'Israel at 70': Anniversary of independence resonates around the world

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    Yuval Zaliouk is headed back to Israel to celebrate the nation's 70th Independence Day which, according to the Hebrew calendar, will be celebrated on April 18, 2018.

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  • Israel is gearing up for a large-scale bash this week, commemorating 70 years of independence with 70 hours of celebration. The programming kicks off in Jerusalem on Wednesday.

    But Israelis won’t be the only ones celebrating: The anniversary resonates in a diaspora that reaches around the world, including northwest Ohio, where the Jewish Federation of Greater Toledo is similarly celebrating “Israel at 70.”

    In the second of two anniversary-themed events, the federation will host Dani Dayan, consul general of Israel in New York, at Congregation B’nai Israel, 6525 W. Sylvania Ave., on May 7.

    WATCH: Yuval Zaliouk reflects on Jerusalem and the Six-Day War

    “The 70th is a very special date for us,” said Alan Sokobin, rabbi emeritus at Congregation Shomer Emunim, tying the number to the seven days of the week and to the seven weeks between Passover and Shavuot. “It represents, for us, creation and fulfillment intermixed.”

    Rabbi Sokobin, who counts family in Israel and estimates that he’s traveled to the country some 60 times over the years, is one of numerous local residents with strong ties to the state.

    These include Israeli-born residents like Hedva Romanoff and Yuval Zaliouk, who might take particular pride in the anniversary and the attention it calls to a country that has established itself as an innovative world presence in business, technology, and more in less than a century.

    Their memories of their country’s formative years are entwined with their own: Ms. Romanoff, 66, was born just a few years after Israel declared independence in 1948; her mother, then just 16 years old, fought as a volunteer in the war that followed from the hills of Jerusalem.

    Mr. Zaliouk, 79, was 10 years old when declaration came and the streets filled with dancing.

    “I remember every moment,” he said.

    ‘A sense of mission’

    Ms. Romanoff and Mr. Zaliouk each described happy childhoods in Israel, where they participated in school and in scouts and each lived with their families in condominiums. Ms. Romanoff grew up in Jerusalem, Mr. Zaliouk in Haifa. While there were certainly hard times in the earliest years of their country, which was grappling with security threats, a large-scale influx of immigrants and economic struggles that forced the country to ration groceries, there was also a sense of optimism and exuberance — “sort of a sense of mission,” Ms. Romanoff recalled.

    In her father, particularly, Ms. Romanoff recalled seeing this sense of mission. A Holocaust survivor who had arrived in Israel in 1949, immediately after independence, he would talk to his daughters about being there “to build and to be rebuilt” as individuals, she said.

    Israel’s path to independence began in 1947, when the United Nations, in effort to resolve regional tension between Arabs and Jews, voted to recommend a two-state setup; the region had been under British mandate since World War I.

    Mr. Zaliouk remembers the day well. It was a Friday, he said. He was visiting his grandparents, as he and his family did every Friday. They listened to the radio as the votes rolled in.

    “‘Britain, abstain, American, yes,’” he said, recalling the broadcast. “And then, when it passed ... the streets filled up with dancing.”

    Dancing quickly gave way to war, with neighboring countries engaging Israelis in the first of what would be a lengthy series of still-unresolved conflicts. Mr. Zaliouk spent the days that followed in a bunker below his family’s condominium, recalling that, as a 9-year-old, he was more interested in playing with the other children than he was worried about the war.

    An estimated 688,000 immigrants came to Israel in the three or so years that followed, effectively doubling the population that had been living there prior to independence. Mr. Zaliouk recalled that he and his friends would go to the absorption camps in Haifa, where immigrants from Morocco, predominantly, were arriving and waiting for housing to be available in Israel.

    They would teach the immigrant families Hebrew.

    “I even remember their faces,” he said. “Wonderful people.”

    Ms. Romanoff recalled a sense of connectivity and family from her earliest years in Israel, with everyone seeming to know each other and everyone seeming to watch out for each other. She herself, for example, didn’t think twice about passing a few hours in a neighbor’s living room whenever she would find herself locked out of her own family’s condominium.

    “Our neighbors cared about us. Everybody cared about each other,” she said. But it was more than that: “There’s a sense of not only connectivity, but a sense of being a part of something that’s very important and significant.”

    ‘Constant awareness’

    Security threats were, to some extent, part of the fabric of life in Israel. It was neither unusual nor particularly frightening for Ms. Romanoff to hear skirmishes between the Israeli and Jordanian forces who patrolled the border in Jerusalem, which was partitioned before the Seven-Day War in 1967; her high school sat just a half-mile or so from the border.

    She remembers warnings against picking up unknown objects off the street, for fear that they could be explosive too. But that didn’t stop her from playing with friends or walking the streets.

    “It wasn’t constant fear, but it was constant awareness,” she said. “You just had to be aware of your surroundings and to be aware of situations that might come up.”

    Among the most influential conflicts in Israel’s early years was the Seven-Day War in 1967, through which Israel tripled its land holding and took control of Jerusalem in its entirety. A documentary, In Our Hands: The Battle for Jerusalem, relates the history of the war and was screened at Temple Shomer Emunim in March.

    It was the first of the Jewish Federation’s “Israel at 70” programming.

    Ms. Romanoff was a teenager in 1967. The radio was an always-playing soundtrack to life in those days, she said, and she can easily recall the frightening messages that began to come over the airwaves from Egypt in the days leading up to the war: Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser was promising to annihilate Israel.

    When the war finally broke out, she was at school. Her mother hired a taxi driver — “almost commandeered him,” she said — to drive her through seemingly empty streets to her daughter’s high school, where she stopped to pick up Ms. Romanoff and a friend.

    By the time they left the school, the taxi driver was gone.

    “He got scared. So we had to run home, which was about 2½ or 3 miles,” Ms. Romanoff said. “I remember running along walls of buildings with bullets flying all over the place.”

    Mr. Zaliouk, a conductor, was by that time living and working in London. He came to Israel immediately after the war, he said, and can distinctly remember how it felt to cross into the eastern part of Jerusalem, formerly under Jordanian control, and approach holy sites like the Western Wall.

    “It was euphoric,” he said. “It was like creating the state all over again.”

    ‘A very proud moment’

    Ms. Romanoff left Israel in 1971, relocating to the United States to marry her husband, Bennett Romanoff, an American whom she met in Israel. Mr. Zaliouk left Israel for London in 1966, and relocated to Toledo, where he took the helm of the Toledo Symphony Orchestra, in 1980.

    Both frequently return to Israel, including in some years for Independence Day. Although independence was declared on May 14, it is celebrated in April, in line with the Hebrew calendar.

    In Toledo, the celebration picks up next month with Mr. Dayan, the ambassador, whose presentation is free at 7 p.m. May 7. Reservations can be made by emailing colette@jewishtoledo.org or calling 419-724-0361.

    The ambassador is expected to speak on Israel’s advancement over the last 70 years, in terms of tourism, business, medicine, technology, and more. They’re topics that carry particular weight in an anniversary year, when those with ties to the country find themselves reflecting on its past, present and future.

    “To get to this point, despite all of these difficulties, is a very proud moment for me,” Ms. Romanoff said.

    Contact Nicki Gorny at ngorny@theblade.com or 419-724-6133.