After leaving Ash Wednesday Mass last week, all of the wonderful and powerful memories of my most recent trip to Israel came flooding back to me.
The New York City Council embarked on a mission to Israel, which was hosted by the Jewish Community Relations Council and the Jewish Federation of North America.
Rabbi Michael Miller, executive vice president and CEO of the JCRC, who has made over ninety missions, was our leader and guide as he continually unites persons of all faiths and occupations with Israel.
Today, we are faced with a hard truth as locally and across the country, our Jewish brothers and sisters, their places of worship, community centers, cemeteries and homes increasingly suffer from some form of anti-Semitic attack. As we learned from every person and elected official we met with, the rise in these attacks weighs heavily on the heart of every Israeli citizen.
We were told, “The unbreakable bond between the Unites States’ and Israel’s past, present and future is paramount in the mind and spirit of every Israeli citizen. Any change in that relationship, whether perceived or real, is perhaps one of the greatest issues for our country.”
This call to action, to reassure that this bond is not only present, but a priority for every one of us, has moved me to summarize our mission and trip to Israel.
Some of the persons and organizations that formed this once in a lifetime experience were Tzipi Livni, prominent member of the Knesset and former Foreign Minister of Israel; Deputy Mayor of Tel Aviv Asaf Zamir; Councilmember Mickey Gitzin of Tel Aviv; the amazing staff and students of the Bialik-Rogozin School, where all children of refugees and residents are welcome; as well as the Hand in Hand school where Jewish, Christian, Arab and Muslim children learn and grow together.
We walked the floor of the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange as well as the troubled path between the Gaza Strip and Israel.
We met some of the residents who live there and embody the true spirit and pride of Israel.
Local artist Tzamerat Zamir has made a mosaic of peace at the border wall and proudly stated, “This is our home and the only life we know,” as she yearns for peace between Israelis and Palestinians.
Our journey brought us to pray at the Great Western Wall, while also reflecting on my faith as we walked the path of Jesus.
My heart sang as we traveled from Bethlehem to the Sea of Galilee and finally to the glorious history contained within the Old City at Jerusalem.
One of the most lasting, yet haunting, memories I will take with me was our visit to the Yad Vashem Holocaust Remembrance Center. The history of the atrocities committed upon the Jewish people during the Holocaust must be preserved for future generations, so that it will never be forgotten. As you leave the memorial, there is an undeniable grief and understanding that overwhelms you, yet there is hope for the future as seen in the face and life of every Israeli family.
Our last night together was also my first Shabbat dinner, hosted by our very own Rabbi Michael Miller and his family living in Israel. In this most revered Jewish tradition, family and faith are celebrated and cherished from one generation to the next.
We truly became one in our journey that night and I will forever be thankful to Michael for opening his home and family to all of us. My heart and mind keep going back to the unforgettable people and places we were privileged to meet. Their story, spirit, pride, strength and faith will be with me and my family forever. Shalom, Israel.
Paul Vallone is New York City Councilman for the 19th District in northeastern Queens.