Video project tells tales of American Jews who helped fledgling Israel take wing

Toldot Yisrael is racing to interview anyone with a role in the establishment of the state, from those who ‘schlepped’ backpacks for the Haganah to a Davidka bomb maker

Jessica Steinberg, The Times of Israel's culture and lifestyles editor, covers the Sabra scene from south to north and back to the center

It’s often the most regular folks who find themselves at the crossroads of history, and that is true as well of those who lent their assistance in minor or major ways to the establishment of the State of Israel.

That is the theme behind Toldot Yisrael, a nonprofit project that is interviewing hundreds of people, many of them now elderly, all of whom were part of the effort to create the Israeli nation.

The organization is releasing 20 videos made from footage of interviews with American Jews for Israel’s 71st Independence Day Wednesday night.

The 150 Americans interviewed include World War II veterans; industrialists who bankrolled the purchase of ships; the grandson of Rabbi Shalom Zvi Davidowitz, who helped write Israel’s Declaration of Independence; even Norman Lamm, the former chancellor of Yeshiva University who was a chemistry student in 1948 and volunteered to help develop the bombs for the Davidka mortar that was used in battle.

There were Americans college students who offered to carry heavy backpacks on secret missions for the Haganah, or found themselves being asked to join secret organizations that they didn’t know much about. Their children and grandchildren are interviewed as well, steeped in their family’s stories and proud of their contributions.

“I wanted people who were a witness to some element of the founding of the State of Israel,” said Aryeh Halivni, who immigrated from Cleveland, Ohio, to Israel 16 years ago, and created Toldot Yisrael five years later, after 20 years of working with Jewish and Israel-related organizations.

This year, Halivni roped the Ruderman Family Foundation into partnership with him for the American portion of the interview footage.

The private foundation, which operates in the US and in Israel advocating for the inclusion of people with disabilities in society and for strengthening the relationship between Israel and the American Jewish community, funded the production of raw footage into the 20 short clips as part of an effort to educate Israelis about the American Jewish community and its contributions to the State of Israel.

The film series, called “Eyewitness 1948: The American Contribution” was released by the Ruderman Foundation during the annual Jewish American Heritage Month, in order to showcase a unique aspect of 20th century Jewish history and to underscore the Jewish community’s role as an indispensable bridge between the US and Israel.

“The individual stories of these American Jews combine to make an unparalleled collective impact,” said Jay Ruderman, president of the Ruderman Family Foundation. “The ‘Eyewitness 1948’ films bring to life inspirational stories of solidarity, peoplehood, and shared destiny that deserve a broad audience in the American Jewish, Israeli, and other communities.”

Many of the American Jews who got involved in the establishment of the state were not necessarily first-generation Americans, but were often second- and even third-generation, noted Halivni.

It’s a detail he feels may have enabled them to feel more confident in their decisions, particularly when much of what they did was illegal according to American law.

“Only someone who feels fully American is willing to take those risks,” he said.

Halivni began this mostly solo project 11 years ago, following the concept of Yad Vashem as well as Hollywood director Steven Spielberg’s USC Shoah Foundation Institute for Visual History and Education, both of which work to record firsthand stories of people affected by the Holocaust.

“We talk about it a lot in terms of Holocaust education,” he said. “The firsthand account of somebody who met [Revisionist ZIonist leader Ze’ev] Jabotinsky and heard him speak and it changed their lives forever. Or somebody debating to sign up for the Palmach or Etzel [paramilitary organizations] and how they deliberated and made a decision.”

Aryeh Halivni, who founded Toldot Yisrael, telling the lesser-known stories behind the founding of the State of Israel (Courtesy Aryeh Halivni)

He spent some years racing around recording stories, first in Israel in Hebrew, and then later on in the US. At the project’s height, he had more than 30 people conducting interviews for him.

“The whole point here was to get interviews while we can — people are now in their 90s and above — so we wanted to get as many as we can,” said Halivni.

The interviews are comprehensive, covering subjects’ contributions as well as their personal stories of where they and their families had come from.

“I felt like there should be some parallel to the Spielberg project,” said Halivni. “It didn’t seem like such a brilliant idea, but I looked around to see what exists and went around to archives and sure enough, no one had ever done it in a comprehensive way.”

The process was funded by the Davidson Foundation and other individual donors. It was only recently that Halivni pitched the idea to Ruderman, proposing a use for at least some of the footage.

The short films, while a potent and visible product, are almost a side piece to the overall project, said Halivni.

“They are important because they offer great exposure for people, and schools and community centers and shuls are more likely to use finished quality film than raw footage; but the larger purpose is recording as many stories as we can,” he said.

Now Halivni is working toward a collaboration with Israel’s National Library, moving the result of the interviews into their shelves and “setting it free,” he said.

Having the footage of the interviews cataloged in the National Library will make them available for use as anecdotes, quotes and content, said Halivni. After Israel’s Independence Day, which takes place this Thursday, the first tract of interviews will be transferred to the library so staff and researchers can explore it and see how useful it can be.

As for the interviewees themselves, they were mostly surprised by his interest, said Halivni, as they didn’t think they had done anything significant or out of the ordinary.

“They don’t look at themselves as heroes,” he said. “They appreciate that this may be the last chance to tell their small piece in the overall story, and that it won’t be forgotten.”

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