The AJC and Jewish Agency arranged a special Thanksgiving dinner for American descent soldiers. This year I was fortunate enough to take part in this unique celebration. I got to learn about the holiday and meet Americans who joined the IDF (Zahal).

Date: 30/11/2009, 12:55 PM     Author: Rotem Weizman

I was raised in Israel; hence my only exposure to Thanksgiving, an American holiday, was through American TV shows that I watched religiously as a little girl. Needless to say this concept was pretty exciting for me. I didn’t really know what to expect, yet I was pleasantly surprised with the warm and festive environment that surrounded everyone at the AJC office in Jerusalem.

As I was welcomed by the AJC, the first thing I came across was a beautiful table setting and a group of soldiers sitting together, relaxed and happy. I noticed that most of them served in prestigious units such as Givati, 669 and even some who served during Operation Cast Lead. They were speaking both in Hebrew and in English, by this small deed I could sense the mixture of cultures these soldiers demonstrated. Two enthusiastic rescue squad soldiers, Private Simon Bentley, from London, and Private Ra’anan Tannenbaum, from Chicago, told me that they arrived in Israel two years ago to attend a yeshiva and recently started their 14 month service in the IDF (Zahal). “Everyone my age in Israel goes to the army so I wanted to do the same. I guess it’s weird not to be here with my family and friends, but it’s a nice and challenging experience,” said Simon. “Well I guess it’s better than last year when we celebrated Thanksgiving at Burgers Bar,” added Ra’anan with a huge grin.

Another soldier who I came across was Hannan Lieberman, from Philadelphia. Hannan is a combat soldier in the Duvdevan unit. He seemed to be one of those people with the rare combination of having high morals and truly following them. “When I finished high school I came to Israel for a year to study in a yeshiva and fell in love with Israel,” he said. Like any other American, Hannan did what he was expected and attended the prestigious Yeshiva University in New York. “After 6 months I realized that I couldn’t stay there, I had to come back to Israel.” He came to Israel and worked as a counselor in Camp Ramah for Americans teenagers. Later on, he participated in a preparatory program for olim (people who make aliyah), went to a trial period prior of selection, known as gibush in Hebrew, for the Paratroopers Brigade, and then joined Duvdevan. When I asked him about his life here in comparison to his friends’ he said: “I know I’m doing something different. You need your own set of values and morals and then you don’t care what others do. I feel better about myself. My brother did the same a year before me, and nowadays he serves in the Armored Corps.” Then he added with a smile, “My parents are very supportive, I miss them but we both know that what I did was the right thing. My family is the best and I feel their absent during the holiday, so I really appreciate the AJC for doing this for us. It’s my second time here and it gives me a sense of home away from home.”

As we were all sitting around the table Dr. Ed Rettig stood up and gave a little speech. He started by telling about the history of the AJC and its causes; An organization which promotes human rights, strengthens Jewish life and the connection between Israel and the Diaspora, supports Israel and fights bigotry. Later on he talked about the meaning of Thanksgiving and it’s relevance to us. “This is a holiday of immigrants, like many of those sitting around the table, including the staff and myself. I also made aliyah and served in the IDF (Zahal), so we can all relate to the other person’s feelings,” said Dr. Rettig. “The IDF (Zahal) is the best place to assimilate yourself into the Israeli society. You live with Israelis and you talk in Hebrew, and most importantly, you learn all of the bad words that you’ll never learn in ulpan (in Hebrew for intensive study of the Hebrew language),” he said.

The holidays are the times to be with your family around the table and share special moments. Looking around me I realized the great sacrifice that the people around the table are making in order to be here. “Thanksgiving celebrates life in a new country,” said Dr. Rettig. “It deals with the special cooperation between Native Americans and Pilgrims, It might not be an Israeli holiday but it represents something we should practice in Israel,” he added. Dr. Rettig emphasized the sacrifice the people in Israel make for freedom, and talked about the massacre in Mumbai and of course Gilad Shalit. We all stood a minute of silence for those who sacrificed their freedom for us.

Afterwards, Dr. Rettig broke the ice and finally declared, “Let’s see who can deal with the American tradition; eating the most turkey and sweet potatoes.” Looking around the table, people seemed to reminisce on their Thanksgiving celebrations back at home. “I miss Thanksgiving football,” said one of the soldiers. I also got a thorough explanation about the custom Thanksgiving food, such as sweet potatoes with marshmallows and stuffing. “Every Jew says his mother makes the best matza balls. It’s the same in America when it comes to stuffing,” said Myra Clark-Siegel, the AJC’s Director of External Relations. Rochelle Ben Ami, the AJC’s librarian, told me about the special Thanksgiving Haggadah the AJC publishes every year, “It was first published after 9/11. It celebrates our diverse roots and shared values. I can relate to that since I also came to Israel in 1980 and my daughter currently serves in the Field Intelligence Corps. I truly admire these soldiers who come to Israel and serve in the army. I believe it’s nice to thank them on Thanksgiving. It also encouraged me to celebrate it in my own home.” Dr. Rettig added: “It’s Important to show the American soldiers the importance of the Israel-USA alliance, we can really thank them this way for leaving their comfort zone and joining the army. Immigrants are pressured to change and emerge as a new person. They loose their heritage and so we lose cultural gems. By organizing a Thanksgiving event for the last 9 years, the AJC is trying to convey a message that you can be Israeli with a hyphen”.

At the end of the lavish Thanksgiving feast, Corporal Aaron Weinberg, a Nahal soldier from New York, said that he was invited last minute by a friend who told him about the event, “It felt like home. I came to Israel for a gap year and fell in love with the country and the people, so I decided to make aliyah. The army is a great way to really get to know the Israeli society,” he added.

Another soldier that attended the event was Corporal Adi Atzion, who serves in the Navy’s intelligence squad. She moved here with her family from America at age 3. She told me she celebrated Thanksgiving before with an American friend of hers, “Celebrating with a family was great but this year I decided to come here. In the army everything is an interesting and a one of a kind experience.”

Everyone started leaving slowly wobbling to the door because they were so full. “God I’m full!” said Gloria Reynolds, who serves in the Field Intelligence Corps. “Girls who serve in combat units have a big appetite. Write that down!” she tells me with a whimsical glance and so I finished this wonderful evening with a smile.