Senator Kirsten Gillibrand and her assistant arrived for our meeting at the King David Hotel with a bouquet of roses. She was clearly upset and she apologized for being late, explaining that she had just come from a trip to Sderot and Yad Vashem. I didn’t need to ask what was bothering her.
Gillibrand is New York’s junior senator and a member of the Senate’s Foreign Relations Committee. We met as part of her two day fact finding mission, and after a day in Sderot she confided that she is deeply concerned about security in Israel.
I shared with her the story of a 15 year old girl I met in a Makom Balev bomb shelter in Sderot. The girl sat alone, I described, clearly in distress. It turned out that at three and five o’clock that morning, the siren sounded. Twice, she jumped out of bed to the safe room where she listened to kassams fall until it was safe to return to her room. At seven, her alarm clock rang for school. Later that day, she put her head down on her desk, exhausted, and her teacher came over to ask if she couldn’t try a little harder. “I wish the Kassams could fall at seven when I have to get up anyway,” she told me.
In Sderot, children’s wishes aren’t about peace anymore, they’re about Kassams falling at a more convenient time, I commented. Senator Gillibrand was clearly shaken up. She couldn’t fathom how parents can successfully raise children in Sderot.
With care and concern, she moved on to talk about her experience at Yad Vashem and her eyes welled up with tears. I shared how my grandfather fought for the US army during World War II and liberated the concentration camp, Mathausen. I tried to explain what it means to identify as a Jew, an Israeli and an American.
I am proud to be all three, but what I really wanted the senator to understand was what it means to be a Jew living in Israel, why American Jews make aliyah, why families stay in Sderot. My family made aliyah when I was nine years old. Our first day in our new home, we visited the Kotel, Hevron and Kever Rachel. Visiting the Kotel for the first time was inspiring, but I couldn’t wait to daven at Kever Rachel. In our house in New York, we had a picture of the kever on a hilltop, a tree shading the domed building. But when the cab driver stopped at a gas station and pointed us to the kever across the street, I was crestfallen. Where was the tree, where was the hill? How could Kever Rachel be at a gas station?
Five months later, I recovered from my disappointment. I learned in school about Rachel’s death and her burial at the side of the road, and suddenly it all made sense. Of course there’s a gas station on the side of the road! What was depressing had suddenly become uplifting, because as a child growing up in Israel, the Bible wasn’t just stories, it was real, it all happened right where I was living.
Amazingly, the Senator related to my story. She shared that she first visited Israel 16 years ago. On that trip, she said, her faith and her history came alive. I could tell from her eyes that she understood.
Israel is not just a refuge for Jews after the Holocaust, I told her. It’s where our forefathers lived, it’s where our family history is. Jerusalem was not declared Israel’s capital in 1948, it’s been the capital for 3,000 years. Seeing how she identified with the Jewish connection to the land of Israel, I asked her to use her influence in favor of a United States embassy in Jerusalem.
We went on to talk about the repercussions of discrimination. Where in the world is a Jew not allowed to expand his house? I asked her. She responded, Iran. As far as I know, I said, the Jews in Iran can build to their heart’s content. The only place in the world that a Jew cannot build because he is a Jews is in Judea and Samaria. If that happened in New York, or Florida, or Maine, the world would go crazy, I said. How ironic that in the land God gave to us, a Jew can’t build a porch or expand his house or have his child come live next to them.
Senator Gillibrand’s ear was open, she was someone who really cared and wanted to do the right thing. After she expressed a desire to return to Israel, we parted, and I gave her a blessing. I told her that I hoped that her passion would continue to guide her and that she should continue to have the strength to protect the free people of the world.