For the past four years I have had the highest honor of my life, that of representing the State of Israel in competition. I competed in the skeleton, a sport where an athlete slides head-first at 140km/h down an icy chute. It is a sport requiring resolve, chutzpah, staring danger in the face, and overcoming odds.
In other words, it is the perfect sport for an Israeli. I have seen the beauty of Israel from within its borders and have admired its beauty from the outside.
Most proudly I have acted as an ambassador of Israel through sport, culminating with the Pyeongchang Olympic Games in February. Each year, come Yom Hazikaron (Memorial Day for those lost while serving Israel) and Yom Ha’atzmaut (Independence Day), I find myself in deep reflection on what Israel means to me – as an Israeli, as a Jew, and as an individual living in the free world.
Indeed, I try as well to find my “Israel moment” – a moment in life where it hit me just how blessed I am to call myself Israeli. How amazing the miracle, of Israel is. Allow me to preface my moment by providing some context.
The life of an athlete is structured. It is full of familiar customs, actions, and superstitions. From diet to exercise, repetition is a constant. As an athlete representing Israel, I have a number of very serious customs that relate to my homeland.
They are as natural and as necessary as eating or sleeping. The first is listening to Shay Gabso’s Arim Roshi before performing any significant functions in my role as an Israeli athlete, be it before warming up for competition, or traveling overseas. It is my personal anthem, and never fails to bring tears to my eyes, as I appreciate those far braver than I who have defended Israel, and that I represent a country which exists only because of the sacrifice of others.
As I listen to that song once more this Yom Hazikaron, I cannot help but think of my Israel moment. Another custom of mine was lighting candles (Hanukka and Sabbath) each year of my skeleton travels in the town of Berchtesgaden, Germany, which was home to Hitler’s home, the Eagle’s Nest.
Berchtesgaden is picturesque and serene and is situated besides a beautiful lake winding it ways through mountains tipped with light snow. A couple of years ago, as I prepared to light perhaps the first Hanukka candle lit in Berchtesgaden in decades, I played Arim Roshi as I unpacked, and donned my full uniform, which I designed with a 2.5-square-foot Star of David. As the phrase “I lift my eyes to the mountains in the distance” played, I looked towards the mountain where the Eagles Nest sits and said for the first time a motto I would come to repeat before every competition: “For myself, for my people and for my country. Le’atzmi, Le’Ami, Le’Artzi.”
That will forever be my Israel moment. That moment I realized what Israel means to me. It is defiance. It is survival. It is pride. It is perseverance. It is sacrifice. And it is love.
Every evening before I retire to bed I thank God, with a blessing, that I have uttered thousands of times. “Baruch Hashem (thank God) that I have the opportunity to represent Am Yisrael and Eretz Yisrael (the nation and land of Israel).”
I am proud to be an Israeli. I am proud that I have a homeland to call my own.
For everything that Israel represents – I am proud of it.
On this Yom Hazikaron and Yom Ha’atzmaut, I hope that all can find their own “Israel moments” and appreciate the miracle of our homeland. Thank you for reading and sharing in mine.
Thank you as well to the brave men and women who protect our homeland, and for the sacrifice of those who have given their lives in defense of our great nation.
A.J. Edelman is the first Israeli to compete in the skeleton event at the Winter Olympics, finishing in 28th position at the Pyeongchang Games in February.