Six Weeks in Israel: Freedom, above all else

Editor’s note: TJP intern Rosie Bernstein, a rising Yavneh junior, is spending six weeks in Israel on Bnei Akiva’s Mach Hach Ba’aretz program. She will be filing a weekly report about her experience.

By Rosie Bernstein
TJP intern

Photo: Rosie Bernstein Members of Bnei Akiva’s Mach Hach Ba’aretz program take a quick break for a photo in a tunnel.

These are the words we sang in unison in a small cave buried deep below the ground in Shphelat Yehuda, Israel:
“Freedom, O freedom, Freedom, over me. And before I’ll be a slave, I’ll be buried in my grave, And go home to my Lord, And be free!”
With flashlights off, we sat on the cool ground far from where the sun warms the desert dirt and joined voices.
And ironically, it was in that confined space, shoulder-to-shoulder with people I couldn’t see and sitting under a roof too low for me to stand up, that I felt truly free. And I believe that it was because of the lessons I learned about true freedom just days before.
My lesson in freedom began with those who knew none.
At first, Yad Vashem was just what I expected it to be. It was cold, dark and very emotional. Videos of bony bodies, model gas chambers and survivor testimonies. It all tugged at my heartstrings and brought me to tears and made me thankful for my life and the thing I call “religious freedom.”
But there was one little stop in the museum that had a very big impact on me. Right at the front, there is a screen that plays real footage of the lives of European Jews before the Holocaust. Up until that point, the tragedy and feeling of loss associated with the Holocaust always came from a place of shock and devastation for the horrible things that Jews went through during the time. As soon as I saw what their lives looked like before the Holocaust, I felt the loss of the 6,000,000 even more.
But what was even harder for me to grasp was the small freedoms that were taken away on a dime. From little girls riding their bikes on the street, to mothers and daughters shopping for holiday dresses, to a group of teenagers walking together to the movies. Free one day, freedom-less the next.
The next lesson in freedom I learned came from Independence Hall. The same people who lost everything during the Holocaust would not simply settle for lives free of genocide and bigotry. They wanted a place to call home. And they would stop at nothing to get it.
I saw a picture of a group of pioneers standing on the beach in Tel Aviv writing in the sand with seashells to decide who would get the first plots in the Land of Israel.
And that wasn’t enough either. The same pioneers fought tirelessly against the British Mandate in secret and out loud until they had control over their home. They wouldn’t take someone else’s definition of freedom. They wanted their own.
And then we went to Har Herzl, the cemetery for Israel’s leaders and martyrs who died for the State of Israel. I walked around and placed rocks on the graves of people who fought for Israel 67 years ago, 5 years ago and last month.
There I was witnessing the evolution of not only the land but also the nation. We started as a people who were constantly persecuted — a people who came scarily close to being wiped off the face of the earth. But that is far from the Jewish people I am part of today.
There will always be those who hate us for no reason or lots of reasons. But I am part of a people who stand up and fight, who don’t take no for an answer. I am part of the people who have remained in Israel for thousands and thousands of years, more than any group of people has ever been in any place, and we aren’t going anywhere — ever.
I reached the climax of my journey to freedom while sitting in a small cave buried deep below the ground in Shphelat Yehuda, Israel.
The caves were dug by fighters thousands of years ago who, just like the warriors of today, were not willing to sacrifice their beliefs.
I took an oath at that moment. As I sang the words, “And before I’ll be a slave, I’ll be buried in my grave,” I promised myself just that.
I will never be OK with someone else telling me that I have enough land, or I can practice enough Judaism, or anything else.
I will learn from my ancestors and my peers who do it now, and I will fight until I say that I am free.

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