Each year, Jews around the world mark our own special season of freedom and sovereignty that is ushered in by the Passover holiday and culminates two weeks after its finish in the celebration of Israel’s Independence Day. With Israel’s 59th anniversary upon us, our ancient journey from Egypt is realized in the continued existence of the modern Jewish state.
But as we learn from these great holidays, freedom is not easily attained: The road is long and often filled with treacherous twists and turns. Still, it is a road that must be traveled, in every generation, individually and as a nation.
Nearly 3,500 years ago our ancestors embarked upon the journey to freedom that began when they left Egypt and ended when they finally crossed the Jordan River and entered Israel.
And again, in our own lifetimes, our parents and grandparents took the long path from exile to statehood. From scattered lands throughout the Diaspora they made their way to the beacon of hope and promise that was the fledgling state created in 1948.
As we say during the Passover seder, “In every generation ” The challenge of freedom, the responsibility and the gift of freedom, is again upon us in our own generation.
Israel’s 58th year was not an easy one — the Second Lebanon War, the terrorizing threat of a nuclear Iran, unabated anti-Semitism abroad and the widening of socioeconomic gaps within Israeli society — all of these things took a toll on the hearts and minds of Jews.
Yet we are encouraged and inspired by the fact that when Israel was in danger, when our freedom was threatened, Jews around the world immediately came together to take action. The North American Jewish community should take pride in the magnificent way it galvanized, uniting in support for Israel when last summer’s war in Lebanon broke out.
The result was one of the most successful emergency campaigns in modern history. Within a few weeks more than $300 million wa! s raised to help Israelis under attack in the North.
We in Israel owe a deep debt of gratitude to the United Jewish Communities, Keren Hayesod and federations across the United States and Canada. The monies they raised for the Israel Emergency Campaign allowed us to bring critical emergency support services directly to those citizens who were suddenly on the terrifying front line of the war zone. Within days of the war’s outbreak, tens of thousands of northern Israelis received the support and assistance they so desperately needed.
More than 40,000 children from the North were brought to safety at sleep-away camps set up especially for them in the center of the country. Jewish Agency-supported teams, at risk to their own lives, went to public bomb shelters, providing first aid and sanitary supplies, and installing air conditioning units for these crowded, stifling underground shelters. They also brought in televisions and water and sanitation filtration systems.
Heavy rocket fire was mostly limited to the daytime, so our teams went out each night, reaching more than 2,000 shelters in communities and cities across northern Israel.
Immediately following the cease-fire, the Jewish Agency mobilized its resources to rebuild the devastated North. Thousands of small businesses, bankrupt from the monthlong war, were saved by Jewish Agency immediate emergency grants. More than 40,000 children are participating in afterschool enrichment activities, moving from the trauma of war to recovery.
We sponsored scholarships for students drafted during the war to offset the summer jobs they lost; more than 9,000 students each received a $1,000 grant. To counter the alarming trend of plummeting student enrollment in northern colleges, we offered scholarships as an incentive to register and prevented severe social and economic shortfall.
As our rehabilitation of the North gained momentum, we also turned our attention south to Sderot and the Gaza perimeter communitie! s, which are still being hit incessantly by Kassam rockets. Our grants to small businesses, scholarships to students studying in the regional colleges, afterschool activities and summer camp alternatives for children are providing renewed hope and strength to the region.
Our work in the North is not complete. The Jewish Agency’s efforts to revitalize the region’s social and psychological fabric continue. We want to build schools, sports facilities and cultural centers. In order to strengthen the North, in order to return the spirit of resilience and purpose to its communities, education must be improved and business and high-tech entrepreneurship encouraged.
Over Passover the Jewish Agency underwrote free admission to all nature reserves and national parks in the North. More than 20,000 people visited these sites per day. This is just the first of many steps we are taking to encourage tourism, thereby strengthening the economy of the region.
Israeli businessmen and entrepreneurs are joining the effort to revitalize the North. In January, the Jewish Agency secured its largest ever corporate pledge from the IDB group, Israel’s largest holding company — 100 million shekels, or almost $25 million. The company, which holds assets of approximately $3 billion and owns several Israeli Nasdaq-traded companies, committed to underwrite many of our projects in the North.
IDB’s pledge is conditional upon a matching pledge from world Jewry. The company is ready to stand up, to invest in Israel’s future and to pave a new road together with our North American partners. Redemption comes only by our own commitment, resolution and readiness. The challenge lies before us, but so does the opportunity, the chance to create a brighter future for those living in Israel’s priority regions.
As we celebrate another year of Israel’s independence, my message to you is this — propel forward the energy of unity and activism that gripped you in the midst of the Second Lebanon War. B! ring tha t same dedication and determination with you as we continue to build Israel and forge an enduring path of freedom.
(Zeev Bielski is chairman of the executive of the Jewish Agency for Israel.)