South Floridians in Israel for 70th birthday reflect on country’s past, present, future

TEL AVIV, Israel (WSVN) — Some of the more than 800 South Florida residents who crossed the Atlantic to mark Israel’s 70th anniversary shared what their time in the Middle Eastern country during such a landmark occasion means to them.

The overseas trip, the largest mission to Israel for the Greater Miami Jewish Federation, began in Tel Aviv, where former City of Miami Police Public Information Officer Bill Schwartz revealed this was his first time he’d set foot on Israeli soil.

“It was about time. You get to a certain age when you have to find something bigger than yourself,” he said. “I think this is it.”

From there, they were able to see all of Israel. Nineteen buses took the travelers to different tracks that perked their interest.

This was an up-close look at life in Israel. The meaning was a part of every step.

“As you get older, things change a little bit, and you realize the importance of keeping a people together and alive,” said Bill Lehman.

They met Ziv Vogel, who lives in a small village buttressing the wall with Gaza. He shared some recent history with the travelers.

“In 2006, when we became a border, we started suffering from our neighbors,” he said.

Bomb shelters next to playground are part of the reality for these residents.

Travelers heard about the threats Israel faces from Itamar Rabinovich, a former Israeli ambassador to the U.S.

“We’re not short on problems, but we’ve lived with them for 70 years,” he said.

The South Florida group was able to take part in a moving ceremony on the Day of Remembrance in Israel. A siren’s wail reminded the country of the lives lost to protect the state.

The mission was then able to go to Yad Vashem, the world’s largest Holocaust memorial, located in Jerusalem.

It was a special visit, as South Florida survivors shared their stories.

“I’m emotional,” said Holocaust survivor Henry Flescher. “Listen, I lived through it. I’m here, and how many people can make it at my age?”

There is a real question as these survivors pass on: Who will tell their stories?

Israel was built on the ashes of Holocaust, but pain is a means to a promise.

In Israel, Remembrance Day is followed immediately by Independence Day. The mission had the opportunity to see the country’s firepower when they toured the Air Force Base.

And then they danced in the streets, waving Israeli flags as they celebrated the nation’s 70th birthday.

So what is the future for Israel — surrounded by enemies, facing threats on the southern border?

As Holocaust survivor Israel Lapciuc told 7News, the struggle has continued for thousands of years.

“I saw people perish. I saw people that were gassed,” he said.

But it’s that hope, faith and connection of a people united that has been Israel’s power.

A symbol of that hope is Flescher, who, at 94, was the oldest Holocaust survivor on the trip. He said he suffered through a lot pain in his life, but felt compelled to make the trip to tell his story and proudly walk through the streets of Jerusalem.

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