I am writing from Jerusalem, where I am attending the World Zionist Congress as part of the Masorti Olami delegation. As with any conference, there are moments of boredom and bureaucracy. But there’s also a wonderful sense of history. I love history. I love feeling connected to generations before me. I love climbing the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and looking out at the Washington Mall while I stand where Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King stood for the march on Washington. I even get excited shopping at the Bay over the idea that I can still shop in a company that I originally studied in school. So, for me, the opportunity to participate in the 37th World Zionist Congress, originally convened by Theodor Herzl in 1897, is a dream come true. The addition of Natan Sharansky, Chair of the World Zionist Organization (WZO), whom I idealized in my youth, will add the silver lining.
My last trip to Israel was 15 months ago during the summer of 2014 and the war in Gaza. This time there are stabbings in the streets. I arrived Thursday before the Congress to visit family. I keep waiting for someone to invent the transporter so I can see them whenever I want, but no luck yet. In the meantime, I make sure to spend as much time with them as possible whenever I’m here.
My first Friday, I accompanied my cousin to Machane Yehuda and around Jerusalem. For a Friday, it was strangely quiet. People are still loud and about. They shop and do what’s necessary, but the crowds are missing. The kinetic pre-Shabbat hustle-and-bustle was missing. Restaurants stood mostly empty, and where before there was outdoor seating, now there is just space. People keep saying how glad they are we’ve come.
In just one year since I was here tensions in individuals have multiplied exponentially. On Sunday, I took a bus to the Fuchsberg Center to meet the rest of the MERCAZ / Masorti delegation. Though nervous about getting to the right spot, I was more nervous about my surroundings. I hear Professor Mad Eye Moody right out of Hogwarts in my head. “Always be vigilant!”
Nevertheless, the experience was positive. Walking through the streets, we were only vaguely aware of the tension. For the most part, walking between the hotels or to and from Tachana Merchazit, where the Congress will take place was not particularly stressful. Only as we passed the busy bus stops where traffic flies by was I nervous. I found myself feeling like a first-time tourist with eyes wide open peering at every aspect of my surroundings. Discussions were strange. I now know to ward off a knife attack with my forearms and not my hands. Yet we continued to walk.
Security is high. It seems that almost the entire country’s police force is staying in my hotel. More seem to arrive every day. In just a couple of hours from my writing these words, I will be sitting in the Congress, participating in the next chapter of Zionist history. Its power is not lost on me. Yesterday morning, Monday, our group gathered for Shacharit at the Kotel. Standing under the ancient walls, we sang together our t’fillot (prays), our voices carrying, echoing over the stones. For the first time in Israel, I read Torah, Lech Lecha. Whether it was the opportunity to stand beneath those massive stones, or the awe of the dor l’dor (generation to generation) connection that comes from the thread connecting the old, the present, and the future on this trip, I was overwhelmed, my hands and voice shaking as I read the words I know by heart. Lech Lecha m’artzecha umimoladetecha um’beit avicha el ha’aretz arecha. Get yourself up from your land, from your birthplace, and from your father’s house to the land I will show you. And there I was, standing on the site of our ancient Temple, away from home, away from my family, but continuing the legacy promised to Avraham and Sarah, renewed by Herzl and the generations of early Zionists who built the dream and the reality of our modern state.
I have not yet been able to process my feelings of being part of this next stage of history, I just know I am honoured and proud to be able to take part in this Congress at this particularly difficult time in Israel’s history. Zionism is the dream of Judaism, and together we will make it real.