I always thought standing ovations were reserved for rare and infrequent occasions. That view drastically changed last week when I found myself in Washington, D.C., leading a group of 35 members from my synagogue, Young Israel of Century City, at the 2003 American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) Policy Conference.
Over and over again, we rose to our feet, applauding speaker after speaker who expressed support for American and Israeli security. At one point, after rising 10 times in five minutes, the person sitting near me quipped, "I feel like I am in synagogue on Yom Kippur, rising and sitting, rising and sitting."
As I sat at one session next to John Fishel, president of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, we both noted that there was one standing ovation that was different from all the others. It wasn't only set apart by its length, rather it was the reaction of the recipient that impressed us most.
We had just viewed a powerful video titled, "A Soldier's Story," portraying the difficult dilemmas that Israeli soldiers confront in protecting Israel from terrorist attacks. Following the video, one of the soldiers, an 18-year-old, was introduced to the audience. The soldier stood to acknowledge the greeting from the dais, and then spontaneously, the entire audience rose to its feet to thank him.
As the large video screens in the room zoomed in on the soldier's image, we noticed that he wiped away a tear from his eye. There in front of thousands, this young soldier, whose job it is to be strong like iron in defending Israel from terrorist attacks, demonstrated in one simple act why so many Jews from across this country flew to Washington and spent three days in our capital. We were there because we are intellectually and emotionally concerned about the safety of Israel and about its future, and we don't take either for granted.
In his address at the conference, Dan Gillerman, the newly appointed Israeli ambassador to the United Nations, described how he presented his credentials to U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan in January. He told Annan that "I am here as the representative of my country, my people and a child."
When the secretary-general indicated a bit of confusion over the mention of "a child," the Israeli ambassador explained, "I am proud to represent my country, the State of Israel. I am also honored to represent my people, the Jewish people. And the child I represent is my 4-year-old grandson, who attends a kindergarten in Tel Aviv.
"Each time I go to pick him up from the kindergarten, it breaks my heart," the ambassador continued, "because I see a security guard stationed by its front door. He is there to make sure that no terrorist will enter and harm the innocent children attending school. Your honorable secretary-general, it is my hope that I will find a way to end this madness."
Throughout the conference, Howard Kohr, AIPAC executive director, told us, "Stand up and be counted."
If we want to see the madness end, then we can't sit back and do nothing. Among the many things that we have to do is lobby for strong support of Israel and ensure that Congress and the administration help it remain secure.
Amy Friedkin, AIPAC president, quoted our sages, saying, "Pray like everything depends on God. Act like everything depends on you."
Now more than ever, perhaps this is our best lesson. Israel is suffering economically as it hasn't in many years. Poverty rises drastically; people literally go hungry because business after business is failing.
Most of all, the tourist industry is suffering catastrophic setbacks. Anyone who really cares about Israel's welfare must visit Israel, must help revive its tourism.
We can't stand on the sidelines and say, "When Israel will be safe, I will visit." If it is good enough for Israelis who live there, then it must be good enough for us to visit.
The standing ovations in Washington had a clear message. They reminded us that evil succeeds when good people do nothing, but evil succumbs when we act like everything depends on us. Â
Elazar Muskin is rabbi of Young Israel of Century City.