Last week I had the unique opportunity to share my experiences from my recent trip to Israel with "America's Voices in Israel" in front of over 1,200 people at the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations 50th Anniversary Tribute Gala. I wanted to take this opportunity to share my remarks with you...
I am Cuban and I was born in 1959 when Fidel Castro turned the island into a Communist country. My father was put in prison by Castro for 27 years and I did not get to see him until I was almost 30 years old while living in Miami, Florida. I left Cuba at the age of 10 with my mother and grandparents with absolutely nothing, leaving everything behind and never seeing my friends again for the rest of my life. I'm so grateful living in America has allowed me to have the opportunity to be here tonight, speaking to a room of such distinguished people.
Now let's talk about Israel.
My wife and I visited the Holy Land back in June of this year thanks to the Conference of Presidents' "Americas Voices in Israel," led by Irwin Katsof. The program, started ten years ago, brings media personalities, including sports stars, entertainers, diplomats and other influential personalities on a week long trip to Israel on a tailor-made itinerary, reflecting the interests of the participants. It was one of the most fascinating trips of our lives. This is from someone who loves to travel and has visited close to 100 countries around the world.
In seven days in Israel I learned more than I have ever learned in any other country.
After flying three hours from Miami to New York and then 12 hours to Tel Aviv, I didn't expect to be ready for a full day in Israel. But, our itinerary said otherwise. We landed and went straight to Jerusalem and started our day. Our schedule was so packed that we didn't return to the hotel that first day until 2:00 am, ending our night with a traditional Shabbat Dinner.
Aside from visiting all of the holy sites around Jerusalem, one of the most memorable moments of the trip was the Shabbat dinner held at a beautiful house on the outskirts of the Old City. The host family had visiting relatives from the U.S., local friends and our group of 20. Despite being thousands of miles away from home, at that meal I felt that even I was spending time with family. Though the night started with 20 people, the night ended with close to 100 people, joining together to sing traditional Hebrew songs into the early morning hours, creating such a warm, welcoming environment that made us feel at home. What a great weekly tradition.
I also (fortunately) learned firsthand about Israeli food. When the dinner started they served salads, as appetizers and plates kept coming from the kitchen. We were eating and having a great time. About three hours later when I thought to myself, "Now they are going to bring in the dessert," I was quickly informed otherwise, as they started to bring in the main courses. I couldn't eat anymore and as you probably know, this is from someone that loves to eat.
We visited Israel from North to South, from East to West, from Syrian border to the Gaza Strip. We visited the small city of Sderot, where every day people live their lives in fear of a rocket landing from the Gaza Strip. I could never imagine how difficult it must living that way.
My first trip to Israel was in 2008 and we visited for our family holiday. It was Easter Sunday and Passover the day we arrived. We walked around for hours and I was desperate to find a bathroom immediately, but everything was closed. So we headed back to my home away from home, the King David. My wife told me to use the bathroom in the lobby, but I just wanted to get to my room. I rushed to the elevator and with my luck, it stopped on every floor. My room was on the sixth floor so just imagine what happened! And this is how I learned about the Shabbat elevator.
The most important part of my trip is what I found in the Holy Land, this tiny country that has learned not only to survive in an extremely difficult place surrounded by neighbors that are not your best friends, but has succeeded in becoming one of the most advanced countries in the world. And no matter what the situation, it is a country where its people are happy. From Jerusalem to the beautiful hip city of Tel Aviv, I found smiling faces everywhere. I found an extremely young country that is always celebrating.
Thank you Malcolm Hoenlein, Irwin Katsof, and America's Voices in Israel for making my trip possible. Congratulations Malcolm on being honored last week and thank you for letting me be a part of the celebration.