Today, the 5th of Iyar on the Jewish calendar, marks the 70th birthday of the State of Israel. As we know, for almost 2000 years the Jewish people had been praying for G-d to return us to Zion, “to gather those who are dispersed across the four corners of the earth and lead us upright to our land,” in the words of our prayers. We were never sure how this improbable event was going to happen, although it seemed like it called for miracle, the kind of miracle, with signs and wonders, with which we understood G-d brought us out of Egypt. But there were no miracles, at least not the type of supernatural Divine intervention that seemed the only way the Jewish people would ever return to the Holy Land as a sovereign, independent nation. Rather, Israel became a state through hard work, intelligence, determination, faith, sacrifice and courage. Those same qualities continue to sustain Israel in a world that is largely unsympathetic to her continuing struggle for survival in a hostile Middle East.
Once the State of Israel was established, many Jews from around the world heeded the call of return. Tonight I want to tell you the story of one person who left his home to live in Israel. When Rabbi Riskin and his family went to live in Israel in 1983 he was the rabbi of the Lincoln Square Synagogue, a prominent Modern Orthodox synagogue on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. Rabbi Riskin, his wife and four young children left their comfortable life in New York City and took up residence in Efrat, an Israeli settlement a 40 minute drive south of Jerusalem. A Rabbi Riskin tells it, when he and his family arrived there were no paved roads in Efrat, no private telephones, and only one public pay telephone that generally didn’t work. During that first winter, his family was often without heat or electricity. Not only that, but after a few months Rabbi Riskin realized that he had no clear way of earning money to support his family! Whatever he had thought he was going to do to earn money had not worked out!
Rabbi Riskin writes that he began to think he had made a big mistake, leaving his position as the rabbi of a prestigious synagogue in New York City and moving with his family to this primitive outpost on the West Bank. Just as he was worrying about this, someone knocked at his door. It was the man in charge of security for Efrat, telling him it was his turn to stand guard at the gates of the settlement.
His partner for that night was a fellow resident of Efrat named Yossi. Yossi asked Rabbi Riskin where he was from, and Rabbi Riskin began reminiscing about his life in New York and his decision to move to with his family to Israel. As he talked, Rabbi Riskin began to long for those good old days when he was financially secure and comfortably domiciled. Then Rabbi Riskin asked Yossi about his life before he came to Israel.
“Believe it or not,” said Yossi, “I grew up in Holland as a Christian. As a child I went to Church every Sunday with my mother and father. In 1967, when I was a young high schooler, I read in the newspaper about Israel’s amazing victory in the Six Day War. From that day on, I became very interested in Israel. When I had to write my senior paper for High School graduation, I wrote it on Israel. In Holland, after you graduate High School, everybody has to join the army. Everyone in the army is expected to talk to a member of the clergy of some kind. Even though I was a Christian, I chose to talk to a rabbi. Then I began to learn Hebrew.
“One day at home I was practicing the Grace after Meals in Hebrew, and I noticed my mother mouthing the words of this prayer. I asked her how she knew the prayer. She told me that before the Second World War she worked as a nanny for a Jewish family, and they would recite this prayer. That is how she said she knew it.
“I was nineteen years old when the Yom Kippur War broke out in 1973. All of the kibbutz members in Israel were fighting in the war, and a call went out for volunteers to come to Israel to harvest the fruits and vegetable that would otherwise rot in the fields. I was sent with three Christian friends to a kibbutz. I fell in love with the land and the people. I picked up Hebrew easily, and began to read about Jewish history and about Judaism. I started to keep kosher and observe Shabbat. Someone from the Kibbutz suggested that I might want to convert to Judaism. There were conversion classes at a nearby kibbutz, and I began to attend them.
“After an intensive period of Jewish study, I was ready to convert to Judaism. But I was only 19 years old, and so, before I did something that momentous, I decided to call my parents and tell them about my decision. My mother fainted when she heard the news. When she revived and was able speak she told me that I did not have to convert to Judaism. I was already Jewish, she told me, because …….. she was Jewish.”
Yossi’s mother then told him the secret she had kept from him all of his life. Yossi’s grandfather had been the cantor in the main synagogue in the town where she grew up. Like every other Jewish family in the town, hers was caught up in the Holocaust. Yossi’s mother survived the concentration camp she was in, but her parents and siblings did not survive. She swore that if she were to ever have children, or blessed to have grandchildren, they would never go through such a horrible experience. “If there was one Holocaust, there could be another Holocaust,” she explained to Yossi. So she became a Christian. The only person who knew about her Jewish background was Yossi’s father. “But,” said Yossi’s mother, “If you wish to rejoin the religion of my parents and their parents, May the G-d in whom I can no longer believe bless you and keep you.”
Rabbi Riskin writes that when he heard this story, he knew that he had made the right decision to live in Israel — despite the unpaved roads, lack of electricity, and other inconveniences. The words that Moses spoke to the Israelites 3500 years ago came back to him, “You will be scattered to the ends of the heavens, for there the Lord your G-d will gather you, and from there he will take you up… and return you to the land of your ancestors.”
Rabbi Riskin knew he had truly come home.