My extended family returned recently from a trip to Israel and Egypt to celebrate our younger son’s Bar Mitzvah. We are grateful and blessed that our dream trip was realized. We marked Noah’s becoming a man in the Jewish tradition at the Kotel (the western wall in the Old City of Jerusalem) with 14 members of our family, including all four grandparents, an uncle, cousins, and friends. It was a simcha (very happy occasion) beyond words: magical; spiritual; exceeding our every anticipation and expectation. We traveled throughout Israel for 11 days, and then spent four days in Egypt. Observations? Lessons learned? I have many, but here are just a few:

  • How incredibly fortunate we were, at this rare moment in Jewish history, that we could celebrate this special mitzvah in our ancient homeland at our holiest site, in freedom and security; a mere 62 years after Israel’s re-establishment founding, 43 years after Jerusalem’s liberation, and nearly more than 2,000 years since the destruction of the Second Temple;
  • We were in awe that during the Bar Mitzvah Shacharit (morning) services at the southern section of the Kotel (in the Masorti (Conservative Movement)-sanctioned section of the southern Wall by the Robinson Arch) that there was no doubt the direction we bowed and our reader’s table faced — the Wall was right there; we were touching it. Yet, perched directly above us was the Al Asqa Mosque, sitting atop the Temple Mount there is also the reminder that we are in the shadows of our enemies and detractors;
  • The excitement for the Bar Mitzvah ceremony was palpable. There were four other families close by celebrating their simchas just like us: loud, incessant drumbeating accompanying Bar Mitzvah boys to their celebrations created an atmosphere of even more awe for the occasion;
  • Kabbalat Shabbat (Friday evening services) at the Kotel: a magnet drawing all – haredim (ultra-orthodox), soldiers, and secular– but all there to bring in the Sabbath spirit. Words do not do justice here;
  • Israel is vibrant, green, gleaming, thriving, a marvel and miracle of history, a true oasis, given the volatile and hostile neighborhood in which it lives;
  • Religious diversity is celebrated and protected for all faiths in dignity throughout the country, and is especially evident in Jerusalem;
  • It is amazing how much Israel has accomplished, with so little resources, in such a short time and under constant existential threat; from Shoah (Holocaust) to tkumah (rebirth); and amazing how just how small Israel is in size yet feels so big in spirit;
  • Food is plentiful, bountiful, clean and healthy; yet smoking is prevalent;
  • Appreciation of even the otherwise mundane: trucks, signs, roads, stores, products, media, TV: all bear Hebrew names and titles-Israel totally has built its own culture, which we should not take for granted;
  • Patriotism runs high, with flags prominently displayed;
  • Faces of the people, old, young, ultra-Orthodox and secular-brave; proud; living their lives;
  • We were part of record crowds of tourists; inspiring to see tours of Birthright, college kids, teens, missions, Asians, Christian groups from around the world;
  • Co-existence: Our visit to Hadassah Hospital where all are treated equally regardless of ethnicity, religion or faith, the triumph of biology over ideology; our Egyptian tour guide knew to go to Israel to get the best medical care for his operation;
  • Israelis are generally far more tolerant of their Arab or Muslim citizens than is portrayed by Western media, and opportunities abound for those Arabs who want to participate in the economy;
  • Democracy is thriving, business is booming; construction projects in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem are visible everywhere;
  • The markets and streets — Ben Yehuda Street, Machane Yehuda Market in Jerusalem, Camel Market in Tel Aviv — are packed with shoppers;
  • The countryside is beautiful: Rosh Hanikra, the Jezreel Vally, Safed, the Hula Valley, Gallilee, the Golan. It is evident that the there is not the same enthusiasm, know-how, or attitude toward growth, agriculture, sustainability in Lebanon, Syria and Jordan — visible just beyond Israel’s borders;
  • Israel must keep the Golan and a demilitarized Jordan River Valley for strategic and security purposes– go there and you see why it is imperative;
  • Without Israel, the raison d’etre natural safe haven for the Jewish people, our vibrancy power in the Diaspora is diminished considerably; ie the Holocaust;
  • Go on an archeological dig: feel, explore, sift through and touch direct proof of Israel’s past;
  • We planted trees in JNF forrest; Israel is the only country in the world that has more trees in it since its founding, or over the last 100 years; get your hands dirty, plant and bring life to the land;
  • Contrast to Egypt is staggering and instructive. It is clear why you “go down” to Egypt: You are in an autocratic police state and third-world country. Cairo has 25 million residents (itself over three times more people than all of Israel) and is bustling; polluted; dense; poor; scattered animals, donkeys, horses, goats, chickens roam in the streets. Security is everywhere, yet it is tolerant to tourists, who are treated well- far better than the local population. Museums are in poor shape to house their priceless treasures; the Pyramids our Jewish ancestors built, tombs of the Pharoahs in Luxor, and the Nile where Moses was drawn from are still there to see. Food is not as nourishing or attractive as in Israel — especially fruits and vegetables – and lack of hygiene is a big issue (We had to brush our teeth with bottled water even in five-star hotels and tried to avoid any foods washed in water). The vast majority of Egyptians are concerned not with bashing Israel and Jews but making a living and simply getting by;
  • The Ben Ezra Synagogue in Old Cairo, one of oldest in world, is protected by the state, but it needs work and TLC attention;
  • We were happy that our exodus was easy without needing Pharoah’s permission;

We Jews need to be strong and proud and mindful – reminded that our strength depends on the security of Israel, the miracle in the Middle East. We should be awefully proud of the morally-centric nation that Israel is– the nation of the Jews which we have helped build. Stand up for Israel; do not yield to the “political correctness,” and moral relativists. The invitation to all its neighbors to join it in peace and prosperity has been there since its founding; however, its neighbor’s goals are anathema, hostile, backwards. Go visit Israel. Be there with our people and celebrate and be proud. Am Yisrael Chai!

Lee S. Bender is an attorney and Vice President of the Zionist Organization of America in the Greater Philadelphia District and co-chair of the Media Committee