My Turn: Judge keeps strong ties to Jewish homeland

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For U.S. District Judge Bernard Friedman, it has become almost a fall ritual to lead a group of friends and former colleagues on a week-long trip to Israel for an experience that will be remembered for a lifetime.

But this year, of course, such plans have been shelved by the coronavirus pandemic that has touched every part of the globe and shows no signs of abating.

“Hopefully we will miss only one year and that the virus will be contained in 2021 so that we all can resume a normal way of life,” said Friedman, who has made so many trips to the Jewish homeland over the years that “I have lost count.”

Normal, he acknowledged, is a relative term for Israelis, who live in a potential tinderbox where war and turbulence are never far from thought.

While most of the Friedman-led trips revolve around educational and sight-seeing components, several of his journeys to Israel have been focused on showing solidarity for those dedicated to defending the Jewish homeland.

In 2012, for instance, Friedman was part of a delegation involved in the “Volunteers for Israel” program, which offers participants an opportunity to “lend a helping hand” and “to be of continued service and support” to the country of 9 million people. The 2012 visit came just a month before a renewal of hostilities between Israel and the Palestinian group Hamas.

The Volunteers for Israel program arose from another Middle East conflict, the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon to do battle with the PLO (Palestine Liberation Organization). The uprising in the summer of 1982 came at a time when the first crops of the season were ripening throughout the Jezreel Valley and the harvest was in danger as reservists were being called up to defend Israel’s northern flank.

In response to the challenge, Israel sent emissaries to the U.S. to enlist volunteers to help with the harvest, an effort that produced an “immediate and overwhelming response,” according to VFI officials.

Friedman, a member of the federal judiciary since 1988, was part of a group that was assigned to Bach Golani, the principal training base for the renowned Golani infantry brigade, one of the most highly decorated units in the Israeli military. The heavily fortified base is located north of Tel Aviv, and is “out in the middle of nowhere,” according to Friedman.

“As we arrived on the recently renovated base, we immediately noticed the cadence of focused discipline and training exhibited by the recruits of this elite unit,” Friedman related shortly after the trip, noting that group members were issued uniforms and assigned to separate barracks for men and women.
“Behind us were the luxuries of private showers, sinks, and beds,” Friedman noted. “After all, this is the army.”

And, not surprisingly, the “days went fast,” Friedman indicated.

“We rose around 6 a.m., although some got up much earlier to exercise, pray, or drink coffee, a necessary commodity for Americans,” he said. “The Magen David, the emblem of the Israeli national flag, could be observed in the sky at the 7:28 a.m. formation, followed by a spartan but tasty breakfast.

Work commenced soon thereafter at 8:30. Typically, we broke for lunch from 12-1 p.m. and we were back to work until 4:30.”

Half of the volunteers worked in the base armory, “cleaning and repairing equipment, while the other half served in a warehouse setting, checking and packing tents, gas masks, tent stakes, clothing, ponchos, and other supplies,” according to Friedman, a Detroit native who served as a district court judge before his appointment to the federal bench.

“The volunteers performed jobs and accomplished tasks that would otherwise have been done by soldiers or Israeli civilians,” Friedman explained. “We quickly came to appreciate the need for our efforts and the contribution we made to the country and its defense. It was most fulfilling.”

Two years later, the Detroit jurist was part of a 14-member delegation that visited Israel shortly after two months of fighting between the Israelis and Palestinians that killed more than 2,200 people in the Gaza Strip region.

“For me, it is always a profound experience to visit Israel, especially in the wake of conflict where so many lives were lost and so many were injured or left homeless,” Friedman said at the time. “This trip was different, since it was organized within a week of our departure and served as an opportunity for us to show how much we care for Israel.”

That trip was particularly compelling, as group members stopped at a restaurant on the Gaza border that “hadn’t seen a customer in 52 days” because of the rocket and artillery shelling.

“It was one of many examples of how the fighting takes such an enormous toll on everyday life in the region,” Friedman said.

“The physical casualties are of primary concern, of course, but there also is the economic disruption that is widespread and almost impossible to calculate.”

Now, in the midst of a different sort of battle – with a contagion that threatens continued medical and economic pain, Friedman can only hope that his next trip to Israel will be framed in happier terms.

“We all long for the day when a trip there can be primarily about fostering education and understanding,” said Friedman. “That would be ideal.”

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