Beth Tfiloh Congregation Rabbi Chai Posner started the April 18 Yom Ha’atzmaut Community Celebration quietly with a traditional tefillah in the congregation’s Epstein Chapel, moving that evening from the solemnity of Yom Hazikaron to the joyous commemoration of Israel’s founding. Following quiet prayer, the smiles and singing and clapping began, led by the upbeat sounds of eclectic Israeli musical group Soulfarm.
Rambling around the roomy Beth Tfiloh complex that Wednesday evening, hundreds of people, from infants to oldsters, participated in a myriad of happenings including prayer, singing, dancing, playing, flag-waving, commemorating, eating and, finally, to end the festivities, fireworks.
Outside the children’s activity room, Stephen Gluck and his two boys Ari, 5, and Andrew, 2, were doing a little flag-waving and figuring out what to do next. So many choices. Stephen brought his sons “to have fun and celebrate Israel,” he said, “and to see the fireworks.”
When asked why he came, son Ari replied, “It’s Israel’s birthday!”
It was that kind of spirit that warmed the heart of Beth Tfiloh’s spiritual leader Rabbi Mitchel Wohlberg.
“I am just thrilled that it’s not just a Beth Tfiloh celebration. It’s a Baltimore celebration,” he said. “It’s not easy bringing Jews together. It’s so nice that we’re able to have this in honor of Israel’s 70th anniversary, because we wouldn’t have had an Israel if we didn’t stand together.”
“Everyone has their own opinions, J Street and AIPAC and pro and hawk and Likud, but one night, we’re just here in celebration of the greatest event in the past 2,000 years of the Jewish people,” the rabbi added. “In biblical times, there were three books of the prophets describing the joy when we were 40,000 Jews returning to Israel after the destruction of the First Temple. How many books would be written about seven million Jews now living in Israel? It’s a great night. Enjoy!”
Inside the children’s activity room, dozens of youngsters giggled and romped through an obstacle course, dug in sand boxes for “Israeli artifacts,” decorated dog tags, colored pictures of menorahs and Magen Davids, or left a message in the kid’s Kotel.
Esther Braun, a Pikesville physician’s assistant and her husband, Ari, a gym teacher and varsity basketball and baseball coach at BT, brought their three preschoolers to the event. The family belongs to Congregation Ohel Moshe on Smith Avenue.
“It’s important to teach our kids to celebrate Israel today, to honor the soldiers who have fallen and tonight to celebrate the land and teach them that it’s part of our heritage,” she said. “Both my husband and I have siblings there. We support the land and want our children to appreciate it and love it and know that’s it’s ours.”
Before the Yom Ha’atzmaut celebration officially kicked off in the almost-full, 1,500-seat Dahan Sanctuary, Beth Israel’s Cantor Jennifer Rolnick shared her thoughts.
“Seventy is a big year,” she said with a broad smile. “I lived in Israel for about a year and a half while I was in seminary and I sang with the Israel Philharmonic chorus and with Hebrew U. with their chamber choir. So I feel very connected”
Rabbi Wohlberg began the formal celebration thanking those who organized the event, recalling the 40,000 returning to the First Temple, who are now seven million.
“We are a privileged generation that has seen the great hand of God, with men and women walking and children playing in the streets of Jerusalem after 2,000 years,” he said. “So tonight, Jews the world over celebrate the return, but it’s not just Jews. We’re grateful to the many Christians of this world whose support has helped us fulfill the Zionist dream.”
He thanked the U.S. political leaders, Republicans and Democrats, who support the State of Israel.
“And we’re grateful to be living in this great State of Maryland,” he added. “A state that has been in the forefront of economic and political support for Israel; a state where there is a Maryland/ Israel Development corporation; a state where the governor signed an executive order denying contracts to any company participating in a boycott of Israel; and a state where we have friends in the highest offices.”
The crowd responded with cheers and applause, after which he introduced Lt. Gov. Boyd Rutherford, who thanked attendees for “the incredible work that you do for the State of Maryland,” adding that Gov. Larry Hogan and his administration have been working hard to build and expand Maryland’s relationship with Israel.
He was followed by video greetings from Knesset members sending their love and prayers and praising the strong American-Jewish community.
Mitch Gold, president of Friends of the IDF Baltimore, explained the group’s humanitarian mission supporting IDF soldiers and their families.
“Their job is to take care of Israel, and our job is to take care of them,” he said, adding later, “If there was no IDF, there would be no Israel. In its short history, the IDF has become the finest, most storied institution in the world. As I like to say, the IDF is small, but mighty. The proving ground for Israel’s youth.”
He said that 23,646 men and women have died defending Israel, with 100,000 physically or mentally disabled from injuries. Seven former IDF members were present to be honored.
The commemoration ended with a prayer for the State of Israel lead by Rabbi Paul Schneider of Chizuk Amuno and those present joined in the singing of Israel’s national anthem “Hatikvah.”
After the ceremony, Zahava Klein, the Baltimore Jewish Council’s director of Israel and Jewish advocacy, reflected on the evening’s significance. She has family serving in the IDF and lived in Israel for two years.
“I studied there post-high school, and seeing everybody come out to celebrate reminds me of how lucky I was to have that opportunity and how lucky I am to still go back and visit,” she said.
Chana Rogers, looking for her son among the milling crowds, said she and her husband were married in Israel 43 years ago. He is now retired, but has worked with The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore, FIDF and the former Zionist Organization of America- Baltimore District.
“I love Israel,” she said. “It’s a miracle that Israel has survived. I think it’s because it’s where we’re supposed to be as a people. In spite of all our adversities, Israel is meant to be and I think it will survive through it all.”
In other parts of the complex, women and men enjoyed Israeli dancing to traditional music. In a nearby room, about a dozen people sat quietly watching the documentary, “A Bravery Fiercer than Death: The 35 Heroes of Gush Etzion.”
Inside the huge auditorium, the boisterous throng checked out vendors, while children tumbled in the bounce house, played air hockey and mini- basketball. There was pita bread and falafel and tomato salad and near the stage people crowded around a towering cake, the top draped in the blue-and-white Israeli flag.
The mood was warm and joyful and still, there were fireworks to come.
Yom huledet sameach, Israel!