David Katz, reputed chazzan and educator, reminisced over his first visit to the Old City of Jerusalem. “It was an organized balagan,” he described with an amused smile. Only two days after the liberation of Jerusalem, Katz remembers how he joined throngs of people headed toward the Kotel for the first time in 19 years. The first thing they did was install a water faucet, shared Katz. The dust in the air was heavy from the bulldozers clearing the Arab homes built up against the Kotel itself. “And the Kotel,” he let his sentence hang and looked up as if words could not describe his emotions.
The miracle of the liberation of Jerusalem, and the gift of the land of Israel were themes that repeated themselves throughout OU Israel’s 6th annual Yom Yerushalayim dinner. Katz himself led the evening’s festive tefilla. His joyful singing overflowed and spread his elation and thanks throughout the room. Later in the evening, as talk fell to the Israel Center’s place in Jerusalem and the meaning of the day, Katz shared his post six day war experience with others at his table.
The dinner was peopled with individuals like Katz, olim who have been in Israel for five, ten, twenty and thirty years. Men and women who made their homes in Israel mingled over soup and salad, joined together to offer thanks to Hashem for the miracle of Jerusalem, and gathered to pay tribute to OU Israel and the evening’s honorees. For most of the attendees, the OU Israel Center plays an integral part in their aliyah experience. They attend shiurim, shabbatonim, connect to a supportive social atmosphere, and have the opportunity to support growth in Israel through the OU’s outreach programs.
Following tefilla, Leah Goldstein of Har Nof shared her relationship with the Israel Center. She discovered the Israel Center by accident while waiting for an appointment at Bikur Cholim Hospital, across the street from the Israel Center’s original location on 10 Strauss Street. The OU symbol on a Jerusalem building piqued Goldstein’s curiosity and she entered to inquire what the Israel center was about. Rabbi Leff, an acquaintance from the “old country” (the United States) was delivering a shiur. Goldstein stayed to listen and has been coming back every Monday for the past 20 years.
The stories of the olim connected with OU Israel are the stories of the Israel Center itself: the story of Anglo Jews taking their place in their homeland and in the rebuilding of the Land of Israel.
“It took the entire Klal Yisrael to put together the OU,” Rabbi Avi Berman, Director General of OU Israel, said at the dinner. “The OU is a community that’s full of spirit, full of people that want to take that spirit and pass it onto others, and to teach others to be leaders.”
Not just another fundraiser, the OU Israel dinner was an evening with a message. The stories of the center’s supporters, the accomplishments of the honorees and the words of the keynote speaker pointed towards rededication to a national initiative to work for the good of the Jewish people and the Land of Israel.
Rabbi Ari Berman, delivering the keynote address, explained that according to Rav Soloveitchik, “the creation of the State of Israel is Hashem knocking on our door waiting for our response. We must respond to his knocking and continue the rebuilding… There is so much we can do. The OU… serves as a way to galvanize the olim community to give to the Land of Israel, to build our country.” It is not enough to make aliyah and move to Israel, Rabbi Berman insisted, olim must contribute to the rebuilding.
Rabbi Shalom and Bayla Gold, recipients of the Keter Torah and Eishet Chayil awards did more than just move to Israel when they made aliyah. They discovered a need for English adult education and Rabbi Gold founded the Avrom Silver Jerusalem College for Adults to respond to that need. Later, he joined forces with the Israel Center to pool resources and provide the best possible Torah experience for Anglo olim in Jerusalem. As Phil Chernofsky, OU Israel Educational Director, described, Rabbi Gold’s contribution to the community is his emphasis “not on mind to mind education, but mind, body and soul education.”
Shelley and Charley Levine, recipients of the Boneh Yisrael and Shem Tov awards, also came to Israel with a purpose and a goal. The Levine’s met as Jewish student activists in the 1970’s. They were members of the first student group to raise awareness of Russian Jewry behind the Iron Curtain. They pledged themselves to a life of service to the Jewish people. Stalwart religious Zionists, they continued their work after they made aliyah. Shelley, who was described at the dinner as “a real estate mastermind,” was the stronghold behind some of the most vibrant and successful Anglo communities in Israel. “I don’t sell houses,” Shelley clarified, “I build communities.” Charley, CEO of Lone Star Communications, has worked hard to improve Israel’s image in the world media. Rabbi Steven Berg, Chief Programmatic Officer of the OU, added that when the OU garnered its forces to present the world with its position on a united Jerusalem, “Charley helped us get that message across.”
Olim from every corner of Jerusalem, PR and real estate professionals, Rabbis, chazzanim, educators, and many others make up the colorful fabric of OU Israel. “My first experience with the Israel Center is that it really is the center.” “What’s amazing about the center is that it is there if you are 13, or 33 or 73.” “The Israel Center is one of the biggest examples of kiddush Hashem in Yerushalayim Ir HaKodesh.” “I was on the sisterhood in West Hempstead when Rabbi Gold was installed there, now I go to his classes in the Israel Center whenever I can. It’s a very special place.” The voices at the dinner were overwhelming. They described a place where people feel at home. They spoke of a place where Jews can come together to learn, to grow and to give.
Elisheva Rosenblatt is a freelance writer living in Beit Shemesh, Israel
Abba Richman is an Israeli-based photographer. To view more of Abba Richman’s photographs and contact him, visit www.abbarichman.com
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.