US President Donald Trump's visit to Israel was already distant memory by Wednesday morning as the capital city's Jerusalem Day festivities, celebrating 50 years of Jerusalem’s reunification, kicked off in earnest.
Throughout the day, religious, secular, young and old proudly marched with Israeli flags in hand to the Old City to celebrate a place that means so much to the Jewish people.
"Today, we're all Jerusalemites!" Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said during a ceremony celebrating the anniversary at Ammunition Hill, the strategic hilltop held by the Jordanians from 1948-1967. The site, now a Jewish National Fund (JNF)-USA sponsored national memorial site, served as the gateway toward the Old City’s liberation and Jerusalem’s reunification 50 years ago.
Netanyahu, President Rueven Rivlin, Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat, and Israel Defense Forces veterans all congregated in the very spot where the bloodiest battle for Jerusalem was waged during the Six-Day War.
It was a historic, yet costly battle that claimed the lives of 36 Israelis and 71 Jordanians. Ultimately, though, it was a victory that led Lt. Gen. Mordechai "Motta" Gur to proclaim the famous words that have shaped Israel's history for the past half-century: "The Temple Mount is in our hands."
In attendance at the ceremony witnessing this pivotal moment of Israeli history being commemorated were some 250 JNF members, officials, and lay leaders.
Speaking to The Jerusalem Post ahead of the ceremony, Dr. Sol Lizerbram, who currently serves on JNF's National Board of Directors and will be the new National President come October, said that taking part in the occasion is of high significance to himself and the organization.
"For me, this is very meaningful and I am so proud that we are involved in all the renovations at Ammunition Hill, including the amphitheater, exhibits, and the museum, where the story of a divided Jerusalem on the eve of the Six-Day War is presented to visitors," Dr. Lizerbram said of the non-profit’s deep commitment to the historic site. "As incoming president, I want to ensure that soldiers, students, and visitors from around the world will all have the opportunity to visit and learn about our history."
"The reunification of Jerusalem means a lot of different things to me," said Nora Elda Gonzalez, a JNF member and participant on the organization's Interfaith trip. Although JNF is an apolitical organization, as a faithful Christian, stepping foot in the Holy City on such a momentous occasion has profound significance for Gonzalez.
"You can't separate religion from Israel. Jerusalem tells us about God's faithful. This city shows there's hope for everybody, and the reunification of Jerusalem shows us that God chooses people to perform the greatest miracles," she said.
This is the organization's first launching of an interfaith mission, and for many who have joined this track, it will be their first time visiting Israel. From touring the lush Baha’i Gardens in Haifa, to seeing the ancient ruins of Caesarea, to experiencing the best of Tel Aviv’s culinary scene, the trip illustrates how Israel seamlessly mixes its ancient past with its vibrant, multicultural future.
It is only one of several tracks in the country throughout this historic and hectic week. And, although Jerusalem is certainly a highlight of the trips, the goal for members is to see how JNF is helping all walks of life across Israel. "We really focus on what can we do to improve the lives of Israelis every day. That's our focus," Dr. Lizerbram said.
Which is why as an apolitical organization, when it came to the inevitable controversy surrounding the reunification of Jerusalem, JNF chose to stay away from the fray. "It was in the forefront of our minds while we were planning the trip that we would have a brief discussion [about the conflict]," said Stephanie Kelman, national vice-chair of JNF’s young professionals program, JNFuture. "But if you're a JNF supporter, you're a supporter of Israel and of Jerusalem, so it's not a conflict for us."
As a leader of the program that targets the 25-40 age group, Kelman believes it’s extremely important that the younger generation sees Israel during such a meaningful occasion. "They are there at such an exciting time and they are able to see how far Israel has come, but they can also see how fragile and vulnerable it is at the same time. To celebrate the reunification of Jerusalem is to also acknowledge that this could very well not have happened. I think that's really important for our age group, because I think many of us take Israel for granted," she explained.
For Dr. Lizerbram, Israel's past is just as important as its future, and as JNF’s next president, he is interested in seeing tangible results during his tenure. Next week he is scheduled to meet with Netanyahu to discuss how JNF can continue to be an agent of change in Israel. Specifically, he hopes to speak to him about the JNF Housing Development Fund, a program that helps young families receive loans to build houses in the country’s periphery.
"I want to talk about how we believe we're making a change in the housing market in Israel, and how we're getting into making loans available to young families who would ordinarily have a difficult time obtaining one," he explained.
But on a day steeped in such history, when famous songs like "Jerusalem of Gold" and "If I Forget Thee, O' Jerusalem" are still ringing in the ears of residents and tourists alike, these Americans are sure to come home with the Holy City on their mind.