This is the fourth and final installment looking back on the Boston-Haifa Connection’s inaugural Hatikvah Mission, written by Ken Kaplan.
The State House
After meeting thousands of people at dozens of venues, the last stop on the officers’ trail was atop Beacon Hill, where the full team of soldiers, accompanied by Shrage, Israeli Consul General Nadav Tamir, and others, were hosted by members of the Massachusetts Legislature in the Members Lounge, a plush, richly decorated room with soaring ceilings.
It was very much the culmination of the mission, giving the officers, seasoned by a week of speaking engagements, the opportunity to present themselves eloquently to the gathered politicians. As important for the soldiers, the meeting served as a final, powerful, and convincing affirmation of the warmth and support that Israel still enjoys even outside the Jewish community.
Nancy Kaufman, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council, made the introductions, noting the special bond the community has with Haifa and mentioning the two main JCRC programs in Haifa: the Shiluvim program to promote the integration of Ethiopian immigrants into Israeli society, and the Learning Exchange, which fosters professional growth for members of NGOs dedicated to social justice and civil society in Boston and Haifa.
Kaufman also introduced the day’s main host, State Representative James Vallee of Franklin, the House majority leader and a lieutenant colonel in the National Guard. Vallee, she noted, was the recipient in January of the JCRC’s annual Legislative Achievement Award “for his work on behalf of advocating for social justice, and also for leading the charge in terms of getting the state pension funds divested from companies doing business with Iran.”
Also in attendance were Rep. Frank Smizik of Brookline, Rep. Louis Kafka of Sharon, Rep. Lori Ehrlich of Marblehead, Rep. Barbara L’Italien of Andover, Rep. Carolyn Dykema, of Holliston, Rep. Paul Kujawski from Webster, and Rep. Angelo Scaccia of Hyde Park, a Marine Corps veteran of the Vietnam War.
Vallee greeted the soldiers with warm praise. “I am in awe of the work that you do in the military in defense of your country,’’ he said. “I consider myself a great supporter here of everything you do. Visiting the Golan Heights and learning about the battles there was very moving for me as an infantry officer.”
Vallee emphasized that he and his colleagues “really appreciate having an allegiance with Israel and recognize the importance of supporting you as a democratic nation. … From the perspective of Massachusetts government, I think you have a lot of good friends here.”
After the officers introduced themselves, Adam Hoffman and Aklile Kebede addressed the legislators. Both chose to elaborate on the value they found in visiting the Hyde Square Task Force in Jamaica Plain, a grassroots neighborhood organization that is a participant in the Learning Exchange.
Kebede, an Ethiopian Israeli, said the visit evoked memories of her childhood in the Neve Yosef neighborhood of Haifa, “We had kind of the same problems…The biggest problem is integration between different kinds of communities. And I’ve seen this struggle, they told me a lot about it, and I remember our struggle…in Neve Yosef, and I must say we need to empower each other because together we can reach a higher level.”
“For me personally,” Hoffman said, “it was one of the most important and more meaningful experiences, meeting people who are not Jewish, who don’t come from the mainstream, in our eyes, of society, people who might have a hard time getting on. It put things into perspective for us.
“We came here as ambassadors of goodwill,” he concluded, “and we really gave from ourselves, but as my friends might reflect later, I think we got more than we what we gave, that when we go back to Israel and go back to our private selves and society and talk to our peers and soldiers, we will reflect and be ambassadors from this side and show what the US community is all about, in Boston and in the Jewish community…I definitely treat this as our mission and treat it as a mission not less important than any other we might encounter in the military.”
As the meeting broke up, with the soldiers heading for a tour of the historic House chamber, Angelo Scaccia had final words of effusive praise to the young officers that evoked the closeness and common purpose the United States and Israel have shared at the heights of their relationship.
“Do you remember the Six-Day War?” he asked, to laughter. “I happened to be in Vietnam at the time, and…before I knew it, your war was finished.”
Scaccia pointed to evolving patterns of military service in the United States, saying the Israeli model of a citizen soldier is worth emulating. “We’re now getting a citizen soldier who does his tour and goes back into the work force,” he said. “We did that 200 years ago when we were fighting for our freedom too. We had citizen soldiers who in the morning farmed and tried to feed their family … and in the afternoon picked up a gun and fought the Redcoats.”
In order to preserve America’s greatness, he said, people have to sacrifice. “Part of that is to serve your country in the military…And because you do what you do, you understand the value of service and of community.”
It was a strong message to leave the soldiers with, a vote of confidence aimed at inspiring rededication.
The warmth of the State House reception and the surging confidence exuded by the officers at the close of their mission were quickly seized on as indications that even more could be achieved by future delegations.
Ruth Kaplan, CJP’s director of the Boston-Haifa Connection, said that as the wheels are set in motion for another officers mission next year, this year’s successes are translating into proposals to reach out more to non-Jewish Bostonians.
“The reception we got from places such as the Hyde Square Task Force and the Massachusetts Legislature was warm and meaningful and went a long way to impress upon the Israelis that they are not alone in the world — indeed they have many friends in America, both Jewish and non-Jewish,” Kaplan said.
“Next year,” she said, “we hope to expose them to even more non-Jewish people where they will be able to have honest and personal encounters with even more community members who wish to know and understand the challenges Israel faces.”
Reflecting on the mission’s varied successes, Kaplan emphasized the impact it had on younger Jewish Bostonians.
“I cannot tell you how many of the children and young adults whom the officers met were impressed by the fact that these heroic and proud defenders of the Jewish State shared the same interests as they did — they were just normal young adults,’’ she said.
“For some of our children, they understood the value of studying Hebrew for the first time as they either spoke to the soldiers in Hebrew, or realized that if they did speak Hebrew, they could communicate even more meaningfully with our guests.”
Kaplan’s counterpart in Haifa, Vered Israely, returned to the mission’s singular event in her own summation of the trip and its impact. In a travelogue she posted on the Boston-Haifa Connection’s page on Facebook following her return to Israel, Israely wrote movingly of the Holocaust Day ceremony at Faneuil Hall.
On the stage, she noted, were Holocaust survivors and leaders both of the Jewish community and of the City of Boston. The crowd, she wrote, was “huge.”
“And here I was, Vered Israely, born in Haifa, the third generation of Holocaust survivors, the granddaughter of founders of the State of Israel, the daughter of Israeli Sabras, the mother of two, sitting in a front row, in anxious anticipation.”
Her emotions reached a crescendo, she said, when the officers, “representing the human web of Israeli society,” proudly marched in and saluted the Israeli flag for the singing of Hatikva.
“I can’t express enough the emotionality of this moment,” she wrote. “My heart was beating so loudly – only the singing of Hatikva was louder. Tears of emotion and pride started to flow uncontrollably.”
For Israely, the officers’ historic participation in the ceremony, and the vivid scenes inside and outside Faneuil Hall, were proof that the personal relationships fostered by the Boston-Haifa Connection’s work are profoundly important, and enduring.