Two Remarkable Graduations

Greetings from the Holy Land. When it comes to the State of Israel, there is never a shortage of things to worry about.  It seems that since its birth just a few years ago, Israel remains in a state of perpetual crisis due to enemies from the outside, and tragically sometimes from the inside.    In America, we tend to focus on the existential threat posed by Iran and its maniacal leaders.   We raise awareness, lobby our elected officials to take a firm stand, and most significantly, daven that Iran not be allowed to realize its stated goal of wiping Israel off the map. Remarkably, in Israel, one hardly hears about, reads about, or talks about Iran.  Instead, conversations everywhere from taxis, Shabbos tables, and op-eds in newspapers all focus on the Tal Law revisions and the question of Chareidim and Israeli Arabs serving in the IDF.   As one can imagine, the emotions run high when discussing this issue.   If a significant and satisfactory compromise is not found, a further rupture and widened divide will likely result between the religious and irreligious in Israel.   The chasm and hatred that will result may be as real and dangerous a threat as Iran. Yet, with all the challenges, crisis and threats, the overwhelming truth is that Israel is thriving in extraordinary ways.  Every visit back to our blessed homeland, I see incredible building, progress and innovation.  Perhaps this thriving can best be measured by one particular piece of data.   I recently learned that amazingly, Israel has the highest fertility rate among Western countries (those included in the OECD) with an average of 2.96 children per household, significantly higher than the average of 1.74.  You may think that this number is skewed by the large Chareidi families, but further analysis of the data shows that Chilonim, non-religious Jews in Israel, also have considerably larger families than the average. Throughout history, the fertility rate is a good measure of how much happiness, meaning and faith people have.  We only bring children into a world that we think will be good for them and to them.  The high fertility rate in Israel is a true testimony to the faith, tenacity, resolve and resiliency of our people and represents their collective affirmation that Israel is here to stay and the best is yet to come for our people. Last week I attended the Kindergarten graduation of my nephew Shlomo in Modiin where my sister and her family live.   Thirty five children and their families packed into a small room that due to a poorly timed power failure lacked air conditioning and lights. Under normal circumstances I wouldn’t have been able to tolerate the intense heat and claustrophobic feeling of being in a dark space with lots of people.   But as I watched these beautiful children with their Israeli accents sing their songs, dance their dances and wave their flags, I didn’t feel the sweat running down my back.  Instead, I felt the goose bumps of excitement at watching the future of the State of Israel and the fulfillment of thousands of years of dreams and prophecies coming true. A week before I arrived, another nephew of mine, Shmuel, had his third grade graduation ceremony, an Israeli tradition.  My brother and his family live in Alon Shvut which is part of Gush Etzion.  Gush is filled with great biblical and historical significance.  Avraham and Yitzchak walked through on their way to the Akeidah.  Ruth gathered crops from the fields of Beit Lechem.  Dovid Ha’Melech watched his father’s sheep on her hills and went on to proclaim his kingdom there. After thousands of years, in 1927 Jews tried to settle the area once more, but the conditions were too harsh. A second attempt to settle Gush was made by Shmuel Holtzman in 1935. Arabs drove the pioneers out and the settlement was unsuccessful.  In 1943, a third attempt was made, this time successfully with a group of four communities being founded.  However, in the War of Independence in 1948, all four settlements were totally destroyed.  240 men and women were murdered, with another 260 taken into captivity. After 1948, the children of those parents who tragically fell and those who survived longed to return to Gush Etzion.  After 19 years banished from their homes, the miracle of the Six Day War brought about a fourth opportunity to settle Gush Etzion and for these families to return, this time permanently, please God. With this history in mind, my nephew’s third grade graduation was remarkable not only because of where it was being held, but because of how many third graders graduated.  Shmuel was one of 220 third graders from 10 third grade classes from the small area of Gush Etzion alone. We must be cautious, wary and concerned about our enemies both from without and within.  But, with all the fear and unease, let’s never forget to feel gratitude for the incredible blessing and redemption we are living through.  How fortunate we are to merit living at this time and how great is our obligation to not take the land of Israel or the State of Israel for granted for even one second.