There's an indescribable feeling you get when you land in Israel, step off the plane, and realize that an ancient Jewish dream has come to life before your eyes.
This summer, when six JUF lay leaders--including our Board Chair, Pam Friend Szokol--and I went on a national leadership mission to Israel, that deep emotion never left us.
We were among 36 U.S. leaders who went on this inspiring three-day trip, hosted by the Jewish Federations of North America, to support Israel at a time of great challenge and change. May's traumatic conflict with Hamas had come just as Israel's economy was recovering from the pandemic; then--for the first time in 12 years--Israel elected a new prime minister.
Yet amidst all this turmoil, we found a palpable sense of resiliency and optimism everywhere we went.
At Kfar Aza near the Gaza border, we met Chen, an Israeli determined to fight for coexistence. She calmly showed us the rockets and balloons--which are actually explosives--that have landed in her front yard and around her kibbutz. But Chen, her family, and friends are not going anywhere. They are still optimistic that we can share these borders, and their resilience doesn't wane.
We gave Chen our pledge to stand in solidarity with her.
In Lod, we met Fatten Alzinaty, an Arab-Israeli who is the Executive Director of the JCC that Chicago built during Project Renewal. As we helped Fatten package food for a soup kitchen, she shared her pride in how this JCC had brought people together and been a symbol of peaceful coexistence.
Sadly, she is struggling to get members of each community to walk through its doors, a casualty of the recent deterioration in once--strong relationships between Jews and Arabs in this small city. Fatten shared her anguish last spring in seeing cars set on fire outside the center--but spoke with incredible passion about her commitment to rebuilding relationships in this place where Jews and Arabs had lived in harmony for so long.
We gave Fatten our pledge that Chicago would invest in initiatives to help heal Israeli society.
Our most emotional meeting of all was with the parents of Ido Avigal, the 5-year-old killed by Hamas rocket fire in May. Ido's family had received funds from the Jewish Agency for Israel's Victims of Terror Fund--supported in large measure by JUF--but we also wanted to personally bring them our community's deepest condolences. Ido's parents still express such deep love for their country. Even in the face of unspeakable grief, they believe in Am Yisrael Chai, and are committing their lives to working for peace in their son's memory.
We gave Ido's parents our pledge to honor his memory, too.
That same day, we visited an Ethiopian absorption center and got a powerful reminder that, despite its challenges, Israel remains a beacon of hope for Jews worldwide. Seeing newly-arrived immigrants eagerly preparing to enter Israeli society brought tears to our eyes.
Everywhere we went, we saw Israelis double down on their commitment to life. We were inspired by the ubiquitous cranes in every city--Ashkelon, Tel Aviv, Jerusalem. Their excitement in building for the future was contagious.
There is also pervasive optimism about the new government, which we share. All signals indicate that this new government is deeply committed to bringing Diaspora Jewry in lockstep with Israelis. Our group met with President Bougie Herzog, Minister of Diaspora Affairs Nachman Shai, and Members of Knesset who understand the vital role Diaspora Jewry plays in Jewish peoplehood.
They are just as concerned as we are about indications that young people's connection to Israel is waning, coupled with the uptick in global antisemitism. They are committed to working together to grapple with-and reverse-those trends.
These leaders also showed amazing attention to other issues of concern to Diaspora Jewry-particularly those related to Jewish identity. We feel like they are listening.
We gave them our pledge that JUF would be at the forefront in helping Israel address these nuanced issues.
At a time of complex challenges, we need to be one people. Our Chicago group came away more determined than ever to ensure that Jews in Israel and the Diaspora are aligned to face the future.
Lonnie Nasatir is the President of the Jewish United Fund of Chicago.