I stood by the grave of American Max Steinberg in Jerusalem as sobs began to rip through my whole body. Max’s tombstone was littered with Birthright lanyards to commemorate the 24-year-old’s first trip to Israel, which convinced him to move to and serve the country. I was on my own Birthright trip at the time, a paid 10-day visit to Israel for Jewish young adults that attempts to foster a connection between personal identity and history. Our mifgashim, a term used to describe the Israeli soldiers who join Birthright trips for 5 days of the experience, surrounded us in uniform at the Mount Herzl military cemetery. The complex is huge: while it is the resting place of famous Zionist Theodor Herzl and former prime ministers Golda Meir and Yitzhak Rabin, it also pays homage to thousands of soldiers who have died fighting throughout the state’s 67 years of existence. The graves are all constructed identically out of sand-colored stones piled low to the ground, covered by beds of rosemary on top. I stood amidst the never-ending rows of boxes, representing so much more than just shapes, and I began to understand the sacrifice that these strangers had made for my freedom to return to a place that I can call home.
Max Steinberg died in the 2014 summer Gaza conflict, killed by a Hamas missile attack on the armored personal carrier he was riding in with six other soldiers. None of them survived.
While my Birthright group tried to process the significance of someone like us uprooting his entire life and moving to a foreign country in order to defend something much larger than himself, one of our Israeli soldiers began to teach us the Israeli national anthem. “Hatikvah,” or “The Hope,” encompasses everything that so many Jews have been fighting for over so many years: a land to call their own in which they would not be persecuted and where they could once again flourish. As Shay-Lee, a 22-year-old peer, taught us the words to the anthem, my mind jumped to what my family had gone through in order for me to reach that moment.
My father was born in Israel to Polish parents who moved there upon his mother’s liberation from Auschwitz and his father’s release from the Soviet army. He left Israel with his family for the United States when he was 10 and his mother died when he was only 16. He has told me the few stories she shared of her time in the death camp: how she ate bark from trees because there was nothing else, how her parents and youngest sister were sent to the gas chambers from the very start, how she was a fairly critical person because she didn’t know how else to cope with all she had suffered.
I never got to meet this woman whom I consider one of my greatest inspirations, but listening to my father’s personal experiences has strongly impacted me as well. Even though he lived in New York, a state with a large Jewish population, he was still beaten up by kids at school for being Jewish. As someone who grew up as a religious minority in a small Southern Baptist town, I found it empowering that my father always believed this behavior was unimportant and petty in the grand scheme of things. While never physically attacked, I felt detached from the rest of my peers since age six when my best friends told me that I was going to hell at an age when they barely understood what they were saying. Hearing “Jew” thrown around as an insult in high school by the few people who didn’t know I was Jewish sustained these feelings of isolation.
In contrast, when I visited Israel for the first time at age 14, I felt an immediate connection. For the first time in my life, I was surrounded by people who didn’t ask me why I don’t eat pork, didn’t make fun of the slight bump in my nose, and didn’t make me feel like an outsider. We did not speak the same language of words but we spoke the same language of history – more than 5,000 years of it. These were the immigrants who hailed from every part of the world, the everyday-people who were willing to give their lives to keep a dream a reality, and the third cousins I had never met but who treated me like a daughter. This was the land where my ancestors had wandered for 40 years and where on Masada almost 1,000 Jews took their own lives rather than become slaves to the Romans.
After returning to the States after that first trip, I did not have much of an opportunity to continue my formative connection with Israel. However, during my first year at the University of Virginia, I found and joined the student Israel advocacy organization Hoos for Israel. The group allowed me to explore the nuances of Israel’s history and culture at my own pace. I became president of the group my third year and returned to Israel with Birthright this past December. This time I viewed the country through much older and more knowledgeable eyes. I could appreciate the growth of the country since I had learned what so many people, young and old, had given in order for the state to become a Jewish homeland. I could also acknowledge the complexities of its existence since Hoos for Israel had exposed me to a variety of viewpoints on many Israel-related issues.
As any other country in the world, Israel is not perfect. It attempts to do what is best for its people, but this is never simple with such a diverse population. I do not agree with many of the government’s decisions (as I can say about the U.S. government as well), but I support Israel’s right to exist as Jewish state with safe and secure borders. While I am personally challenged by the continued conflict in the region, I am nonetheless comforted by the fact that Israel will continue to fight for its survival while celebrating its existence. The upcoming Israel Independence Day (Yom Ha’atzmaut) is a time of great rejoicing in the nation but is preceded directly by Israel’s Memorial Day (Yom Hazikaron) for fallen soldiers and victims of terrorism. The contrast of quickly changing from grief to celebration reminds Israelis of the sacrifice given by so many that is necessary to maintain their freedom. As I stood by the young Max Steinberg’s grave in Israel, I began to understand why we make the sacrifices we do.
In order to celebrate Israel Independence Day, Hoos for Israel will be hosting FaLAWNfel on Wednesday, April 23rd. While not exclusively Israeli, falafel, pita, and hummus are a staple in Israel and we will thus be giving this food out to the public. We will be on the Lawn from 12-2 p.m. and we invite everyone from the UVA community to join us. On Thursday, April 24th, we will be handing out free birthday cake to celebrate Israel’s creation. This event will also be on the Lawn from 11-1. We thank the Israel on Campus Coalition for their generous support of these events.
By Kayla Pomeranz, Contributor