During a recent visit marking the Jewish state’s 75th anniversary, a group of Pittsburghers experienced celebrations, demonstrations and commemorations, all highlighting the complexities of modern Israel.
Martin Goldhaber, Michael Milch and Brian Eglash attended Yom HaZikaron and Yom Ha’Atzmaut ceremonies, participated in the Jewish Federation of North America’s General Assembly and visited sites supported by the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh.
“My expectations were totally exceeded,” Goldhaber told the Chronicle. In just six days, “we got to see so many things.”
From April 20-26, Goldhaber and other Pittsburghers toured Jerusalem, spent time in Tel Aviv and observed the dramatic shift between Yom HaZikaron (honoring fallen soldiers and victims of terror) and Yom Ha’Atzmaut (celebrating Israel’s independence).
“To see the transition was unbelievable,” Milch said.
The Squirrel Hill resident and JFNA Young Leadership Cabinet Member joined nearly 7,000 other celebrants in Latrun for Masa Israel Journey’s 15th annual Yom HaZikaron program.
Speeches, performances and vignettes memorialized fallen soldiers and victims of terror while stressing a theme of “Forever Connected.”
“If there is one key message we should remember today out of a great respect to the sacrifice of the fallen it is to continue together, remember our unity and connection, be patient, accept one another and remember we are one nation that only has one Jewish country, the state of Israel,” Doron Almog, chairman of the executive of the Jewish Agency for Israel, told attendees.
“The speeches that we heard really brought home the feeling of what the day meant,” Goldhaber said.
Milch called the ceremony “very raw” and said it was “powerful watching soldiers and former soldiers break down and cry.”
Of particular note to Pittsburghers, he said, was a story shared about Joyce Fienberg, one of 11 Jews killed during Shabbat services on Oct. 27, 2018.
During a segment dedicated to “lives cut short,” recorded interviews with Fienberg’s family depicted the former Tree of Life member’s life, her dedication to helping others and her death during the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting.
The memorial ceremony concluded with the singing of Israel’s national anthem, “Hatikvah.” Immediately afterward, the country moved into celebrating its independence.
“To go from sorrow and grief and memories to jubilation wasn’t something I had ever experienced in my lifetime,” Milch said.
Goldhaber described the experience as “overwhelming,” and said revelers marked Israel’s anniversary not only throughout the 24 hours of Yom Ha’Atzmaut but well into the early hours the following day.
The “elephant in the room,” however, was “what’s going on with the Supreme Court,” Goldhaber said.
Throughout the six-day trip, discussions about the Israeli government and its efforts to reform the judiciary revealed numerous views, according to the Pittsburghers.
“We not only heard all different perspectives on what’s going on but also saw an incredible display of democracy,” said Eglash, senior vice president and chief development officer at Pittsburgh’s Federation, who observed demonstrators in favor of judiciary reform and also those supporting the government.
Since January, hundreds of thousands of people have taken to Israel’s streets.
“It was eye-opening for me,” Milch said. “We read the news and get different perspectives based on what publication you’re reading, but to be there in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, to speak to people on both sides — people who are fired up — it was definitely a difficult moment and you could feel that.”
A session with Knesset member Simcha Rothman during the General Assembly was particularly “tense,” Milch said.
Rothman is a member of the far-right Religious Zionist Party and chair of the Knesset’s Constitution, Law and Justice Committee. His comments were interrupted by shouts and “multiple forcible removals of hecklers by security,” The Times of Israel reported.
The panel Rothman was participating in “took an unplanned five-minute break to cool tempers,” according to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.
“We were disappointed by the fact that we were unable to learn and be educated in that session in the way that we had planned,” JFNA board chair Julie Platt told The Times of Israel.
Milch praised JFNA, Israeli officials and program organizers for “handling the General Assembly with grace,” and said the gathering was a “space to share views.”
“What’s going on in Israel is a great display of democracy,” he said. “There are hundreds of thousands of people who are going out in the streets and freely demonstrating.”
Those demonstrations differ from what occurs outside Israel’s borders, continued the Federation staffer: “In the Middle East we know what happens when people go out into the streets and demonstrate against the government.”
Goldhaber, who splits his time between Pittsburgh and Florida, said he returned to the States with both “a very strong feeling of apprehension” and much to consider.
“Unlike the trip I had made [to Israel] 20 years ago, where I felt that everyone was on the same page and we were coordinated in our efforts to ward off enemies from Syria and Gaza, now everything was very tense,” he said.
Despite his disappointment with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s failure to address thousands of North American Jews at the General Assembly, Goldhaber said Diaspora Jews should not give up on the Jewish state.
“We have to help as best we can,” Goldhaber said.
Eglash agreed that Pittsburghers have a responsibility abroad.
“We have one homeland, and we have to have ahavat Yisrael (love of our homeland),” he said. “We have to find a way to deal with this effectively, to protect democracy but at the same time keep our nation together because if you ask people they say it’s coming apart at the seams.”
Eglash said he was inspired by seeing so many sites and causes, both in Pittsburgh’s partnership region of Karmiel and Misgav and throughout the country, that are supported by western Pennsylvanians.
Greater connection between Pittsburghers and Israel is essential moving forward, he said: “There’s a lot we can learn from them, and they can learn from us.” PJC
Adam Reinherz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.