The halls of Temple Israel of Great Neck were full of congregants and music last Thursday night, with people gathering to celebrate Israel’s 70 years of independence on Yom Ha’atzmaut.
Rabbi Howard Stecker explained that the Jewish people look to Israel as a place where Jews can “live freely” and give their talents to the world.
He also described it as a “source of light to everyone” by standing as a democracy in the Middle East and a source of cultural and technological achievement.
“Israel’s birthday isn’t just something that the Jewish people should celebrate,” Stecker said. “I think it’s something that everyone who values democracy, everyone who values peace, should be on board [with] and celebrate this little country that’s managed to do big things in the world.”
Cantors Elizabeth Shammash and Raphael Frieder’s respective soprano and baritone voices flooded the chamber, as did the piano playing of pianist and composer Ronn Yedidia.
Sometimes Shammash waved her hands overhead and Frieder danced – with the children’s choir laughing and clapping with him.
The Temple Israel Children’s Choir itself was also a subject of fanfare, with audience members loudly cheering after the children sang pieces like “Shalom Al Yisra’el,” or “Peace on Israel,” a song looking forward to a day when soldiers can lay down their arms.
“It’s crucially important,” Frieder said of celebrating Israel each year. “Every year we celebrate it and we love it, but whenever it’s a round number, we want to give a higher emphasis to the date. We love to celebrate and to identify [with] and support Israel and take the opportunity to do this.”
The Shireinu Choir of Long Island, a mixed adult choir celebrating Jewish culture formed this summer, also performed a few numbers like “Sisu Et Yerushalayim,” or “Rejoice with Jerusalem.”
Voices of Virtue Inc., a gospel youth choir that also performed in AME Zion Episcopal Church’s Martin Luther King Jr. memorial ceremony, also sang songs in a mix of English and Hebrew.
Rachel Blackburn, the founder and executive director of Voices of Virtue, which aims to provide a musical education to young people in Hempstead while learning the foundational music of African American culture, said they connected with the idea of celebrating freedom.
“When we were called to do this program, we could relate really deeply to the idea of liberation and what that means and so we were very excited to do this program and learn some pieces in Hebrew,” Blackburn said. “The audience really welcomed us with open arms and made us feel excited to share.”
Blackburn added that “cultural exchanges” in music, such as that night’s performance, are very important for growing.
“I believe it’s something that connects us,” Blackburn said. “We come from all walks of life, we all have different kinds of struggle, but music was the component that brought us all together.”
Ultimately all the groups united to sing “Yerushalayim Shal Zahav,” or “Jerusalem of gold,” the unofficial national anthem of Israel which tells of a centuries-long yearning to return to the holy city.
For Oded Daskal, one of many people in the audience who once lived in Israel, this celebration of the country’s independence meant a lot to him.
“It’s a special day,” Daskal said.