‘Am Yisrael Chai’ is a fight song for our people

St. Louisans on a men’s Israel trip sponsored by the Jewish Women’s Renaissance Program are pictured in Jerusalem with Lori Palatnik, the organization’s founder. The trip was led by Rabbi Yosef David of Aish HaTorah (at left). Commentary author Rich Wolkowitz is to the right of Palatnik; commentary author Mike Minoff is third from the left. Photo courtesy Mike Minoff 

By Mike Minoff

In 2010, my wife went to Israel with Jewish Women’s Renaissance Project (JWRP) and Aish Hatorah. When she returned, she had a spark in her neshama (soul), but she couldn’t explain to me,  who had never been to Israel, what was so magical about the trip. All she could say was, “You have to go to understand.” 

So when Rabbi Yosef David told me he was leading a JWRP/Aish HaTorah trip to Israel, I said “I’m in – I want to experience what my wife felt.”

Immediately after landing in Israel, we were off and running. We met so many amazing people and saw so many sites and did so many activities that are “typical Israel.” It was mind-blowing and all at 100 miles per hour. Finally, it all slowed down for me when we were standing at the back door of Aish Hatorah, facing the Kotel. All 125-plus guys on the trip, plus staff, lined up and in complete silence we walked through the plaza to the Kotel.  As we were walking, I realized that I was in Israel for the generations of my family who never imagined that one day there would be a Jewish State, as promised by Hashem. 

I thought about my grandfather, who lost his parents and sisters in Wysokie, Belarus. What would his sisters have thought, what would they have given to come to Israel rather than stay in Wysokie?  I was thinking about my family – how do my wife and I ensure our children have the same love and emotions that I am feeling right now toward Judaism and Israel?  I was standing at the only remnants of the Second Temple, a spot to which Jews have been coming for more than 2,500 years. This reinforced one key message: This is our land, and this has always been our land.  

On Friday evening, just before Shabbat, after an amazing concert by Yom Tov Glaser and lots of dancing, we returned to the Kotel for what initially looked like a business hour but quickly turned into spring break. We began our service, and quickly it turned into singing and dancing. Soldiers came to join in our dancing, Birthright kids joined us, Hasidic men joined us and even a few random tourists from Italy joined us. After our service ended, a few of us went to the soldiers who were praying to thank them, and we were invited to join them in singing and dancing as well.  

I had to stop for one moment to let that sink in; I was at the Kotel, on Shabbat, singing “Am Yisrael Chai” with Israel Defense Forces soldiers.  I always thought of “Am Yisrael Chai” as Israel’s fight song, and I always thought of IDF as Israel’s soldiers, but what I realized in this moment was that it was really the fight song of Jews around the world. Jews around the world should be fighting for and defending Israel every day.

That thought was my biggest takeaway from this trip.  Israel is a small but mighty nation; however,  media reports and public opinion are so often slanted. We must be the fact-checkers and truth police. It is our mission to help in every way we can. When you are standing in Israel and can look into the home of a Hezbollah leader or see rocket launch sites in Gaza, you quickly realize how shaky peace is, how unlikely a two-state solution is, and how alone Israel is in the region.

My family has always been active in the Jewish community and within our synagogue, as well as other Jewish organizations. But after my JWRP Men’s Israel trip, I am more motivated and empowered to ensure that Judaism and Israel are important for our children. I have noticed that while our community celebrates with Israel and mourns with Israel, we also second-guess and criticize Israel.  Aren’t there enough anti-Semites doing this on a daily basis? Why do we need to give them more ammunition?  Instead, let’s highlight what they do that is great and, one day, when the media and the rest of the world treat Israel fairly and equally, then we can point out the shortcomings and try to address them.  

On the plane on the way home, I put a lot of thought into how I could possibly explain the impact of this trip to my children. To my great surprise and great joy, they have been asking numerous questions and are very excited to talk about Israel and what I saw and did.  This is a great start for the next generation of Jews and defenders of our homeland.  Am Yisrael Chai!

Mike Minoff is a medical economist for a health insurance provider. He lives in Olivette with his wife, Alana, and their three children. The family belong to Central Reform Congregation.