As I walked into the Beit Midrash for Mincha, I felt as if it was just a normal day. I was heading to my seat when I felt my phone vibrate. When I pulled it out and checked who was calling, I was taken aback by the fact that it was my brother Avi. I thought it was odd that he was calling in the middle of the week. At the time, he was finishing special forces training for his IDF unit, Orev Givati. It was uncommon for him or any soldier at that stage to make phone calls during the week. Though his calling stopped me in my tracks, I quickly picked up, expecting the same old lighthearted conversation. Looking back, that expectation was beyond naive.
Israel was in the midst of Operation Pillar of Defense, and tensions were at their peak. Troops were lined up at the border of Gaza, fully equipped and prepared to enter into an all-out land war with the Hamas-controlled Palestinians. Though I was attentively following the unfolding events at the time, I still somehow failed to register that Avi’s calling me was more than just odd. It was alarming.
I picked up his call expecting to have a quick conversation consisting of pleasantries and brotherly banter. I expected to hang up happy. But the conversation we had left me stupefied, almost speechless. Avi told me that he, too, was on the border preparing to enter Gaza. He went on to explain that the army was collecting soldiers’ phones to protect itself from militant hackers. He concluded the conversation by telling me that it was quite possibly the last one we would have for a long time. Overcome with emotions, I struggled to fight off tears as we said our goodbyes.
I’m not one who often connects to prayer. But that day was different. After our phone call, I felt more helpless than I ever had before in my life. My brother was preparing to risk his life for his country - our country. And there I was in a Beit Midrash in Memphis, Tennessee. I couldn’t give my body to my country. I felt I had nothing to offer. So I turned to God. As I called out to God for guidance, I felt tears streaming down my face. They made their way down my cheek and dripped onto the Siddur in my hands. The moment they splashed onto the words of Shema Koleinu, I had an epiphany. I came to the realization that I wasn’t entirely helpless.
That day motivated me to take a step back and evaluate my love for Israel. I began to think that my calling it “home” wasn’t entirely just. After all, my fellow Jews, my brother included, were risking their lives to protect our homeland. But what was I doing? Nothing.
I felt it was my duty to take it upon myself to fight the intellectual aspect of Israel’s war. I came to the decision to pursue an opportunity that would allow me not to defend my country physically, but intellectually; to defend it from anti-Israel sentiment here, in America.
Over the course of Junior year, I formed a close relationship with an employee for one of the largest, most well known Israel advocacy organizations in America: StandWithUs. When she first suggested that I pursue an internship with the acclaimed organization, I figured it would be a nice, polishing touch to my college resume. However, after feeling that helpless, I decided to pursue the internship for what I view as all of the right reasons. After that phone call, my pursuit was motivated by something far deeper than accolades. I pursued, and eventually attained, the internship because I wanted - no, because I needed to do whatever I could to defend the country I so passionately proclaim as “home.”
As part of my internship requirements, I am expected to fly to California twice a year for a conference with my fellow interns. At the first conference of the year, I was blown away by how professional and effective the StandWithUs employees were. They conducted various presentations, highlighting positive aspects of Israel, arming us with information to use when trying to win over the hearts of those who are entirely uneducated regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. What I found to be most beneficial was a presentation entitled “Israel 101.” The presentation gave a very clear and concise overview of the history of the Middle East conflict. Following that presentation, I felt many personal misconceptions regarding the conflict had been resolved. Additionally, the StandWithUs team presented an array of common anti-Israel arguments, and gave us the ammunition to formulate and deliver our own counterarguments. Not only did the StandWithUs team educate us about Israel, but they imparted the tools and techniques necessary to combat anti-Israel sentiment.
While talking to the CEO of this phenomenal non-profit organization, Roz Rothstein, I was in awe at the fact that what had become such a large and influential organization was born a mere twelve years ago in the living room of a Los Angeles home. Fed up with American Jewry’s passiveness during the Second Intifada, Rothstein and her husband took it upon themselves to create an organization that would educate Americans about Israel, hoping that it would inspire even a few American Jews to act in Israel’s defense. One couple’s living room vision has grown into one of the most prominent Israel advocacy organizations in the world, with offices in London, America, and Israel. As StandWithUs grew, Rothstein’s influence reached a charitable organization called the MZ Foundation. With the MZ Foundation’s generosity and passion for Israel, it partnered with StandWithUs to create a program that recruited and trained high school students, preparing them for the often hostile anti-Israel sentiments they were to meet on college campuses. I was lucky enough to reap the benefits of Rothstein’s vision and the MZ Foundation’s passion-driven generosity.
After that phone call with Avi, I knew it was my responsibility to do whatever I could for my country. I also knew that I needed an outlet. With the help of StandWithUs, I now have the opportunity to change the way Memphians, both Jews and gentiles alike, feel about our eternal homeland. With a fiery passion for the truth, backed by an organization’s devotion to Israel advocacy, I feel as though the sky's the limit in terms of what is possible for this coming year. We owe it to the millions of soldiers that risk their lives for God’s land - our land - every day. We owe it to Avi Goldstein, Avi Thomas, Aharon Cooper, and all of the other Memphians who have so valiantly left the comfort and convenience of their homes to pursue a life of far more difficulty, yet far superior meaning. So please, come and StandWithUs.