by Emily Cutler, age 17, from AL
On April 25th, 2012 at 11:00 AM, I stood on a street corner in Tel Aviv as the Memorial Day siren rang out against dead silence. Directly in front of me, a line of cars halted as their drivers opened their doors. A soldier in a khaki uniform with coffee-colored boots stood against the front of his car, his rifle pressed tight against his belt; a Hassidic Jew with a long beard bowed his head underneath his fur hat. And then there was us, a group of American tourists from a small temple in Birmingham, motionless in front of the Israeli McDonald’s. At that moment, the city froze. I felt as though I had become part of a still-life painting. I closed my eyes as the deaths of 25,000 Israeli soldiers rang through my ears.
Before, the prior evening, as our group stood in front of our kibbutz’s dining hall for a Memorial Day ceremony, a rabbi sang memorial poems and songs, filling the space with the warmth of his deep voice. Huddling together, bowing our heads and swaying, we chanted the bittersweet Hebrew songs against the cold. In front of me me was someone I’d never met, a teenage boy wearing a forest green knit kippah, and beside me a woman with red curly hair, a baby in her arms. As I swayed it occurred to me that any one of these people could have lost a loved one to the war: a brother, a father, a husband, a son. It hit me that the baby in front of me, with his big blue eyes and tiny fingers, could grow up to lose someone to the war.
Throughout my journey to Israel, I witnessed this juxtaposition of tragedy and strength. On the one hand, I could not begin to even comprehend the suffering the Israelis have endured: how could anyone live knowing their child would have to fight in combat or lose a loved one? Yet at the same time I had never before seen a country so unified, strong, and proud of its identity.
One of the first places our group visited was the Western Wall. Approaching what might be the holiest place in Jewish history, I immediately noticed the diversity. Pressed against the stone wall were three women with their heads covered, murmuring verses from the Torah and bowing, hugging the wall with both desperation and tenderness. Next to them was a Hispanic woman. When I reached the wall I joined a few other American tourists in finding a spot to insert our letters. As I looked around the area, I couldn’t help but notice how different everyone was. Yet every person, whether Orthodox Jewish, a secular Jew, Israeli, or of a different nationality, was welcomed to pray at the Western Wall. I had to wonder what people were praying for—love? Safety? Health? Peace? Chances are, we were all in the same boat.
In some ways, the Western Wall represented the country of Israel for me. Israel is a place people have had to fight for, and still continue to make endless sacrifices for. But it is also a place of community. People are proud of their identities and proud to be part of their country. I, too, was proud to be in a place where everyone was welcome.
A few days later, when we visited the Israeli National Holocaust Museum, something struck me: a video of a Holocaust survivor giving testimony. He was your regular little old man—his beard and payot were almost larger than his face, and when he spoke, his eyes shone behind his tiny, wire glasses. He moved his hands delicately as his voice rose in tone. Unlike other Holocaust survivors who had previously spoken at temple, he didn’t describe the atrocities of the concentration camps. Instead, he described his bar mitzvah. Trapped as a prisoner at Auschwitz at the age of thirteen, he begged his father to allow him to have a bar mitzvah. Although his father was reluctant at first because the Nazis had strictly prohibited them, he eventually gave in and let him have a bar mitzvah in secret. The man in the video described with such joy and delight his first time reading from the Torah. And later, he expressed even greater joy describing his escape to a country where he could worship freely.
I could hardly believe that someone could speak with so much joy after the suffering he had endured in the Holocaust. But that’s Israel. People suffer and sacrifice so much only to come out just as strong in their faith and identity.
That’s a lesson I needed to learn. As a high school student in Birmingham, Alabama, where there are three temples in the city but a church on every street corner, I can’t say it’s easy to be the minority. I have been tempted to hide my Jewish heritage from even my close friends for fear of appearing different. But being in Israel, where people are proud of their identity, made me reconsider how I can be prouder of my heritage and make it a bigger part of my life.