As I was doing last minute prep for my Bar Mitzvah – going over the Torah and haftarah, learning how to put on tefillin, reviewing English readings – Israel was under siege. We were all glued to every news report that mentioned Israel. And as you can imagine, it was mentioned with increasing frequency and urgency in the spring of 1967.
In mid-May of that year, President Nasser of Egypt started moving thousands of troops and armor divisions into the Sinai in direct violation of an agreement they made with the UN. He then ordered the UN to leave the Sinai Peninsula. Though Nasser had no authority to do this, The UN responded and withdrew their peacekeeping forces. And Jews everywhere began holding our breath, brooding over when Nasser would take his incendiary rhetoric about destroying Israel to its logical conclusion.
I always loved reading the news and listening to Walter Cronkite, so I was current on the situation. It was so long ago, yet I clearly remember that on June 1st, as the situation continued to escalate, it dawned on me that there might be a war in Israel before my Bar Mitzvah. What would I do? Would the Bar Mitzvah be canceled? Would something horrible, unthinkable occur?
I asked my tutor if there was some contingency plan for a canceled Bar Mitzvah. What if, I asked him slowly, what if Israel is attacked? What if Israel is captured? What would we do? Cantor Bernstein looked at me. tears welled up in his gentle eyes, and, in mine, too. He was a Holocaust survivor, and he had family in Jerusalem. Cantor Bernstein told me that no matter what happened, my Bar Mitzvah would never be postponed. “Life always rolls forward. Shabbat comes, in good times and hard times. In peace there is Shabbat. In war, too. Even in Auschwitz, there was Shabbat.”
“Ok,” I said, “But what if something terrible happens? What happens if Egypt attacks and Syria and Jordan attack, too?” “Number one, you will have your Bar Mitzvah. Number two, Israel will survive whatever is going to happen next, because it has to survive. Because after what Hitler did, Jews can’t be victims again. We won’t be victims again.”
He seemed so sure of himself! I took his certainty and made it my own. When Israel launched the surprise air attack against Egypt on June 5th, I somehow knew that, in the end, everything would work out. Because Cantor Bernstein said so. Because we could never allow for defeat.
In the few weeks that followed, the Jewish world reveled in the extraordinary victory of what came to be called the Six-Day War. My Bar Mitzvah ended up being a Shabbat of celebration. I talked about how cool it was for Jerusalem to be back in Jewish hands. I remember saying something about how one day I would pray at the Wailing Wall. But I remember most clearly when the Cantor came up to me after the service and gave a bear hug. As he did, he whispered to me, “You see? We will never be victims again.”
I will always remember that hug. And I will always be grateful for Cantor Bernstein’s faith and strength. He enabled a frightened boy about to have a Bar Mitzvah, feel confident, not just about a ceremony, but most significantly about the future of Israel and the Jewish people.
That confident feeling I acquired 50 years ago still lingers, as does my great love of Israel. The hard truth, however, is that since the Six Day war, peace remains more elusive than ever. And in the end, Israel’s greatest legacy cannot be about a fantastically executed war. The only legacy that will have lasting meaning is to make peace.