Voices from the Field
Going to Poland this past summer was the first time I had ever been to a place outside the U.S. that my family once called home. I felt an especially strong connection at the Treblinka memorial, which comprises thousands of stones, each bearing the name of a community that was wiped out at the camp. After finding my Bubby’s community stone, I laid my hand on the “Nasielsk” inscription, closed my eyes and saw a loud, happy family crowded around a table full of food in a small, warmly lit home. On a trip full of tears, in a field where hundreds of thousands of murders took place, I was surprised at feeling heartened. The scene was imagined, but that didn’t matter to me; I was struck by a sense of belonging, inheritance, and purposefulness unlike anything I had ever experienced.
Treblinka was not the first or the last place on the trip where we sang Ha'tikvah as a group, and my feelings about that ritual were mixed. But in that instance, I sang without reservation. Just as Jewish sovereignty in the Land of Israel is the realized hope of our people, could my own life be seen as a realized hope of my family’s past? Here I was, an American in the 21st century, volunteering in the State of Israel for a year, paying tribute to my ancestors’ lives in Poland. The reality could only have seemed a far-fetched hope to my great-great-grandparents.
Singing our anthem in Treblinka unlocked the insight that before I existed, my people were dreaming of their children’s children’s children etc. — in other words, of me. The line in Ha’tikvah about a “hope of 2000 years” reminded me that hope does not have a start or an end; hope and memory are the threads with which we knit our generations together. When we look back, we not only remember – we identify. Every one of us embodies past hope and future memory.
Ha'tikvah expresses hope looking forward, vibrant life in the present, and allows for a window into the past. Remembering the effect Ha’tikvah had on me at Treblinka, I decided to look into other connections between the anthem and the Holocaust. Four stories (linked below) stood out to me in particular. Two are from the war and two from recent years.
- Before Israel was a state, Ha’tikvah was already an anthem. There is an account from Filip Muller, a sonderkommando in Auschwitz who saw Jews about to be murdered, singing Ha’tikvah as they were led into the gas chamber. When he tried to follow them in to end his suffering, they pushed him out and told him that he had to live to be their witness. In this one terrible scene, we see people yearning for a future State of Israel, and at the same time asking to be remembered as a part of that future. See more in A Song of Hope in A Time of Despair.
- A short time later, BBC radio reporters made a recording of inmates at the liberation of Bergen-Belsen. Those who had enough strength wanted to make sure their voices were carried to the rest of the world, and the message they chose to send was Ha’tikvah. After enduring horror, they proudly proclaimed “our hope is not lost.” Unlike those who sang the anthem as they were led to their death, these men and women hoped for something they might one day see, but the song they sang was the same. It’s interesting to note that they are heard singing the words from Naftali Imber’s original poem, Tikvatenu, whose lyrics were slightly altered when the poem was adopted as Israel’s national anthem. See more in How Ha'tikvah Embraces the Past & Future
- It was the same song sung by survivors of Auschwitz who returned to the camp decades later to face their past and proclaim their survival to the world. In this clip, decades after liberation, we hear survivors of Auschwitz singing the modern lyrics of Ha’tikvah. See more in the article, Auschwitz 70th Anniversary: Holocaust Survivors Recall Life in Death Camps.
- And it was the song played at a 2008 Yom Ha'Shoah concert in Jerusalem with restored violins that had been used by Jewish musicians in concentration camp orchestras. To read more about this amazing project, see Violins of Hope: Exhibit of 18 Violins Tells Story of the Holocaust.
Alex’s passion for Israel began in childhood during his education at Solomon Schechter Day Schools in Chicago’s northern suburbs. After a family trip to Israel, summer programs in high school and college, and graduating from Northwestern with majors in Jewish Studies and Psychology, Alex was ready to spend an extended period of time there. He joins the iCenter after a year in Rishon LeZion where he taught English to Israeli elementary school students through Masa’s Israel Teaching Fellowship program. Alex is thrilled to be a part of the iCenter team and looks forward to helping nurture ahavat Yisrael throughout the North American Jewish community.
"...to recapture how I came to be in the company of such amazing individuals, these early leaders of Israel, who were thrust into my life with such collision force that their hold on my imagination is intensely alive and personal still. I am everlastingly grateful for having had the opportunity to work for and alongside such prime ministers, and for having had my eyes opened to the fact that occassionally such larger-than-life champions of the Jewish people exist on earth." - Yehuda Avner, Jerusalem 2010
A moment remembered by Sarah Katz, a student at Barnard University
My first encounter with Yehuda Avner was at a speech he gave at my high school. He was a soft-spoken, stately man who was introduced as the trusted advisor to many of Israel’s most memorable prime ministers. However, it was not until the Q&A discussion at the end of the speech that I truly understood who he was. One of the boys in my class raised his hand and asked what his reaction had been to the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin. Yehuda Avner suddenly stopped speaking and his warm smile melted away as he began to explain how that experience was one of the hardest moments of his life as he lost one of his closest friends. After he explained that he stopped and began to yell, “No Jew should EVER touch, kill or hurt another Jew, EVER.” We high-school students sat stunned in our seats, not having expected this older man with the pleasant presence to become so visibly upset and begin to yell. However, it was at that moment that I began to realize that this was not just a kind man with a fascinating job, but a man who was strong to his convictions, a man who had a message, and a man who had life stories that were far beyond anything I could imagine.
Soon after hearing him speak I began to read his magnum opus, The Prime Ministers. To say that that book made an impact on me would be an unbelievable understatement. From the moment I picked it up I was unable to put it down. His delicately crafted stories, charming anecdotes, deep understanding of history and unprecedented look at the inner thoughts of the Israeli Prime Ministers gave me a completely new understanding of Israeli history and the evolution of the state. His flowing and readable style is not only a testament to his talent as an author, but his true expertise that he dedicated to the state of Israel as a speech writer for each of these Prime Ministers. Yehuda Avner soon became a presence in my home, as his book deeply affected many of the members of my family and he and my father rekindled an old friendship from many years prior. Spending time with him was a deep honor to each of my five siblings, as we carefully worked to memorize every thought-provoking, witty, and loving statement he made. Listening to his British accent he relayed his love of the state of Israel and extreme passion for Judaism and all of its practices.
Despite his old age, Yehuda's speech was consistently eloquent and his mind extraordinarily sharp. With an everlasting and endearing smile on his face, he would recount his stories, amazingly not leaving out a single detail. But more importantly, he devoted his full attention to each of his counterparts and genuinely cared about what they had to say. Yehuda Avner was the embodiment of a Jewish hero and a mensch. It was an honor and privilege to have known him.
A moment remembered by Brett Kopin, an iCenter consultant
I had dinner once with Ambassador Yehuda Avner. It wasn’t a one-on-one. Rather, he was the keynote speaker at a fundraiser for a Jewish program, and I was speaking on behalf of the alumni. I met him at the dinner before the event. Not only were we at the same dinner, but I, then a senior in college, got to fill the open chair right next to the ambassador at the table. We were surrounded by New York businessmen, all vying for his attention. At first I didn’t know what to say to him, but his warmth quickly put me at ease, and soon we were making witty side comments to each other. The ambassador, between bites of salad, rose from his seat to answer questions from the 40 or so eager people in the crowd.
Between each question the ambassador sat down while people at the table engaged him in more questions. He never showed a hint of weariness in answering. He was there to share. The ambassador exuded a walking history of Israel, and I was overwhelmed that I was rubbing shoulders with him.
Later at the fundraiser, held in a Central Park West apartment, after I gave my speech the ambassador rose to speak, and he stole the show. This man—in his mid-80s—electrified the crowd with his stories. He spoke for about 15 minutes, and at his most dramatic note right at the end he jumped into the air while making a large circular motion with his index fingers. The man was amazing and larger than life. After the event I found him in the crowd. When he saw me he let out a hearty laugh and gave me a hug—this was my moment with Ambassador Yehuda Avner.
The three days I felt most “Israeli” were August 20, 2013, Yom Ha’Atzmaut 2014 and March 17, 2015. August 20, 2013 was the day that my family and I landed here as olim. Yom Ha’Atzmaut 2014 was our first independence day in Israel. And, just recently, March 17, 2015 was my first chance to vote in Israel's national elections for the Knesset. I had chills all the way to the polling place.
While Israel is one of the greatest hubs for hi-tech innovation in the world, voting here is incredibly low-tech. Your name is approved by a person looking at a paper list. You vote by taking a piece of paper with the name of the party you want to vote for, put it in a special blue envelope, seal the envelope and then drop it in the ballot box. No touch screens or chads; rather, an old fashioned paper ballot for one party in an envelope.
Here, everyone has an opinion about the elections and is not shy about sharing that opinion. They are not shy about asking for which party you will cast your vote. All of this makes for the most fascinating conversations with people I don’t really know or, most likely, will ever see again - taxi drivers, passengers on the bus, waiters and waitresses.
Just like how my eyes well up with tears every time I hear HaTikvah, they welled up with tears today when I put my vote in the ballot box. Today, my Zionism was expressed through a small piece of paper, in a blue envelope, in a blue ballot box with the official seal of The State of Israel on the front. I participated in a free, fair, open election in the Middle East in the only true democracy in the region, the democratic and Jewish State of Israel. My home.
Rabbi Loren Sykes was the founding director of Camp Ramah Darom and creator of Camp Yofi: Family Camp for Jewish Families with Children with Autism. He also served as the director of Camp Ramah in Wisconsin. Most recently he served as the executive director of the Fuchsberg Jerusalem Center. In 2006, Loren received the Covenant Award in recogntion of his entrepreneurial work in the fields of Jewish camping and Jewish special needs programming.
Loren, Rebecca and their two daughters, Mira and Amalya, live in the Talpiyot neighborhood in Jerusalem. Their son, Elan, attends college in the US.