Walking up to Bagel Bite, a restaurant on the corner of Derekh Bet Lekhem and Yehudah Street, I noticed two things. First, the restaurant was refurbished presumably for the first time since I ate there nearly twenty years ago. Second, there were no tables available for inside seating. The sun was still out and the wind not too intense so I thought to myself: “It’s much colder in Chicago than it is here. What could be bad?” I chose one of the many empty tables and sat down to enjoy a breakfast of bagel, coffee and the Middle Eastern equivalent of the skillet breakfast known as shakshuka, two eggs cooked in a steaming skillet of tomato sauce, peppers, and onion. Yochi, the waitress, brought me the newspaper to read while I enjoyed breakfast. I sat, taking in the entire scene, breathing the Jerusalem air, and feeling at Peace.
Opening up the paper, I read an article about International Holocaust Rememberance Day. I had not realized that the commemoration was today, January 27, set by the UN according to the date of the liberation of the death camp at Auschwitz – Birkenau. After all, we commemorate the Holocaust on Yom HaShoah so I never paid much attention to the recently declared official UN remembrance. Nevertheless, here I sat at a corner café in Jerusalem, in the heart of the Jewish State, at a moment of an amazing confluence of events: It was International Holocaust Remembrance Day, erev Shabbat of Parashat Bo, and I, a committed Jew, was sitting having shakshuka in Israel.
In Parashat Bo, we read the continuing saga of a recalcitrant Pharoah refusing to free the Israelites from slavery. We are taught the mitzvot of the Passover Sacrifice, the Korban Pesah, the prohibition against eating leavened bread, and learn the reason for eating Matzot. At the climactic moment of the parashah, after the final plagues of darkness and death of the first born of the Egyptians, our ancestors are liberated from slavery, from the torture of Pharoah and his minions, from starvation, deprivation, physical abuse and death. Adonai is the liberator who brings B’nai Israel to freedom with “a strong hand and an outstretched arm.” The symmetry between this week’s Parashah, the beginning of the Exodus and freedom, and the liberation of the death camp at Auschwitz commemorated by the international community on this date is as inescapable as it is powerful.
Last night, I stood in the dining room at the Fuchsberg Center on Agron Street with a combination of shlichim, Israeli staff members, from the 2011 camp season, North Americans who have made Aliya, and camp staff members here for the year on Nativ - USY’s gap year program - Kivvunim, another program, as well as those who are working in internships through the MASA program. I listened to the North American’s stories of the first half of their year in Israel. I learned about how the experience of being shlichim impacted the shaliach just as much as she or he impacted North Americans. I heard about everything from studying for exams to relatively spontaneous trips to Rome to joint theater projects of Israeli Jews and Palestinians trying to create more positive dialogue between the two groups. From updates to everyone about the 2012 camp season to news from the Chicago office, the discussions ranged from the mundane to the sacred, from the superficial to the most soulful. At the time, I was unaware of the impending International Holocaust Remembrance Day. I was just enjoying time with Israelis and Americans in Israel while being reinvigorated by the palpable if unarticulated Zionist energy in the room.
Putting it all together this morning over coffee, a bagel and shakshuka, however, I realized the much deeper power of the meeting the night before, of the parashat haShavua, of the international commemoration of the Holocaust, and of the location of my breakfast. In exile in Egypt, one half of the promise to Abraham and Sarah was fulfilled: a mass of descendants almost impossible to count. Yet, these descendants suffered horrible torture by Pharoah until they were redeemed, saved by God. While they would not reach their desired destination for ages, they were on their way to receiving the second of the two promises to Abraham: a homeland. While the Holocaust did not bring about the immediate establishment of the State of Israel (there is a modern scholarly and political argument about this position – some argue that the groundwork done by the early Zionist, by David Ben Gurion and others, would have come to fruition regardless and that the Holocaust actually made it more difficult while others argue that the shame of the Shoah on the international community accelerated the establishment of Israel and make a direct linkage between the two), many survivors emerged to freedom, found a home with the yishuv and fought for the land promised to our ancestors. Their actions led to the successful establishment of a national state for the Jewish People in our ancestral homeland. And here I sat, a free Jew sipping coffee at a Jewishly owned coffee shop in the Jewish State, preparing for a week of work dedicated to hiring the best Americans and Israelis to inspire the next generation of Ramah campers to become committed, observant, knowledgeable Jews.
In the week to come, I will be sending blog updates of my trip, of my meetings, and of the exciting conversations I have throughout Israel. As we leave the suffering of Egypt and as the international community remembers the Holocaust, let us all remember the beauty and power of our tradition, of our unique relationship with The Divine, of the beauty of Torah and Mitzvot, of Peoplehood and of God. I pray that our knowledge, our values, and our way of living is a source of blessing and freedom for all of us.