David Leon’s visit to Israel conjures up memories from 1974

David Leon, president of United Jewish Federation of Tidewater, first travelled to Israel 50 years ago on the first commercial flight from the United States after the Yom Kippur War. This past March, he was on United Airline’s first flight to Israel following the October 7 terrorist attack. Five months after the attacks, United was the only airline in addition to El Al, to resume flights to Israel.

“The similarities are eerie but also much different,” Leon says. “Unfortunately, my United flight stopped in Munich to get a new crew, as the current crew refused to spend the night in Israel.”

Visiting family in Israel, Leon began his journey with dinner in Tel Aviv. “Everyone has been touched by the war,” he says. “My cousin’s son, who was called up to the reserves, lost a very close friend in a terrorist attack in Jerusalem.”

Picking clementines.
Picking clementines.

On the second day of his five-day trip, Leon visited the site of the Sderot police station that was overrun and destroyed by Hamas. He met and thanked Corporal Mali Shoshana, who on October 7, defended the police station by herself on a rooftop and acted as if dead for seven hours.

From the site of the Supernova music festival massacre, Leon could hear Israeli mortar shells in the near distance. From Kibbutz Yad Mordechai, he could see Israeli camera cranes on the Gaza border and Gazan buildings in the distance (there were far fewer buildings than he remembered from a previous trip).

Picking clementines on the third day of his trip with his Israeli cousin and her friends, Leon noted that many of those living at Kibbutz Be’eri had not yet returned. Most every farm in Israel needed help harvesting and planting.

A kibbutznik offered to show them the devastation from the attacks. About 10 % of the kibbutz members were killed or kidnapped, and only a few who could leave had returned. The images were incredibly hard to see, but Leon says he knew the importance of being a witness to the aftermath of the massacre.

He later visited an exhibit at the National Library featuring photos of each hostage with their favorite book, and then Hostage Square, where families sat, talked, and prayed among the many art displays.

Exhibit at the National Library.
Exhibit at the National Library.

John Strelitz, a past UJFT president, was also in Israel in March, and Leon visited with him and his family. Leon recalls how, 50 years ago, Leonard Strelitz was the UJFT president, and Buddy Strelitz and Tommy Hofheimer helped lead the community’s last major emergency campaign, that one for the Yom Kippur War.

Reflecting on the previous generation of Tidewater leadership, Leon says, “Their shoes are much too big to fill, but I feel honored to follow all those before me.”