Lawrence resident Shalom Maidenbaum has been to Israel more than 30 times, but when he and his wife, Iris, touch down on Monday for the opening of the United States Embassy in Jerusalem, it might be his most exciting visit ever.
The opening will not only take place on May 14, the 70th anniversary of the establishment of the modern Jewish state, but will also highlight what many Jewish people believe is the recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s “eternal capital.”
“For me it’s a culmination of a dream, the return to Zion,” Shalom said. “The Five Towns is excited and energized.”
The embassy, now in Tel Aviv, will start operations in its new city in a building in Arnona, in southern Jerusalem, that now houses the consulate general of Jerusalem. The U.S. ambassador, Woodsburgh resident David Friedman, will have a small team of employees. By the end of 2019, a new embassy annex is expected to open in the Arnona compound, with “ex-panded interim office space,” the U.S. State Department announced in February. A search for a permanent site is under way.
Planning began for a $1 billion embassy project after President Trump announced last December that it would be relocated to Jerusalem. But with the use of existing buildings, the budget has been reduced to between $300,000 and $400,000.
In 1989, Israel began leasing a site in Jerusalem to the U.S. for an embassy. Six years later, Congress passed the Jerusalem Embassy Act, which required the embassy to move to Jerusalem by May 31, 1999. Every six months thereafter the president was required to sign a waiver until the embassy opened. Failure to do so would have resulted in massive cuts in State Department funding, which covers costs including security for embassies around the world.
“This is a long time coming, and this is to his credit,” Iris Maidenbaum said of Trump. “We’re so thrilled to celebrate this historic event. We are honored.”
The Maidenbaums — longtime friends of Friedman and his wife, Tammy — won’t be the only local residents at the opening. Rabbi Zalman Wolowik, the spiritual leader of the Chabad of the Five Towns, will also attend. “It’s reaffirming and just amazing,” Wolowik, who was ordained in Jerusalem in 1989, said of the event. “We’re not allowing anti-Semitism to prevail.”
When Trump first heralded the move — a campaign promise he cited in his Dec. 6 announcement — rioting broke out across the Arab community. World leaders were not supportive, and even warned the president about the possible consequences. But Trump has not backed down from these words: “This is a long-overdue step to advance the peace process and to work toward a lasting agreement. Israel is a sovereign nation with the right like every other sovereign nation to determine its own capital.”
Several nations have had embassies in Jerusalem, including Costa Rica and the Netherlands. In 1980, Israel declared Jerusalem the united capital of the country. The United Nations Security Council opposed the declaration, and many nations moved their embassies out of Jerusalem. Costa Rica and El Salvador were the last to leave in 2006.
Israel was barely more than a year old when its first prime minister, David Ben Gurion, said, “There has always been and always will be one capital only — Jerusalem the eternal. Thus it was 3,000 years ago — and thus it will be, we believe, until the end of time.”
Neither the Maidenbaums nor Wolowik knew what was planned for the opening ceremony. All three credit Friedman with helping to make the move happen. His father, Rabbi Morris Friedman, the spiritual leader at Temple Hillel in North Woodmere, was an iconic figure in the Orthodox Jewish community, and was one of the founders of the modern Orthodox movement. Rabbi Friedman hosted President Ronald Reagan when he visited the Five Towns in 1984, at both his home and synagogue.
“We know that David was inspired by that experience,” Shalom Maidenbaum said, “and has deep roots in the American-Israel relationship.”