On Sunday, April 22, our community celebrated Israel’s 70th Anniversary of its Independence.
I would like to take a moment and thank, from the bottom of my heart, all the lay leaders, volunteers, and professionals who were a part of Tucson’s communal celebration. A special thank you goes to the woman and the legend, Oshrat Barel, who is our fearless leader.
I have had the honor of leading and taking part in the past 25 Yom Haatzmaut celebrations in three states and I can honestly say that my first Yom Hazikaron (Israeli Memorial Day) and Yom Haatzmaut in Tucson were very special.
What makes Israel special besides its history and geography is its people. I am always captivated by Israeli hospitality toward American Jews. Here are two stories I think are examples of the warm feelings Israelis display:
I was on a plane on my way to Israel leading 34 students. The teens were excited, but they behaved remarkably well. The flight was long and I went in search of a cup of coffee. I was standing in the galley, stretching, as another man walked in and stood in front of me.
I started a polite conversation — I think I said something about his American Air Force shirt. We started conversing in English, but as soon as we recognized each other’s accents, we switched to Hebrew. He complimented me on my students and was touched to know that for many it would be their first time visiting Israel. It took us less than three minutes to find out that we had a friend in common.
We ended our conversation by him writing his first name, Yaron, on the back of my business card with his cell number. He then offered, “If you would like to visit me with your group, just call me.” I wondered, “What is he talking about? Visit him? Where? I have 34 teens with me.”
I asked him exactly where we should visit him. He smiled and said, “At the air force base.” Back in my seat, I started to think how cool it would be to visit the air force, but it was hard to find a window in our itinerary. Eight days passed and we were in the south. I called Yaron, hoping he would remember me. He answered, his voice projecting true excitement as if his own brother had called him. “Amir,” he yelled, “it is so good to hear from you. How are your dear students? And when can we host you?”
To be honest, I was not sure what to say. There was one activity we could cancel, but it would mean losing a small deposit, and I did not want to do so without making sure his word was good enough. After all, not everyone can guarantee a visit to one of the best air forces in the world. Picking my words cautiously, I asked if there is anyone else I need to speak to in order to secure the deal. There was silence on the line for a long moment before he replied, “There is no other officer above me, I am the base’s senior officer.”
We coordinated a visit I will never forget. Our bus approached the base and a young female soldier jumped on. “Tamar, from Security Clearance Department,” she proudly introduced herself. After going over the list I’d sent to her with all our passport numbers and birth dates, she let us enter the base.
Three handsome combat pilots wearing aviator sunglasses boarded the bus. We were taken to the air force combat pilots instructors school, where we watched rare videos of air-to-air fights, followed by a power point presentation by Yaron that taught us the requirements for an air force cadet, pilot and instructor. We were invited to meet a few young pilots. One meeting was so dramatic that even if I’d had the power to write a script for our visit, the reality was much better. We stood in front of an empty field with two big oil cans in the middle. A combat helicopter rose from northeast, flying low and travelling up and down at an incredible speed. The helicopter stopped and fired two missiles, destroying the targets.
Dusty clouds surrounded us and the Apache landed nearby. The helicopter door opened, the pilot spoke to us, answered a few questions, smiled, apologized that he couldn’t be in any of our pictures, waved good-bye, and took off. When Yaron had invited us, I assumed it would be a short visit as I know how busy an Israeli Air Force base can get. I looked at my watch and realized we’d spent over four hours at the base.
When I shared my amazement with Yaron, he put his arm around my shoulder and said, “Amir, these dear students are home and they are an important part of our future.” I still keep in touch with this impressive man.
The second story doesn’t have to do with the army, but with one of my passions — soccer.
I led another group of students to Israel, some of whom were soccer players. Before we departed I checked the Israeli soccer league schedule and was disappointed that I would not be able to take the group to a match as the league was not in session.
After a week of traveling in Israel, I came across a newspaper advertisement for an Israel State Cup match. It seemed too good to be true. Maccabi Haifa, one of the best soccer clubs in Israel, who had won 11 national championships, five state cups, and was the first Israeli club to play in the European champions league, was hosting Beitar Yerushalim, another prestigious club who’d won six national championships and seven state cups. I called the ticket office and asked to purchase 38 tickets, but they were sold out. The students who knew that I was about to order tickets were devastated. If I were in the States, I would move on; however, we were in Israel, and I knew that if someone says that you cannot get something, all one needs to think is, “Who do I know that knows someone…?” I thought for a second and remembered someone who knew Haifa’s coach. I called him and he promised me that someone would get back to me.
After a few minutes, Ronny Levy, who served as Haifa’s head coach, called. He told me we could all come to the game as V.I.P guests of the club. We enjoyed a good game — Haifa won after a dramatic shootout. On our way to the bus, my phone rang. The CEO was on the phone. He asked me to do him a favor and send him the names of all the students. He then asked me where we were staying for the night. In the morning as we headed to the dining room, the front desk personnel told me that Maccabi Haifa called and their driver was on his way to the hotel.
A green van pulled into the parking lot. I was expecting the club to send key chains or pennants. The driver came out, shook my hand, and asked me to call for a few students to help us carry the boxes. Now what I am about to share with you is a true story and I have pictures to prove it. The boxes we took from the van were full of official uniform sets with the names of the students printed on the back. I did not pay for any of it; it was all a gift.
Israel is a very special place — its history, geography and land are fascinating. However, it is the people who open their hearts to us who make it extraordinary!
Am Yisrael Chai,
Amir Eden is the director of the Weintraub Israel Center.