Nov. 4, 1995, dawned cloudless and mild in Jerusalem. As I began to rouse myself that Saturday morning in the Windmill Hotel, I saw that my 16-year-old son was stirring on the low-to-the-floor bed a few feet across the small room. A junior at Barrington High School, he was spending a semester abroad as one of 20 American Jewish students in the Reform movement’s Eisendrath International Exchange (E.I.E.) program based at Beit Shmuel, right next to the King David Hotel.
The E.I.E powers-that-be had given me permission to “borrow” David for the day. After an ample Israeli breakfast, we drove our rented car due east from Jerusalem on a road that drops precipitously to 1,200 feet below sea level at the Dead Sea. We then proceeded south along its shore to Masada, once a desert palace of King Herod that stood atop a stone plateau 1,300 feet above the salty water’s shimmering surface. Masada is best known as the place where, in 73 C.E. 960 Jews committed mass suicide in their crumbling fortress rather than submit to the brutality of the Roman legions who were about to overrun them.
After hiking up the steep Snake Path to Masada’s plateau, my son – who had visited this spot before as part of the E.I.E. program – gave me a guided tour of every nook and cranny of this monument to Jewish resistance. Though I had been to Masada before, David’s knowledge of this place far exceeded my own. As he opened up for me new chapters in the history of our people, I could only kvell – to use the Yiddish term, which roughly translates as “burst with pride.”
Being sensitive to the strain that the hike down the Snake Path would put on my knees, David insisted that we take the cable car back to the parking lot.
Once in the car, we continued south along the shore of the Dead Sea, then west – detouring through Makhtesh Hagadol, an area of large-scale geological erosion of strikingly stark beauty – to lunch in Beersheba.
By late afternoon, David and I rejoined his E.I.E. group. The group was spending the night in a modest guesthouse at Kibbutz Nachshon, about 20 miles northwest of Jerusalem. We joined his classmates for a no-frills supper, followed by havdalah – wine goblet, spice box, twisted candle – to mark the separation of Shabbat from the first day of the week, which, counter-intuitively, begins just after sunset. With that, we settled down in front of the TV to watch an unexceptional Crocodile Dundee movie with Hebrew subtitles.
Suddenly the Hebrew words chadashot chashuvot (important news) crawled across the top of the screen. At first I assumed that the “important news” was nothing more significant than future programming, but within seconds the movie was preempted by a scene of utter chaos punctuated with hysterical screams. Out of the cacophony I managed to make out a few Hebrew phrases: shalosh yeriot (three shots); Rabin b’vet cholim (Rabin is in the hospital); matsavo kasheh (his condition is grave).
It did not take long for the world to learn that Yitzhak Rabin, Israel’s prime minister, had been assassinated by a right-wing Jewish extremist. Shock and confusion shattered the warmth and camaraderie of a laid-back Saturday evening in the guesthouse. I felt as I did on that awful Friday afternoon of Nov. 22, 1963, when I heard the radio newsman announce with trembling voice: “President Kennedy is dead. President Kennedy is dead.”
Although by late 1995 Israelis were beginning to use cellphones, cellphone technology was still in its infancy throughout most of the world. As a result, it took hours before 20 anxious teenagers could reach their equally anxious parents in the States over the jammed phone lines. It was not until one or two in the morning that David and I were finally able to reach my wife.
As far as we could tell, we were in no obvious danger; but questions were flying through the air all night long – questions that, at the time, had no answers. To me the most poignant question of all, asked by David and his peers, was, “Does this mean that we have to go home?” The E.I.E. program had done its job: despite what had just happened, each of the 20 students wanted to remain in Israel. As it turned out, they were able to stay until the scheduled end of the program in late December.
I did not leave Israel until a few days after Rabin’s funeral. Paradoxical as it may seem, there was no place in the world I would rather have been during those days of sorrow and pain. Never have I experienced a deeper sense of connection with the Jewish people. Despite my intense disagreement with many of the policies of Israel’s current leadership, my sense of shared identity with the people of Israel has not diminished. I do not need to love Israel’s government in order to love Israel, just as I do not need to love the goings-on in Washington in order to love my country.
More than 20 years have passed since the day Yitzhak Rabin was murdered, yet even today I feel privileged to have been in Israel during that first week of November 1995, to have stood in line to view his bier, to have borne witness to his passing.
JAMES B. ROSENBERG is rabbi emeritus at Temple Habonim in Barrington. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.