We’re marking the 70th anniversary of the founding of Israel with a year-long celebration! Keep an eye out for “Memphis Celebrates Israel at 70” branding at your synagogue, at events around town, and online. In this series, we’re asking Memphians to tell their personal Israel stories. Do you have a story to tell?
This past summer, I spent six incredible weeks in Israel on a program called NCSY Kollel. The program schedule included opportunities for Torah learning, touring Israel, and sports activities. The touring was a unique and particularly meaningful experience for me, since this was my first time visiting Israel. I had spent my entire life learning about the land and state of Israel, and there I finally was, walking on the same ground that my ancestors had walked thousands of years before me. Over the course of the summer, I embarked on intense hikes with beautiful scenery, prayed at some of the holiest sites on the planet, and had the opportunity to meet and learn from some of the greatest Torah scholars of our generation.
While every moment of the summer was memorable, one experience stood out as the highlight. That was, oddly enough, on Tisha B’Av (the Ninth of Av), the day on which Jews around the globe mourn the destruction of the temple. Normally, this is a difficult day in which I struggle to relate to the sadness of an event that occurred thousands of years ago. This year, however, was completely different.
Towards the end of the day, I joined the 256 other program participants on the floor of the Kotel plaza in a powerful kumzitz (sing-along). Jews of all stripes, backgrounds, and affiliations gathered around us and participated in singing songs mourning Jerusalem and the destruction of the temple. Right above us was the Temple Mount, where we all imagined the temple as it once stood tall and proud. We thought about the many tragedies and misfortunes that have befallen the Jews since the destruction of the temple, and the struggles that we still face now in the modern state of Israel. We thought about how amazing it was that we could be there in Jerusalem once again, but at the same time we also felt a longing for better times, when we could live in total peace and feel the presence of G-d in a much stronger way. The temple was so close, yet so far away.
The kumzitz ended on a hopeful note, as we all stood up and sang “Ani Ma’amin,” a declaration of faith in the coming of the Messiah. We were sad over the loss of the temple, but hopeful for better times to come. After all, we’ve already come so far in the just 69 years since the establishment of the state of Israel. Who would have thought that a people who suffered the devastating tragedy of the Holocaust could turn around and establish a powerful and innovative country in such a short time?
Seeing the flourishing country of Israel was inspiring, especially given our visit to Yad Vashem, which helped us appreciate just how amazing it is that we’ve made it so far. Israel is no longer just a dream as it had been for so long, it has now become a reality. So on Tisha B’Av we had mixed emotions. We felt that on the one hand, look how close we are to the redemption and the rebuilding of the Beis Hamikdash (temple), with Jerusalem in our hands and the Jewish nation stronger than ever, but on the other hand, we still have a long way to go. We’re still in conflict with our neighbors and the temple is nowhere in sight.
Throughout the summer, I was inspired and uplifted by Israel, a truly beautiful and flourishing country, but at the same time I recognized that we are still lacking in many ways and we still have much to pray for. When we spent a shabbos in the Old City, we were reminded of the challenges still facing us in Israel, with security following us around due to tensions over the Temple Mount that had heightened security concerns at that time. While it was unfortunate that we couldn’t walk around freely in the Old City that shabbos, it was an important learning experience for me and for everyone else on the program that we must continue praying for the ultimate redemption and for the rebuilding of the temple.
Akiva Finkelstein, the son of Bluma Zuckerbrot-Finkelstein and Rabbi Joel Finkelstein, is a junior at Cooper Yeshiva High School for Boys. Memphis Jewish Federation’s Lemsky Endowment Fund provided him with a Teen Israel Experience grant to help offset the costs of his NCSY program in Israel. All rising juniors and seniors in the Memphis Jewish community are eligible for grants of up to $3000 to attend a recognized teen summer program in Israel. Teen Israel Experience applications for summer 2018 are available on our website.