When Israel is Your Vocation by Callyn Weintraub

This blog post, offered by third-generation Fairmount Temple member Callyn Weintraub, is excerpted from her remarks shared at Shabbat worship on Friday, November 23, 2012, as a result of her recent post-graduate internship at AIPAC, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. Given the importance of Israel in the life of Anshe Chesed Fairmount Temple and our members, and the vital mission of AIPAC, to strengthen the partnership between the State of Israel and the United States, and advocate politically on behalf of Israel and its security, we encourage you to respond to Callyn’s comments below, and/or share this blog post with others to raise awareness.

As a third generation member of Fairmount Temple, I am thrilled to be back in Cleveland with all of you and to share some thoughts on my Jewish journey, which began right here in this beloved building 27 years ago.  My family has always been an integral part of this synagogue’s life; and my grandparents, in particular, inspired me to care about Jewish education, and to care about Israel.  When the educational wing was rebuilt 15 years ago, I remember being by my grandfather’s side at the groundbreaking ceremony, as we planted the shovel into the soil and began to dig out a new life for the institution that I would attend until I graduated in 2004.   These are my roots and this is where my journey began.

The survival of the state of Israel and the need to help it flourish became part of my focus at an early age, but really became solidified with my experiences travelling to Israel – first to visit my sister as a student studying there, then with my extended family as part of a Fairmount Temple Family Mission in 1995. I didn’t go again until I attended Birthright in 2006, which is a program that sponsors free trips to Israel for Jews between the ages of 22 and 26. I was amazed to see the strides and development that Israel had accomplished in this time. It truly is, as Dan Senor aptly wrote, a start-up nation. After attending birthright I made the decision to spend a semester of my junior year of college at Tel Aviv University in 2007, where I immersed myself both as a student and as a part of the Israeli community. It sounds ironic for me to say I was “studying abroad” there, because to me, Israel is another home, a home that made me feel complete as a Jewish American.  Seeing both the joys and hardships that Israelis face on a daily basis, I felt compelled when I returned to the US to do something more, something tangible, to continue to both give back and be part of this incredible, thriving Jewish state.

In my search for a way to do this, I came across AIPAC, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, which I knew little about.  I applied for an internship with AIPAC in Israel, and to my surprise, was turned down. I would later learn that this was very common, as AIPAC has over 200 applicants annually for these prestigious internships, and only 40 are awarded. Nevertheless, my interest in the organization remained, and as I planned my future beyond the University of Michigan (go blue), I decided to move to Colorado.  To my good fortune, an administrative position was available in AIPAC’s Denver office, so I applied, and was offered the job.

For those of you who are not familiar with the organization, AIPAC is a bi-partisan, pro-Israel political lobby based out of Washington, D.C., with offices located in regions throughout the country.  Interestingly enough, the Executive Director, Howard Kohr, was raised here in Cleveland, and the current President of AIPAC, Michael Kassen, is also a native Clevelander, which helped me feel even more connected to the organization and its leadership from the start.  AIPAC was founded as a small pro Israel public affairs group in the 1950’s, and today has grown into a 100, 000 member grassroots movement that is considered one of the most influential lobbies in the United States, in terms of legislative effectiveness. We are the only organization in this country whose sole mission is to maintain the safety and security of Israel, by strengthening the relationship between Israel and the United States.

AIPAC works to accomplish our mission in a variety of ways, the most important being political advocacy, by building relationships with members of Congress, and candidates for Congress, nationwide. Each year, we are involved in more that 100 legislative and policy initiatives involving either Middle East policy, or aimed at broadening and deepening the U.S.-Israel bond. Our legislative mission is carried out by focusing on three baskets of issues: security assistance to Israel, in the form of foreign aid, supporting America’s efforts to help Israel maintain peace with its neighbors, and, the issue that keeps us up at night the most, Iran.

I feel very lucky to work for an organization that advocates on behalf of a cause that I care so much about, and more importantly, I can see the tangible impact that AIPAC has on Israel every day. For example, as you all know over the past two weeks, Israel has faced intense rocket barrages both in the south, and now most disturbingly, near Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, places we never thought or imagined would be impacted by the conflict in Gaza. More than 4.5 million Israelis live within Hamas’ rocket range and have been forced to spend this time hunkered down inside and their nights in bomb shelters.

Fortunately, the Iron Dome missile defense system that Israel used during this conflict shot down over 90% of those rockets that were capable of hitting populated areas in Israel – and we will never know how many lives were saved by the most advanced anti-missile system existing in the world today. This system was created and initially funded by Israel and their government, but in the past two years, the United States Congress, per the request of President Obama, has played a large part in its development, funding $205 million of it last year and recently approving $680 million to go towards it for the next three years.

This is a tangible example of how American support has helped to save Israeli lives, and it was AIPAC, both our staff and our membership across the country, that was instrumental in working with members of Congress to secure that funding. To be part of that, it makes me feel that in some small way, my work has made a difference in the safety and security of the people of Israel. My contribution mattered. And today, in a world where Israel’s right to exist is threatened on a daily basis, where it continues to faces enemies on all sides, and where the media often distorts Israel’s true mission, our support, as Jews and as Americans, has never been more important.

There were times in Jewish history when our people were helpless.  But this is not one of those times.  This time, we have a voice – and history is calling to us once again. A test is before us.  And the world is once again largely indifferent.  It is up to us – pro-Israel Americans Jews – to stand up for what’s right, and ensure that wherever we stand, politically, ideologically, socially – that we stand with Israel at this critical time. Because Israel isn’t just a light – it bursts with light, and it shares light. Flaws and all, Israel lights up the other nations as much as its own. And it is our duty to make sure this light beams for generations to come.

My Jewish journey began here in the classrooms and the sacred spaces of Fairmount Temple. My awareness of my Judaism was fostered by people like Cantor Sager, my grandparents, and my parents.  When I traveled and studied in Israel, I knew that fulfillment in my life would be enhanced by combining a meaningful job with Jewish service.  For me, AIPAC was that job.  Just as I dug that hole with my grandfather at this sacred space fifteen years ago, I have now built my own life, a life where Jewish identity and passion for Israel, form a foundation of the person that I am today, and how I try to live my life. For those of you here tonight who might also be seeking something more, know that when your Jewish identity speaks to you, please know there are many opportunities to make a difference.

And for those of you of my generation, here for Shabbat services on the Friday night of Thanksgiving weekend, you have already demonstrated your dedication to Jewish life and our community. All you need is to take small steps towards that end, an end that will reward you as it has rewarded me.  And for that I am forever grateful. Thank you for allowing me to share my journey with you.