A Long Love Affair With Israel

by John S. Ruskay

After a week quite properly dominated by the AIPAC Conference and intense focus on how to respond to the threat of a nuclear Iran, I’d like to share a personal story from my recent trip to Israel. I was davening at a Jerusalem minyan on Friday night two weeks ago when I realized next June 2013, will be the fiftieth anniversary of my first trip to Israel. 50!! Memories from that first trip came cascading to mind: climbing to the top of the YMCA tower to peer into the old city; the utter silence of Shabbat in Jerusalem; camping under the stars in the Negev; spending a week on a kibbutz picking apples; the golden magnificence of the Judean Hills. Glidah (ice cream), that was obviously the best in the world. Visiting the original Knesset on King George Street – and far more.

That 1963 trip (USY Pilgrimage) inaugurated my deep love affair and connection with the state of Israel and its people. Shortly thereafter, I returned to lead summer teen trips; went on to do graduate studies in Middle East politics; wrote my master’s thesis on the robust ideological debate that preceded the state during the Palestine Mandate (1920-1947), a debate that continues to frame my views on Israel education today. At last count, I have visited Israel more than 80 times, ranging from full summers to overnight trips to have dinner with the prime minister. I have led missions during Israel’s wars and to celebrate Israel’s milestone anniversaries. I read Haaretz and The Jerusalem Post almost daily.

Back then, the young state of Israel represented the actualization of so many of the values I held dear and the realization of a dream. While I continue to experience Israel as both awesome and inspiring, my love affair has been, maybe like all love affairs, spiked with some disappointment and struggling. The idealization from those first trips has been replaced by a hybrid of realism, highs, and disappointments regarding what Israel can and should be. Believing peace was attainable, I described myself as an “early dove.” Fearing that a two-state solution may be beyond our short-term reach, I now often describe myself as a “devastated dove.”

As I recalled memories of a younger Israel, I decided that I want to bring my family – kids and grandchildren – to spend a week together in this place that has been so significant throughout my life. And I had the parallel desire to find the resources to add my name to something modest – a classroom, a teen lounge, a clinic – so my name can be connected to this place so central to my life.

When I think about Israel today, I take pride in the incredible achievements of the young state during the past 63 years. Israel as “start-up nation.” Its robust, if messy democracy. Its thriving culture and universities. Its unparalleled record of having absorbed Jews from throughout the world. All this undertaken while fighting wars and thwarting terrorism. And I am made aware every day of the essential role of UJA-Federation in bringing 3 million Jews back to Israel and enabling them to establish new lives in the Jewish state. They are Israel’s essential human capital and we continue to undertake vital work with the people of Israel every day to strengthen the Jewish state and its social fabric.

But my connection to Israel is more visceral: it is a connection to the intoxicating energy and aspiration of the people. The connection to the Jewish people past and present that is Israel. To the hills and the land itself. To Shabbat in Jerusalem (and Tel Aviv which I have more recently grown to appreciate). I hope to get the chance to organize that trip with my family and identify the appropriate place to make a modest legacy gift.

I write often about how Camp Ramah, a few years prior to that first Israel trip in 1963, transformed my life and introduced me to the magnificence of Jewish life and Jewish living. And it did. I share this journey as an example of what Israel engagement can mean. There is much talk today of the distancing of the next generation of our people. That’s true, but I still believe that Israel has the magnetic power to reignite young and old to an equivalent odyssey of an obsessive and life-long positive relationship. This will require a combination of the experiential – teen trips, Birthright, Masa – with opportunities to continuously wrestle with the complexities of Israel today. If we make these experiences and opportunities available to most of our young, as I know we can, I believe that 50 or 60 years from now there will be many other people like me who have the powerful impulse to bring their families to Israel and leave a mark in this land that has been so powerful and captivating for 3,000 years. And remains so today.

John S. Ruskay is executive vice president and CEO of UJA-Federation of New York.