The 20th Assembly of the Jewish Agency began on a bittersweet note Monday night, as hundreds of delegates attended a moving opening-night ceremony at the Jerusalem Theater.
Upon entering the lobby, the assembly members were treated to a variety of performances by talented new immigrants. At one end of the foyer, participants swayed to the beat of a swing band composed of olim from the former Soviet Union, while at the other end, onlookers clapped their hands as a troupe of energetic Ethiopian teen-agers performed traditional African folk dances.
The lighthearted mood did not last long, however. Once they had entered the auditorium, President Chaim Herzog reminded the delegates that a half-dozen Israeli soldiers had been killed the previous day.
Today is a sad day in Israel. Today we buried six soldiers. They fell because our enemies are determined to sabotage the peace process and because of the activities of Islamic fundamentalists who are threatening the existence of all regimes in the Middle East and elsewhere,” said Herzog.
Yet while the president expressed his concern over the recent increase in terror attacks, he stressed that assimilation, and not violence, is the real threat to the existence of the Jewish people.
He called on the assembled Jewish leaders to devote more attention and funds to Jewish education, and in so doing, curb the tide of assimilation and intermarriage in the Diaspora.
After adding his condolences to the families of the fallen soldiers, Jewish Agency Chairman Simcha Dinitz spoke about the agency’s ongoing efforts to encourage and facilitate aliyah, especially from strife-torn areas.
“The Jewish Agency is privileged to have been the instrument that brought these people home, and continues to be the one element that will complete the task of bringing one million olim by 1997,” he said.
To illustrate this point, a giant video screen at center stage presented vivid images of Jews trying to flee war-torn regions such as Yugoslavia, Moldova and Avhazia, in northwest Georgia. In Yugoslavia, a woman examines the rubble that was once her home. A moment later, she is shown arriving at Ben-Gurion Airport, embracing a loved one.
Another highlight was a live telephone interview with emissary Eli Yitzhaki, who spoke from war-ravaged Dushanbe. “It’s been a bit like Yom Kippur for the past two days,” he said. “We haven’t had any food or water, but things seem to be quieting down,” he assured the audience.
Stirred by these words, and by the video clips of new immigrants learning Hebrew and undergoing job retraining, the world Jewry’s “movers and shakers” kicked off their shoes and joined a group of Ness Ziona schoolchildren for an hour of joyful folk-dancing.