It was indeed a rocky and stony mountain range–without trees or vegetation–to which we had been assigned. Eighteen-year-old kids, sixteen girls and forty-seven boys, our task was to carefully observe and report infiltrators–Fedayin–who tried almost daily to cross the Jordanian border and terrorize the local Kibbutzim. This date also marked the anniversary of the UN vote 15 years earlier, for the partition of Palestine and the right of the Jewish people to have their own state.
I vividly remember the ground-breaking ceremony as we stood at attention listening to our commander along with government dignitaries congratulating us and blessing our patriotic spirit in building a settlement under the nose of our hostile neighbors. I also recall the late Yitzhak Rabin, then second-in-command to the IDF Chief of Staff, stepping down from his chopper to greet us. Next to him stood the current President of Israel, Shimon Peres. Prime Minister Ben Gurion could not attend the ceremony, but wrote us a personal letter which it is my honor to translate:
To the Committee of Gilboa Settlment:
I thank you for the personal invitation which I appreciate very much, as I see in it your profound desire to settle this region. My hope is that the army post will be turned into a permanent dwelling place and that you will stay there even after your military duty has been completed. From the bottom of my heart I express my wish that dew and rain will ever flow on Mount Gilboa, and I rejoice with the sons and daughters of Israel. Go forth and be successful.
David Ben Gurion.
In his naiveté, one of our organizing committee decided on his own to invite Israel’s President to our reunion. In his wildest dreams he did not expect to receive a reply. To his surprise a warm and sincere letter arrived, addressed us all of us. The following is a summary of that letter:
To the members of Neta’im darom (the name of our unit) and members of Kibbutz Ma’aleh Gilboa:
I am honored to send you my sincere blessings on the anniversary of the establishment of the settlement Mitzpeh Gilboa, which has became a prosperous Kibbutz over the past five decades. You young soldiers and members of the Kibbutz redeemed the soil, overcame the many obstacles during days of war, and turned the place into a prosperous and highly integrated community, full of life and lofty values. You opened a door for all those who strive to continue studying Torah while demonstrating a full commitment to serving the nation through military service. You have been their inspiration.
With true pioneering spirit you fulfill the words of Rabbi Shimon Ha-tzaddik in Pirke Avot: upon three things is the world established–upon Torah, Avodah and G’milut Hasadim. May you continue being the Pride of Israel, cultivating the human spirit along with its surroundings.
Be blessed in the day of your jubilee celebration and go forth from strength to strength.
President of Israel
The reunion was an emotionally uplifting experience for all who attended and a memory-evoking event, I think, because we were and always will be a close-knit group who share a unique bond. People we had not seen in decades greeted us with open arms. I was touched by the solemn moment of remembrance for those who are no longer with us, friends with whom we had walked the walk since kindergarten, and others with whom we shared precious moments during our service. They will always be part of our heritage.
It gave us all a sense of pride to learn about the achievements of comrades in academia, the professions, and business enterprises. However, regardless of rank, titles or occupation, even the most accomplished among us are still modest and approachable human beings. It was neither a flag-waving event, nor an occasion for comparisons or judgments. It was rather about feeling joy at seeing long-lost friends alive and well, spending time once again with people that we care deeply about.
I have been privileged to return to this spot quite frequently. My three grown children are aware of this brief yet profound period of my life and the passion it instilled within me for the land and its soil: Ahavat ha-aretz v’ha-moledet. That is why I have enabled the many congregants and choirs whom I have brought to Israel over the years to visit and stand in front of the water tower which my friends and I built with our bare hands those many years ago. With tears of pride I watched them relate as never before to the early settlers and founders of the Kibbutz. Here, for a short few moments, Diaspora Jews became suddenly aware of a special bond to the land and its history.
In short, the idealism of our Zionist youth movement, the B’nei Akiva, has exerted a profound influence upon my entire outlook on life. It has given me the strength for contributing to the rebuilding of a country I so love. It has also been the driving force in establishing my own identity as a Sh’li’ah tzibbur, educator and mentor, and in maintaining my musical integrity as a Hazzan. To this day the Gilboa Mountain continues to be a source of inspiration and to infuse within me a youthful vigor– with God’s help–for many years to come.
Above all I feel truly blessed, having been given the chance to attend this once-in-a-lifetime event of physical return and spiritual rededication to the core hope of my people, in every generation.
17 Tevet 5773