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Honoring Shamir


“My 17-year-old mother gave birth to me on the floor of a train in Kazakhstan” revealed Israel’s consul general in New York, Arye Mekel, at the intimate December 12, 2006, reception he and his wife, Ruth, hosted at their residence for Dr. Benjamin Davidson, director general of Assaf Harofeh Medical Center. The evening’s focus was the announcement of the launch of the center’s Yitzhak Shamir Trauma Center Project for nonconventional mass casualty effects. “In October 1986, because of rotation, my old boss Shamir and [Shimon] Peres changed seats,” Mekel recalled. “Peres became foreign minister, and Shamir, prime minister. I accompanied Shamir to Washington…. Today’s prime minister has [hundreds] of assistants. Shamir had only four. To save money, we flew coach on El Al. We transferred at Kennedy Airport to Air Force One ,whose attendants were members of the U.S. Air Force and Navy. As we took off, two of our four, who were Orthodox, stood up in the aisle, put on tefillin and began davening shakhris. ‘What are those people up to?’” Mekel recalled the Air Force One attendants’ wondering in astonishment. “We assured them: ‘They are communicating with our headquarters in Jerusalem…. Don’t you have such [sophisticated equipment] in Washington?’”

Davidson, a retired colonel and former surgeon general of the Israeli Air Force, detailed the Shamir Trauma Center’s projected response to bio-terror and toxicological events: “We are making preparations for the unspeakable attack on civilian populations — chemical, biological weapons.” He informed that “102 from Homeland Security” as well as security chiefs from America. and Canada had come to Assaf Harofeh for a demonstration of their response and drills. Issues covered included population panic, the logistics of getting together the doctors, triage and the decontamination process. “Israel is investing in something that has not yet happened.… How to treat the treatable…. At the present we can treat 56 gurneys at a time in the emergency room…. Will up it to 160. We are training to deal with 250 chemical casualties…. How to treat a patient who is contaminated with a toxicological agent and, if not treated, may infect the entire staff…. We drill every two months. Need to deal with staff’s fear of coming in… nightmares…. We have enlarged the shelters for the kids so the staff knows the children are protected…. In the case of a nuclear attack, we won’t be able to save anybody,” Davidson said.

Over drinks and nibbles, Mekel held court in what can be described as a “Yiddish Vinkl,” with several of us chatting in mameloshen. Mekel also told me that because of the recent war in Lebanon, the much-anticipated visit by the Tel Aviv Yiddish Theater ensemble had to be postponed.

Assaf Harofeh, Israel’s third largest government hospital, is located on 70 acres in Zerifin, at the gates of a large military base originally used as a British military hospital. Its 400 physicians, 1,200 nurses, 826 beds and 21 operating theaters serve a large, diverse population that includes Israel’s most impoverished citizens. The hospital’s name commemorates Assaf Ben-Brachiahu, a seventh-century Jewish physician (rofeh) from Galilee who is referred to as the “Jewish Hippocrates” and author of the “Oath of the Jewish Doctor”; it importunes: “Ye shall not harden hearts against the poor and needy but heal them.”


“Good evening. I’m Stephanie Lowenthal. I am the certified 100,000th Birthright Israel participant,” the Taglit [Hebrew for “discovery”]-Birthright Israel alumna declared at the December 11, 2006, Birthright Israel Foundation gala dinner celebrating Birthright’s first 100,000 participants. “The thought of traveling to Israel scared me,” Lowenthal told the stellar crowd at The Waldorf-Astoria’s Rainbow Room. “I was terrified to go…. Once in Israel, my fears melted away. My eyes and heart were opened to the wonder of the country, to our shared heritage, to the importance of Israel to my future, our future.” I wended my way through the room, where the tables were labeled Netanya, Dimona, Jerusalem, Haifa, Tel-Aviv-Yaffo, Caesarea, Massada, Ein Gedi, Lod and Be’er Sheva.. I exchanged greetings with Edgar Bronfman, Alan “Ace” and Kathy Greenberg, John Ruskay, Charlotte Frank, Rabbi Irving “Yitz” Greenberg and Rabbi David Ellenson.

Susie Gelman, foundation chair and event emcee, declared: “For our first gala, $1.8 million is not too shabby…. Not long ago, several leaders in our community felt quite discouraged about the future of Jewish continuity…. But a few visionaries saw something different — an opportunity for action… spearheaded the creation of a unique partnership with the government of Israel and the federation system that would reach out to young Jews in a new and imaginative way…. What began as a drop in the ocean has led to nothing less than a sea change in the Jewish community…. Our young people are discovering and embracing their rich heritage… committing themselves to lives engaged with Judaism and with Israel.” Gelman thanked event co-chairs Bonnie Tisch and Lynne Koeppel, and lauded “the three… lynchpins of the group of founding philanthropists — Charles Bronfman, Michael Steinhardt and Lynn Schusterman — “for all you have done to make this dream a reality.”

As the saying goes, “The proof is in the kugel” — in this case, the falafel. Taglit alumna Sarah Glick confessed, “I can honestly say that my experience with Birthright Israel changed my life…. I was born to parents of two religions. My father is a practicing Reform Jew…. My mother a practicing Roman Catholic, [a product] of parochial schooling and attends church each week… I was baptized and received my First Holy Communion; I also had a bat mitzvah…. The only day without any religious event was Saturday, but we made up by doing double on Sundays — both Hebrew school and mass!” Glick revealed that, by the end of high school, she “became a member of neither religion” until her “life-altering” experience [with Birthright]. “From the moment I entered… Jerusalem, a profound feeling of coming home came upon me. I… walked around Israel with a smile on my face for 10 days. I became passionately interested in Israeli affairs and politics… I felt Jewish for the first time in my life…. My eyes and heart were opened to the wonder of the country, to our shared heritage, the importance of Israel to my future and our future.”

Birthright alumnus Micah Bergdale delivered his address at warp speed: “I’ve done everything in my life fast. I graduated from Northern Arizona with a degree in business at 18 — the youngest ever in Arizona. I don’t believe in wasting time. So let me get right to my story. My extended family celebrated Passover but hardly anything else Jewish. We have a lot of mixed marriages…. When I finished college I wanted to explore my Jewishness… heard about Birthright Israel, went on the trip and that was it. End of story…. Actually, I should say, beginning of story. [Though I] sped through high school and college, I am slowing down and savoring my engagement with Judaism and with Israel. I know who I am, where my people came from, and I have a better sense of where I am going as a person and as a Jew.”

Emcee Gelman informed: “In 2006 we had 18,500 spots funded — the most in our history. But we had applications from 36,500 excited and eager young Jews. Sheldon and Dr. Miriam Adelson made the commitment to fund every waitlisted applicant still interested in going on the Taglit-Birthright Israel trip this winter!” In the “goody bag,” a book, “100,000 A Celebration — In Their Own Words: A Collection of Images, Essays, Poems and Letters Chronicling the First 100,000 Taglit-Birthright Israel Participants.” Here’s a sampling: Irina Panin from Kiev, Ukraine, writes: “There is a story about how one Jew gives money to another Jew to be passed on to the third Jew who will bring the fourth Jew to Israel. It was approximately our way of coming to Israel. We are 40 youths from various Siberian cities.” Mark Gross of Montreal admits: “Before I left, I would tell people that I was ‘born Jewish’; now I proudly tell people that I am Jewish.” Karoline Herniques of Copenhagen, Denmark, is awed: “To me to celebrate my Jewishness with 3,000 people was an unparalleled experience…. For me, a Danish Jew, that was overwhelming. There are some 3,000 Jews — in total — in Denmark. I am not at all used to seeing so many Jews in one room. It was magnificent….” Alex Mazelow of Toronto muses about coming from a “totally secular family with absolutely no connection to Israel…. I figured I had nothing to lose…worst-case scenario, I would have a free 10-day trip with my friends. I was wrong.” Describing the unexpected feeling of “belonging” Mazelow writes: “When I got back to Montreal I immediately contacted McGill Hillel… worked for Hillel, volunteered at Federation in Montreal to plan the Montreal Yom Ha’atzmaut Rally, which I was unable to see because I was back in Israel on the March of the Living.” Natalie Schweid of Dusseldorf, Germany, felt in a bind: “… living in Germany my whole life, I never felt German and I do not consider myself German. I always considered myself ‘Jewish’…. I felt that Israel was my homeland but could not feel any emotional connection…. This wonderful trip has changed me emotionally and spiritually…. A special part of the trip is meeting Israeli soldiers. Knowing that these young men and women, who are as young as we are, risk their lives for the security of their people, for the State of Israel and for all Jews living in the Diaspora…. It is especially in these hard times that Israel needs our solidarity.” Schweid adds: “I am currently a member of an ad hoc committee [with] the Jewish community of Duesseldorf and the city of Duesseldorf to organize a solidarity demonstration for Israel…. We have been distributing information brochures to thousands of people in order to correct misperceptions by one-sided German press coverage. This experience shall not be locked up in a box but shall be shared with the whole world!”

Just imagine if any one of these 100,000 young Jewish people had never gone to Israel, how diminished the world’s Jewish community’s future would be.

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