Tracing its beginnings to a campaign by Austrian journalist Theodor Herzl to establish a Jewish homeland in Palestine, the modern state of Israel is on the eve of celebrating its 60th year in existence, which falls on May 8 this year. Jewish communities across America have always been known for their support of Israel, and Santa Barbara’s Jewish community is no exception, as hundreds of people came to Congregation B’nai B’rith yesterday to celebrate the anniversary, known as Yom Ha’atzmaut. Featuring speeches by Congresswoman Lois Capps and County Supervisors Janet Wolf and Salud Carbajal, celebrants were also able to enjoy live Israeli music and dancing, a choral performance, traditional food, artwork displays, and activities for children.
At a time when reports of violence in Israel are fairly regular, the celebration of its independence showed that people are as ready as ever to support the world’s only Jewish state. “You are here because you treasure this anniversary,” said Congresswoman Capps. “The joy of the festivities is testimony to people’s enduring support. Despite its location in a tumultuous area of the world, democracy has thrived.” Wolf, herself a member of Congregation B’nai B’rith, visited Israel a few years ago, as did Carbajal. “Life in Israel is very similar to life in Santa Barbara in many ways,” said Wolf, noting that during her visit, an Israeli woman spoke to her about the second intifada, saying, “We survived Egypt, and we will survive this, too.”
Being situated near several politically unstable Arab countries that are openly hostile toward their Jewish neighbors, the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) is a major part of the modern state of Israel. Rabbi Arthur Gross-Schaefer, of the Community Shul of Montecito and Santa Barbara, has two sons-Avi and Yoav-serving in the IDF. “We need a strong IDF, but we also need hope,” he said. “I am hopeful that people will find a way to peace. That way is based on mutual respect and the realization that nobody’s going away. It’s called compassionate listening.” Rabbi Gross-Schaefer also spoke words of praise for Santa Barbara’s Jewish community. “Where else do you have Congregation B’nai B’rith, the Community Shul of Montecito and Santa Barbara, Chabad, and the Jewish Federation all coming together? This is a very special community.” Other groups which participated in organizing the celebration were B’nai B’rith Lodge, Santa Barbara Hillel, the Anti Defamation League, Young Israel of Santa Barbara, and the Israel Committee of Santa Barbara.
Since many different religious groups were represented at the celebration, rabbis from Chabad, an Orthodox shul, performed a special cleaning of the kitchen in order to make it kosher for those who choose to keep kosher. A fairly involved process involving a blow torch, an iron and lots of boiling water, it took about two hours to complete the process. Ahrele Loschak, the son of one of Chabad’s rabbis, participated in the cleaning and was part of an educational exhibit. He views the state of Israel in biblical terms, stating his belief that Jewish settlers have the right to be in areas of the West Bank as outlined in the Torah. “I don’t see any reason why we can’t coexist peacefully,” he said, “but as long as one side doesn’t understand the other, [the violence] will never end.”
“I feel that if it weren’t for Israel, many Jews would experience the world in a much more tenuous way,” said Peter Melnick, co-chair of the Israel Committee of Santa Barbara, which had an information booth set up at the event. “Anti-Semitism has been such an enduring phenomenon, and because of it, Israel became necessary.” Melnick called the outlook of Israeli-Palestinian hostility “grim,” but expressed optimism that people on both sides are deeply dedicated to resolving the conflict. “It’s hard to see the way forward, but there has to be a way forward. As American Jews, we have a huge role to play in helping the situation move forward in Israel. There’s really only one simple statement that you can make, and that is when you have two peoples laying claim to the same land, you have to compromise.”
While many of the event’s patrons had visited Israel at some point in their lives, there were also quite a few people there who had immigrated to Santa Barbara from Israel. Betty Some came here three and a half years ago when her husband got a job at Wyatt Technologies. “In Israel I don’t go to temple,” she said. “Being there, I feel Jewish. Here, you have to go to temple because it’s a Jewish center.” Some also felt that serving in the IDF is good, as it promotes the cultural aspect of being Jewish. Having come here in 1985 to study at Brooks, but getting married and having children here, Eyal Nahmius – whose photographs were on display in a gallery at the celebration – had mixed feelings about having left Israel. “I’m torn,” he said. “I want to be there – my parents and cousins and family are there – but my home is here. Home is where my immediate family is.” He felt that although Santa Barbara is an ideal location to raise his children, they’re missing out on immersion in Israeli culture.
UCSB’s American Students for Israel (ASI), which had a table set up at the event, will have its own Israeli Independence day celebration at Storke Plaza on the UCSB campus this Thursday from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. “It’s a time of a lot of new challenges for Israel,” said ASI president Alan Levine. “The rise of Iran and Hezbollah are challenging. There are a lot of question marks, but we hope that the terrorists will be taken over by moderate forces and that people can ultimately live in peace.”
B’nai B’rith’s rabbi, Steve Cohen, encouraged all to visit Israel. “I urge all of you to go back for two reasons,” he said. “One reason is that it’s the only way to really see what Israel is. Also, you will find out not only about Israel, but about yourself. I know I did.” As America’s staunchest ally in the Middle East, Israel will continue to be a major point of interest for most Americans. Furthermore, Israel boasts a number of superlatives-including having a per capita GDP ranked 21st in the world, the world’s third highest number of university graduates, as well as leading the world in communication, water and solar power technology-proving its role as a force to be reckoned with on the global scene. On a deeper level though, Israel’s role as a holy land for the dominant religions in America means that there is something about the place that strikes an intangible chord with most people. Whether or not a person is religious, the region has had a profound impact upon Western culture, and that alone will keep all eyes focused on the small nation for years to come.