You don’t have to be Jewish to celebrate Israel’s birthday

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It was a lot like a parade, just inside.

Cheeks were painted with the Star of David. Many wore blue and white, the colors that dominated the Israeli flags children waved as they ran through the synagogue, their parents just behind them. 

It was all part of a special birthday — the 70th one actually — for a Jewish country that thrives in the Middle East. And the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale celebrated Israel’s milestone in style.

The synagogue is known as The Bayit, which literally means “home.” And on Israeli Day, it served as just that, not only to those from the Jewish community, but to people from many different ethnicities and backgrounds. In fact, group homes like the Munson House, Graystone Residence and Special Citizens were invited to partake in not just the barbecue, but the celebration. 

“It’s the mission of the synagogue to be a welcoming place,” said Rabbi Steven Exler as he held his daughter. “Israel itself is one of the most diverse countries.” 

Rebecca Zinger walked around with her own baby girl, keeping a watchful eye on her other child who played games across the room.

“I come here on the weekends for synagogue, and it’s a wonderful community,” she said. This day, however, it was all about the celebration of home, both here and overseas. 

“I have a country here, and I have a country there,” Zinger said. “This is nothing compared to what they do in Israel, but this is still a crazy amazing party.”

Tiny shoes littered the floor like an overcrowded Chuck E. Cheese’s that ran out of shoe cubbies. There were so many toddlers present, one section of the synagogue became a designated parking station for a herd of strollers.

As a man walked in with his family, he caught a glimpse of the Batman-themed inflatable house. “We’re going to be here for a while.” 

Although borough president Ruben Diaz Jr., could not make the event himself, he sent his deputy, Marricka Scott-McFadden, in his place. 

“We reaffirm the unbreakable bonds that reaffirm a stronger democracy in Israel,” she said. “It is a place that welcomes and loves.”

Scott-McFadden wasn’t the only government official who came out to celebrate. Assemblyman Jeffrey Dinowitz was happy with what he saw at The Bayit. 

“It’s great to see a packed room,” he said. “There’s no community like Riverdale, and there’s no community like Israel.”

Councilman Andrew Cohen was there, so was state Sen. Jeffrey Klein who shared the importance of Israel’s anniversary, especially as the grandson of holocaust survivors. He spoke on the struggle Israel and Jews endured that helped make the country what it is today.

“We fought for our right to practice our religion as we see fit,” Klein said. “That’s not only Judaism, but American.”

On May 14, 1948, the first prime minister of Israel, David Ben-Gurion, read Israel’s declaration of independence. Because the Jewish calendar is a lunar one, the actual anniversary — Yom Ha’atzmaut — shifts around the solar calendar, typically falling in April. 

After the British Palestine mandate ended, Israel declared statehood. It was then, at the Tel Aviv Art Museum in 1948, Ben-Gurion said the words that would change history: “We hereby proclaim the establishment of the Jewish state in Palestine to be called Israel.” 

That same day Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Jordan and Saudi Arabia declared war on Israel. Yet, 70 years later, Israel remains strong.

“The state of Israel is our home, and when we celebrate it, it deepens our love for both,” Exler said. “A wonderful happy birthday to Israel. We can give her a round of applause. She’s 70 today.”

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