On Monday evening, the Young Israel of Woodmere held a communal Yom Hazikaron and Yom Haatzmaut program, with a moving and inspiring recollection by Rabbi Raphael Pelcovitz, Rabbi Emeritus of the White shul, of others’ reactions to the re-founding of Israel.
A special video presentation by Knesset member Naftali Bennett, addressed to the “Long Island” community, was screened. The men and women filling the seats of the main sanctuary at the YIW stood in silence as footage of visitors to a cemetery in Israel listening to the two minute siren heard throughout Israel on their Memorial Day was shown. Other videos shown included the funerals of Udi Goldwasser and Eldad Regev, two Israeli reservists who were wounded and kidnapped from Israeli territory while on patrol on their final day of reserve duty in 2006. Their bodies were returned to Israel two years later in a prisoner exchange.
Rabbi Hershel Billet, rav of the YIW, introduced the program. Rabbi Ariel Rackovsky, rav of the Irving Place minyan, noted that praying at Har Herzl, Israel’s military cemetery, is davening at kivrei tzadikim, the graves of the righteous. “Today we mourn their loss, tomorrow we celebrate in their merit—an impossible roller coaster of emotions,” said Rabbi Yehuda Septimus, rav of the Young Israel of North Woodmere. The presentations were bracketed by mincha and maariv and the recitation of a perek of Tehillim (psalm) for those injured in the bombing at the Boston Marathon.
Following videos of the first prime minister of Israel, David Ben-Gurion, reading Israel’s Declaration of Independence and a video of the prayer for the State of Israel, a video greeting by Naftali Bennett was shown. He recalled his friend Emanuel Moreno who was killed in a special mission in Lebanon years ago. He noted that 70% of Israelis agree on 70% of things. He explained that his goal is to “close the social-economic gap, to restore Jewish identity to Israel” noting that we are all links in a 3,800 year old chain of the nation of Israel, the Torah of Israel in the Land of Israel.
With the assistance of two men, Rabbi Pelcovitz, a rav who witnessed all the events in modern Israel over its 65 years, slowly climbed the steps to the podium. “All of you are part of this magnificent celebration,” he said, noting that the videos of Israel’s history “transported us back to the establishment of the State on Hay (the 5th) of Iyar.” He stressed that one “can’t question the importance of the centrality of Eretz Yisrael in Hashkafas HaTorah” and “saw a tremendous change even within the Torah world, including the Yeshiva world.”
In 1960, he recounted, his father was living in Bnei Brak. The younger Pelcovitz went to visit the original Ponevitcher Rav, Rav Kahaneman to say “shalom” on Yom Haatzmaut. (Rav Pelcovitz noted that Rav Kahaneman’s only surviving son from the Shoah lived in Far Rockaway at the time.) While at Ponevitch, the Rav’s wife ran in, upset that the Israeli flag on the yeshiva had been taken down. The Ponovitcher smiled and replied in Yiddish, “You have to hang it up again.” “ On Yom Haatzmaut,” emphasized Rabbi Pelcovitz, “they flew the flag.”
On the day the Medina (State) was established, continued Pelcovitz, he heard that the menahel of Torah Vodaas, Rabbi Shraga Feivel Mendelowitz, was “so overcome with the importance and historical importance of the day and the moment, that he said to his talmidim (students), ‘there is a thought from Rav Tzadok Hacohen in the story of the Maapilim in Parshat Shlach that they tried to force the hand of Hakodosh Baruch Hu (G-d), when the meraglim (spies) came back and said ‘we can’t conquer this land’ and Yehoshua and Calev said ‘aloh naaleh vyarashnu ohtah’ (let us arise and inherit it). This group was not prepared to wait for permission to enter the land and went up the mountain. Moshe said ‘don’t do it, it’s not the time’—‘vhi lo titzlach’—this time it will not work, this time you can’t force G-d’s hand, without getting reshut (permission), but there will be a time in Jewish history when the Jews, even though they will not be given permission and receive a sign from heaven, (can) force the hand and go back to Eretz Yisrael. Rabbi Mendelowitz said, ‘This is the time.’ This is yeshivish tradition, rooted and steeped in the Torah.”
When the State was established, said Pelcovitz, there was no guarantee that it would be successful. “Sixty-five years later, we are celebrating the anniversary. It is hashgachas Hashem—we are an interesting and strange people, we live with dreams and manage to survive.”
He recounted when the Chofetz Chaim was visiting with the original Rav Yoshe Ber Soloveitchik and a delegation from Brisk requested from the then disillusioned rov to become the Rav of their 30,000 Jews. When he agreed because so many wanted him, the Chofetz Chaim cried, saying—so why doesn’t Moshiach come with so many Jews waiting for Moshiach, and he was answered-because they don’t really mean it. If they really meant it, he would come. And in this case, he said, it didn’t come from the Torah world it came from Jews estranged from Torah—it is not for us to understand. “We have been matzliach (successful) and we were matzliach and we are celebrating Yom Haatzmaut,” stressed Pelcovitz.
He noted that the name “Atzmaut” bothers him, that Jews have other words for freedom, chayrut, dror, even chofesh. The secret of our success, he stressed, is our dependence on Divine assistance and involvement, and the miracles that we saw since the War of Liberation, the Six-Day-War and all the other battles--that Tzahal (IDF) is dependent on hashgachas Hashem.
He recalled the story of the Sadigura Rebbe who, as a leader of the Jewish community in Austria, was forced by the Nazis to sweep the streets. He prayed, “let me be worthy to sweep the streets in Eretz Yisrael.” When he was forced to hang the Nazi flag on the highest building, he prayed, “someday let me hang a flag of a Jewish medina (country) in Eretz Yisrael.” Eventually he was saved and went to Israel and opened a Beit Midrash (study hall/synagogue) in Tel Aviv. Everyday he would sweep the sidewalk in front of his shteible and on Yom Haatzmaut, he hung the Israeli flag on the roof of the synagogue on Allenby Street, saying, “My prayers were answered.”
“We grow older and we lose our strength,” said Rabbi Pelcovitz, “You are as young as your faith, and as old as your doubts, as young as your courage and as old as your fears and as old as your despair. Never lose faith, courage or hope.”
Do not ask for ratification, agreement or legitimacy of the State of Israel, he said. “After 65 years we have not been able to crack the walls that separate us from the people of the world…know that Hashgachas Hashem was with us at all times; our existence is not dependent upon the acceptance of the world. They can refuse to recognize us—we have the legitimacy from the Sovereign of the Universe.”