Rabbi Albert Gabbai remembers exactly where he was on July 4, 1976: in Manhattan, watching a parade of boats floating down the Hudson River, American flag in hand, celebrating the bicentennial of the nation’s independence.
But he said the celebration was interrupted by an announcement that 102 hostages, mostly Jewish and Israeli, in Entebbe, Uganda, had been rescued by Israel Defense Forces commandos.
On July 5, Gabbai will host Miracle at Entebbe, the 45th anniversary commemoration of the military operation at his synagogue, Congregation Mikveh Israel.
Operation Entebbe was lauded by the United States and other western nations as a necessary and “impossible” mission.
Following the hijacking of an Air France flight on June 27 by members of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and the Red Army Faction (a radical West German group), the hijackers kept 106 Israeli and French passengers as hostages, demanding the release of 53 Palestinian and pro-Palestinian hostages, many of whom were prisoners in Israel, and a $5 million ransom.
Led by Lt. Col. Yonatan “Yoni” Netanyahu, the older brother of former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a 29-man assault unit — part of a larger group of 100 commandos — entered the Entebbe International Airport terminal and rescued the hostages.
The operation lasted only 53 minutes, and Yonatan Netanyahu was the only casualty among the commandos.
“It’s an amazing story of creativity, of chutzpah,” said Lou Balcher, the event’s organizer and national director at American Foundation Creating Leadership for Israel.
From Entebbe, Gabbai believes an important lesson can be learned.
“Our rabbis tell us that Jewish people are like a body. When anything in the body hurts, the whole body hurts,” Gabbai said. “Therefore, we are in solidarity together. We’ll go to the end of the world to save our brothers and sisters.”
For Balcher and Gabbai, the connections between Philadelphia and Operation Entebbe are serendipitous, adding to the significance of the event.
Yoni Netanyahu graduated from Cheltenham High School, and his father, Benzion Netanyahu, was a Hebrew language professor at Dropsie College.
For the past 30 years, Congregation Mikveh Israel, nicknamed “the Synagogue of the American Revolution,” has hosted the Miracle at Entebbe event every five years. The synagogue’s fifth location at 44 N. Fourth Street opened on July 4, 1976 — the same date as Operation Entebbe.
Operation Entebbe’s legacy is also widely honored by the U.S. military.
“The raid made all countries aware that special operations forces could be in small groups, could be successful, in daring missions,” said U.S. Army Col. Ken Brier, who will speak at the event.
However, for some Jewish people, Operation Entebbe is more than just a military victory.
“We all feel that remembering our Jewish history, and our Jewish past is vital to our continuation and contributes to our understanding of our values,” Brier said. “Commemorating significant events from our past helps assure our future.”
Major Rami Sherman, one of the special force operatives on the mission, feels similarly.
A second-generation Holocaust survivor, Sherman remembers walking with rescued hostages, in the dark night in Entebbe, one of his most emotional moments during the operation. To Sherman, Operation Entebbe serves as a reminder of the Jewish fight for existence that has been ongoing for thousands of years. This fighting spirit, he said, is what drove him to carry out Operation Entebbe.
The mission, Sherman said, not only highlights the importance of Israel’s existence, but also the mutual responsibility Jewish people have, no matter how far from one another.
“We are together: the Jews in Philadelphia and the Jews in Los Angeles,” Sherman said. “We don’t know each other, but there is something in common, something connected.”
Sherman, having given more than 500 lectures on Entebbe, will share his story on July 5.
Miracle at Entebbe will be an in-person event, but the program also will be shown live over Zoom.
The event begins at 11 a.m. at Congregation Mikveh Israel with a seminar with Ambassador and Consul General of Israel to the New York Consulate Ido Aharoni. It also will feature a video address by Benjamin Netanyahu. The outdoor ceremony begins at 2 p.m.
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