haven’t written about Israel in a while. But it’s been very much top of mind. With every report about the Ukrainian Jewish community caught in the crossfire of war, I’ve thought of Israel. Because in this war, in this place, in this time, the existence of the State of Israel represents safe haven to a Jewish community under siege. It gives them a choice that makes all the difference.
That was made clear to me in the early days of the war, when I visited a hotel near the Warsaw airport, where our partner the Jewish Agency had rented hundreds of rooms for refugees who were planning to make aliyah. Some had arrived with nothing. They were exhausted and traumatized. But they were not without options. In the weeks since, thousands more have made aliyah with our support from both Ukraine and Russia, with tens of thousands more expected to follow.
I thought then — and again as we commemorated Yom HaShoah last week — how dramatically different our history would have been had Israel existed 80 years ago. Had there been a hotel near that airport in Warsaw — a way station for Jews escaping persecution, seeking refuge in Israel.
To understand the miracle of Israel is to know that right now, in Przemysl — the largest border crossing from Ukraine to Poland — the flag of Israel is one of the first to greet Ukrainian refugees. Stationed under those flags are Israeli nonprofits, supported by our emergency funding, offering food, medical care, and psychological first aid. One of our Israeli grantees created a healthcare app that’s being used at an Israeli field hospital in Ukraine (Israel’s famous tech-savvy at work). And in Israel, we supported a program over Passover to match Ukrainian families for seders with Israeli hosts, with the intent of creating friendships that will help the new olim acclimate.
All of this added another layer of emotion to this week’s celebration of Yom Ha’Atzmaut. And yet, we also know that Israel and its promise to Jews everywhere has come at a painful cost. That reminder immediately precedes the celebration, on Yom HaZikaron, Israel’s Memorial Day, a day marked by nationwide rituals and tears.
This is the first Yom HaZikaron since my son who made aliyah this past October began serving in the Israeli army, and he shared with me his deeply moving experience. I never knew that every soldier who died defending Israel is honored with the presence of an active-duty soldier, assigned to stand at his or her grave during the day. My son stood.
At the grave adjacent to his post, a large family had gathered to visit. They told my son that they had lost their father in the Six Day War when they were still quite young, never knew him, but that he had played an outsized role in their lives as they grew up. They raised their children to know their grandfather’s heroism. Curious why no one had come to visit the grave he guarded, my son asked if they happened to know that soldier’s story.
The family explained that they had been coming to the cemetery for more than 50 years and had developed a community with the other families who also visited. Once a year, they’d see one another, bound by shared grief. The soldier my son guarded had also been killed in the Six Day War; he was the only child of Holocaust survivors. It had been a decade since his parents last visited. Either they had grown too frail or had passed away. I wept when I heard the story, grateful that my son stood for parents who could not.
Then, as the sun set on Yom HaZikaron, Yom Ha’Atzmaut began, agony giving way to elation. By all accounts, it was a glorious day, more so because it was the first unrestricted celebration since the pandemic. Until nightfall — when terrorists wielding an axe and knife killed three men in the city of Elad. Between them, the victims leave 16 children. Another seven people were injured, three seriously. And so the progression from agony to elation veered sharply back to agony — reflecting the reality of life in Israel.
We end this week with thoughts of those suffering in Ukraine and the Israeli families who will always hold this deep heartache with them. And with that, renewed appreciation for the Jewish State at 74 — a miracle forged out of loss, a safeguard and refuge, never to be taken for granted.