May 08, 2008

Israel's 60th: Other reasons to celebrate

I don't think there is a single person in this room who has flown into Israel without being filled with pride and marvel at the sight of Tel Aviv's magnificent skyline.

That such world-beating feats in nation-building and technology have been achieved in just 60 years is unmatched by any historic standard.

That they have been achieved in such a tiny country with virtually no natural resources is astonishing.

That they have been achieved under a constant threat of war and terrorism is truly miraculous.

However, I will also be celebrating some very different achievements on this important anniversary.

Achievements which are no less wondrous.

Achievements which show that Israel is indeed possessed of natural resources which are nowhere else to be found.

I have to begin with a story from within my own community in northwest London

Last year, there was a spate of armed robberies in our area. Many families hired private security firms to patrol their streets. In common with so many major companies in Europe and America, we all chose Israeli security firms for this job.

One Friday night friends of ours invited their Israeli security guard to come inside and listen to Kiddush. It was a cold night, so the young man accepted and put on the kippa that was offered to him. After Kiddush and motzi, the security guard took his leave. But not before thanking the family and telling them that this was the first Kiddush he had ever heard and the first shabbas table he had ever seen.

A very sad story by any standards.

But hardly surprising when you consider that, until a few years ago, 50% of 18-year-olds in Israel had never visited Jerusalem and 80% had never been to the Western Wall of the Temple. These are the IDF's own figures.

The good news is that this is all changing - and in a dramatic and exciting way.

The early Zionist settlers started by irrigating the sand dunes, ploughing the fields and building the kibbutzim and moshavim. Then, as a by-product of their constant defence needs, they began to innovate and improve on their hardware - and later their software. They exported their cutting-edge ideas. And with those earnings they created a booming economy which endures even now as the rest of the world faces recession.

But whilst all this material growth was burgeoning for all to see, around 30 years into the story, something even more exciting began to emerge. Slowly but surely - in all corners of the country - the seeds of Religious Zionism began to flower.

Last year a survey by the Israel Democratic Institute came up with some amazing data. The percentage of Jews describing themselves as secular had dropped sharply over the past 30 years, whilst the religious and traditional proportions have risen.

But most significant was that the proportion of religious citizens is highest among the youth.

The survey revealed that the secular public comprised only 20% of the Israeli population - compared to 41% - more than twice as much - in 1974.

In just the last seven years, according to the IDI survey, the proportion of secular Jews has dropped sharply from 32% to 20% today.

And that's not all.

Recently Maariv reported that 50 percent of the IDF's young combat officers were religious. It also reported that about 40% of the cadets of the most recent Officer Course were religious. The report by Ben Caspit, one of Israel's most senior journalists said: "They are becoming the IDF's backbone. Their presence in the army is several times larger than it is in the general population." He then remarks on what he calls the children of "the First Israel" who seek ways to avoid army service.

But this is not a discussion of "them and us".

Quite to the contrary … it is a about a powerful means of uniting our people.

One of the great tragedies of modern-day Israel is that - typical of that security guard - half of Israel's youth know nothing about the true meaning and mission of Judaism or what a true Jewish home is supposed to look like and feel like. They have little or no understanding of their heritage and historic roots in Eretz Yisroel prior to the founding of the state.

But consider this.

It's undeniable that entry into the army is the most impressionable period in the life of every young Israeli. Within a tough regime of training and discipline, the commanding officer - the mefaked - is his leader and mentor in all things.

30 years ago, on an average Friday night, a conscript might ask: "Where's the commanding officer?" And the answer would likely have been - "Out for a drink, or chilling out with the other officers!" .

Today - with close to 50 percent of IDF officers wearing kippot - the answer to that young and impressionable conscript is more likely to be: "The mefaked is in shul singing lecha dodi".

Multiply that scenario by 3 years' worth of Friday nights in army service and by several hundred army units and you will understand the potential - even the exponential - impact this can have on the lives and future of a generation of Israeli youngsters.

In the first 30 years the chalutzim grew crops out of a midbar devoid of water and shade. In the second 30 years our people have grown yiddishkeit out of an ideological midbar devoid of religious thought and understanding.

In a period of two weeks around Yom Hazikaron and Yom Haatzmaut an organisation called Panim el Panim, run by former army colonel Geva Rapp, visited 40 non-religious high schools all across Israel and taught them the meaning of the Shema.

They told the story of Roi Klein, a major in the Golani Brigade during the 2006 Lebanon War. For Roi, Shema Yisrael were the very last words he said before throwing himself onto a grenade to save the soldiers in his unit.

The high school students were so captivated by the story that many wrote letters to the parents of Roi whom they have adopted as a personal hero and role model.

Just as Panim el Panim is one of many Kiruv groups working in Israel, even more striking are the thousands of Chessed groups which have arisen in response to the severe government cutbacks on social welfare.

There are soup kitchens and gemach organizations for everything from clothing to wedding trousseaus. Some of you may have encountered the "Chicken Man" at the Kotel who collects money for an organization that puts a roast chicken on the tables of thousands of needy Jewish families every Friday night of the year.

With due respect and admiration for all of Israel's world-beating feats, it can safely and proudly be said that no other country or nation on this planet has more such organizations and charity volunteers per head of population than the Jews in Israel.

And so, on this wondrous anniversary of achievement in Israel, we are able to celebrate the achievement of financial, material and physical success with a corresponding milestone in the observance of Torah and Chessed in Eretz Yisroel.

In their Declaration of Independence 60 years ago, the founding fathers could not find it within themselves to make reference to G-d. Instead they referred to their trust in "Zur Yisrael" the Rock of Israel.

But as the saying goes: "statistics never lie".

And all the signs show very clearly that G-d and his Torah are steadily winning this war of ideas.

This is cause for great celebration and for us all to say on this 60th birthday of the state of Israel: shecheyanu vekiymanu, vehigianu lizman hazeh.


Add to Technorati Favorites Tweets by @ZalmiU