The hero's welcome that greeted Gilad Shalit as he emerged from the abyss this week was profoundly moving. And it wasn't just Israelis who felt a keen sense of relief and joy when he crossed the border to freedom and family. The poignant homecoming after five years of captivity was shared by Jews everywhere
Debates over whether Israel paid too high a price for Shalit's freedom continue to reverberate in Jewish circles everywhere. The discussions and second guessing of the Israeli government's decision to trade more than 1,000 terrorists for one soldier appear as passionate as was the campaign to accelerate his release.
All this passion is a good thing. It serves as a much-needed reminder that despite our often-hyped political and religious differences, the fate of Israel and each one of its citizens matters -- and should matter -- to all Jews. In this age of weakening ties between American Jews and Israel, the inhumane captivity of Shalit struck a chord.
He became a cause for school children who used allowance money to purchase "Free Gilad Shalit" bracelets. He became a cause for students on college campuses and those returning from Birthright Israel programs, moved by the plight of someone their own age undergoing such a harrowing fate. And he became a cause for middle-aged and senior adults, who saw in Noam and Aviva Shalit's eyes the pain of every parent longing for a missing child.
The strengthening of bonds between American Jews and Israel was an unexpected byproduct of the Shalit trauma. It reaffirmed the sense of peoplehood that defines us as Jews but which is too often forgotten or neglected. Now that we are rejoicing in Shalit's freedom -- albeit with concern for his emotional well-being and trepidation about the risk of future terrorist attacks and abductions of soldiers -- we need to capitalize on the sense of connectedness inspired by the fate of one soldier.
Jewish educators, rabbis, communal leaders and parents need to think past the crisis mode, finding new sparks for all of us, but for our young people, in particular, to understand and relate to Israel as a source of pride and inspiration.
Our tradition teaches that to save one life is to save a whole nation. Another central tenet is kol Yisrael arevim zeh l'zeh, we are each responsible for the other. Israel took a courageous risk, based on these fundamental Jewish teachings and others. They are the same principles by which all Jews live. The shared values and destiny are what it means to be part of the Jewish nation. It is what has enabled the Jewish people to survive through millennia.
We owe Gilad Shalit and his family a debt of gratitude for reminding us of this connection. We owe it to them and what he endured as a soldier in service to the Jewish people not to forget who we are. Most of all, we owe it to ourselves.