|Member of Knesset Shlomo Molla and Rabbi David-Seth Kirshner at the AIPAC conference. Courtesy Rabbi Kirshner|
Mayor Corey Booker of Newark once said, “Democracy is not a sideline sport.” If ever one wanted to prove that statement true, one would only need to spend three days in Washington at the AIPAC Policy Conference.
This week, 76 members of Temple Emanu-El in Closter joined the ranks of 7,724 (close to 200 from Bergen County alone) others – Jews and gentiles, Republicans and Democrats, men and women, old and young – and ran on to the field of the American Israel relationship. Little did we know when we signed up for the policy conference, some as early as 11 months ago, that Israel and America would be embroiled in a public relations mess that would not only take some of the focus off of health care but would also serve as a re-examination and reiteration of the core principles of the 62-year-old partnership. It made for an exciting, engaging, and energetic conference.
First PersonThe topnotch speakers included Benjamin Netanyahu, Alan Dershowitz, Tony Blair, Hillary Clinton, members of the Israeli Medical Corps who serviced Haiti, and many more. But perhaps one of the most moving was Member of Knesset Shlomo Molla, who was brought to Israel in the middle of a cold and dark night from somewhere in the desert of Sudan more than 25 years ago. His story of perseverance and determination was powerful.
As a young man living in Ethiopia, he faced a communist regime that did not allow him or his community to practice Judaism. The country continued to enforce more obstacles to normal living and cruelty to the point where Molla and thousands of others had to flee. They escaped, barefoot, with no possessions and little food and water. Their journey eventually led them to the African Sudan. Some 4,000 of their brethren did not make it. The punishing elements took their lives. But Molla and others were airlifted by the Israel Defense Forces to Israel, where they made a home within a homeland and created a family surrounded by new and familiar brothers and sisters.
This story rang the bell of our memories to the Ethiopian children and the Russian grandmothers who walked down the stairs to the tarmac of Ben-Gurion Airport and danced and kissed the ground as our arms opened for their embrace and our collective eyes welled with tears of gratitude. In each of our mind’s tickers ran Theodor Herzl’s words, “If you will it, it is no dream.” The foundation of the state and the spirit of the state was realized; a home for every Jewish person, then and now, will endure.
Today, Molla, a distinguished member of the Kadima Party, spoke to the AIPAC plenary and at various smaller sessions, too. Many were reminded, when we listened to him and his story, why we were in Washington just before Passover – because we are still making the case for Israel to live in peace.
We took the information we learned from our sessions and speakers, along with the words of our political leaders and Molla’s spirit and determination, and we took to the streets. Tuesday morning we realized Booker’s words, and the AIPAC delegates met with representatives in each Senate office and more than 400 offices in the House of Representatives to lobby in support of a strong Israel-America relationship. We underscored basic principles critical for the continued strength of the Jewish state: the need for quickly passing crippling sanctions against Iran, continuing to condemn the flawed and non-factual Goldstone Report, and encouraging the Palestinian Authority to come to a meeting table with the Israeli leadership immediately for discussions followed by negotiations for peace and the creation of a two-state region. It was a life-changing experience for our new participants. As almost every AIPAC rookie said to me, “This is my first AIPAC event, but certainly not my last.”
When Abraham Joshua Heschel marched arm in arm with Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma, Ala., Heschel proclaimed that he was praying with his feet. That is how many of us felt as we boarded airplanes and trains back to Bergen County rejuvenated by our time spent in Washington. We prayed with our feet. The foundations of Judaism and the core fundamentals of America are similar; we celebrate our voice and how we share it, our hand and how we and both America and Judaism are as much about our possibilities as they are about our histories and traditions. Those shared values are the reason the Jewish people have thrived in the United States.
On the eve of Passover, may we never take the freedoms of Shlomo Molla and the State of Israel for granted. May we realize the freedoms afforded us as Americans, and may we use our voices, our feet, and our passion to celebrate America’s and Israel’s unbreakable bond.