Thursday, April 19, 2012

Friendship journey to Israel - Apr. 20, 2012

Night before last was a highlight of this trip. Really, it was a highlight of all the trips I've made to Israel. First, some background: Last summer, my clergy group met Dr. Susanna Kokkonen when we were here. She is a Finn with a Ph.D. in Holocaust studies from Hebrew Univ in Jerusalem, and is director of the Christian Friends of Yad vaShem, the Holocaust museum in Israel. Jonathan subsequently brought her to Birmingham, where she spoke at Temples Emanu-El and Beth-El, Southside Baptist Church, and Samford Univ. She arranged for all of us to go to the state of Israel's official Holocaust memorial service at Yad vaShem.

Because of security we had to arrive 2 hours ahead of time. Keep in mind that this is a desert country and that Jerusalem is fairly high up in the hills, so it was quite cold and there was a wind. Although the official temperature was 60-something Fahrenheit, it felt like the 40s. I was wearing a dark suit and my clerical collar, but I was freezing. Both Israel's president, Shimon Peres, and prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, spoke. There were also presentations by several Holocaust survivors, the reading of psalms by the chief rabbi and the praying of the "Kaddish" (the Jewish prayer for mourners), and Israel's national anthem - "Ha Tikvah"- was beautifully sung by a young soldier.

I have to say that I was more moved by Pres. Shimon Peres than by Netanyahu. He has been involved in Israeli politics from the very beginning and led the Labour Party for many years, including a brief stint as prime minister. Half the Jews from the Polish village where he was born came here and the other half were murdered in the Holocaust. He said that he went back there a few years ago and there are no Jews there any longer. I was also deeply moved by the story of a Holocaust survivor who is also an author of children's books who said that she wants children to maintain their faith in humanity. If anyone has earned the right to lose her faith in humanity, it is she, but she has not lost her faith in her fellow human beings.

After the ceremony, we were invited to the reception in the museum. There was quite a rush for the hot coffee and tea. In spite of the bitter cold, I'm deeply grateful for the experience.

The next day we toured Hadassah hospital. It is a hospital built by members of Hadassah, a world-wide Jewish women's organization. Particularly impressive was the children's wing. It was greatly expanded a few years ago with a gift from New York mayor Michael Blumberg in honor of his mother. All the doctors and nurses are required to speak both Hebrew and Arabic and they care for Jews and Palestinians alike. They also require that family members stay with the children at all times, so in addition to the hospital beds, there are futons in every room.

Hadassah hospital is also famous because of the windows that Marc Chagall created for the hospital's synagogue. There are 12 windows, one for each of the tribes of Israel. I had never seen them before, and they are magnificent.

Following our visit to Hadassah, we went back to Yad vaShem for a tour of the museum itself. Twice I visited the original Holocaust museum, but the present museum was built only a few years ago. This was my second time to go through it. But the exhibits are so extensive that I think you could spend years there and not see everything. There is no way to wrap your mind around the murder of 6 million Jews, plus the murders of 5 million others - Romany (Gypsies), the mentally and physically handicapped, Slavs, Communists, and homosexuals. Yad vaShem does a marvelous job of conveying not only information but a feeling for this unique historically event. In the original Holocaust museum I saw this quotation from the Baal Shem Tov, a 17th c. Jewish mystic: "Remembrance is the path to redemption but forgetfulness is the way to exile." Following our tour, Jonathan led us in a brief but moving service.