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Central New Jersey Celebrates Yom Ha’Atzmaut

Central New Jersey Israel supporters march to the pavilion.

Over 300 people braved the inclement rainy weather in Highland Park to show support for Israel on Yom Ha’Atzmaut, May 14. The event began with a walk on Raritan Avenue/Route 27 to the Welkovits Pavilion, where a variety of guest speakers presented their thoughts at the community event sponsored by Central New Jersey Stands With Israel and Peace of Mind.

Attendees representing all ages and religious denominations, who carried Israeli and American flags and held posters of hostages and those still missing, sang songs in support of Israel as they marched to the meeting area.

Programming began with a welcome by Highland Park mainstay Jeremy Renna, followed by a group recitation of Tehillim. Particularly acknowledged were Michael Gordon and Josh Fine of Central New Jersey Stands With Israel, and elected officials: Asaf Shmuel of Edison Township’s Council, and Matthew Hale, Matthew Hersh, and Stephany Kim Chohan, councilpersons from Highland Park.

Rabbi Keven Tzvi Friedman shows his support.

Israeli lone soldier and former Edison resident Avrumi Davis movingly spoke about his role in the Gaza conflict. Upon hearing the sirens on October 7, he was at his yeshiva celebrating the holiday and initially thought they might have been to announce that something good had happened. When the sirens didn’t stop, the rabbis split up the prayer services to small groups that could be accommodated in shelters. The situation escalated when the rabbis announced that students who were in the army had to turn their phones on. “We were told a bit of what was happening, and it was not good.”

The student-soldiers were called to duty with their unit “composed of men ages 22-40 from all types of Jewish observance all coming together to fight for their home.” One assignment was to look for weapons in Jenin, where Davis found weapons in every house they looked at, including “IED [improvised explosive device] laboratories in the parents’ bedrooms.” Davis also shared that his commander was shot while working with local firefighters putting out a fire in a home where unstable IEDs caught fire.

Max and Honey Wisotsky sharing their love of Israel.

Recent Rutgers graduate and former president of Rutgers Hillel, Highland Park native Ari Kolb, spoke next about the status of Jewish students at the university. The normal practice of celebrating Simchat Torah and dancing outdoors was canceled this year for safety reasons. Students were kept indoors and planned an outdoor vigil for the following evening. “People were yelling ‘Free Palestine’ while students were speaking at the vigil on October 8, and that week already saw pro-Palestinian events scheduled on campus,” Kolb said.

Kolb noted that students putting up posters that were considered pro-Israel were harassed, but appreciated the encouragement and support of the local communities. All pro-Israel organizations on campus organized and worked together to stand against hate. His closing statement, “We are standing proud as Jews at Rutgers and won’t let anyone discourage us” was met with cheers and applause.

Avrumi Davis, Avi Maza and Mark Levenson singing “Hatikvah.”

Natalie Aloyets Artel spoke about the continuing need for the organization Peace of Mind and the community’s effort to bring their sixth round of soldiers for a one-week program to allow chayalim who fought and trained together to come to grips the difficult events they experienced. Working with therapists, they begin the process in Israel and then begin a week-long session in a Diaspora location.

In the introduction of Mark Levenson as the keynote speaker, his many titles and roles in American Zionist organizations were listed—vice president of the American Zionist Movement, member of the executive board of the Jewish Agency, and member of the presidium of the Zionist General Council among them. Levenson began with statistics saying that in 1948, the new state of Israel had 600,000 citizens, of which 1% died in the War of Independence. The present state of Israel has 10 million citizens of which 7.3 million are Jewish, and has the fourth-largest army in the world. “A survivor of World War II’s concentration camps would be amazed that there is a strong Jewish state defending Jews with their own army,” Levenson said. “They would find it incredible and would never believe it.”

The loss of life on October 7 was tremendous, Levenson said, and Israel has rebounded from this loss as it has from others in the past. There were many miracles that day, and the losses could have been even greater. The terrorists were distracted by the Nova music festival and had not expected to see so many people there. Maps and information indicated that the terrorists had planned to infiltrate far into the country, even to the cities in Yehuda and the Shomron, and get Hezbollah involved in the carnage. As the terrorists were sidetracked and slowed down by the people at the festival, the army had time to mobilize into the area.

The overflow crowd.

Levenson noted his ties to the Central New Jersey area. His father-in-law was a surgeon who volunteered to work in Israel’s hospitals during the Yom Kippur War. The current outpouring of volunteering in Israel and the donations of goods, services and money isn’t surprising, he said, as it is part of our history and it is “what Jews do.” As a nation, we suffer when tragedy happens, but we focus on the positive that grows out of it.

Levenson has 16 relatives involved in the fighting, and described his nephew, Ari, who volunteered to clear the kibbutzim and saved a soldier who had been shot in the neck by pulling him out of the range of fire. Ari did not have to fight and would have been exempt, but he felt the need to protect his country. An all-female tank brigade came to their rescue by mowing down a fenced gate—along with a terrorist who was in the tank’s path.

Ari risked his life going house-to-house in the kibbutz looking for survivors as the terrorists would place booby traps on the victims to injure anyone trying to save them. He felt it important to be an eyewitness to what happened and tell people what he saw. The current “terrorism tourism” is important to bear witness to the atrocities, Levenson said, and concluded with a brief sampling of miracles, heroism and rescues that were noted on October 7.

The program concluded with Avi Maza leading the assembled to sing “Acheinu” and “Hatikvah.”

Max and Honey Wisotsky of Highland Park were glad to come to the event and show support for Israel, but thought these events should be held more often and occur on the Rutgers campus as well. “There has to be more visible support for Israel, especially in such a heavily Jewish area.”

Rabbi Esther Reed, chief experience officer at Rutgers Hillel, said, “I’m glad I came to this as a community event and it was especially important to hear from a recent college grad.”

Deborah Melman is a staff writer at The Jewish Link.

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