Stanford University students in Jerusalem on a Birthright Israel trip in 2017
Stanford University students in Jerusalem on a Birthright Israel trip in 2017

The lessons of Jewish history, Steve Jobs and the Tenth Roman Legion

Last summer, I led a Birthright Israel trip for Stanford students. One of my favorite moments of the trip came as we walked in the old city of Jerusalem, near Jaffa Gate.

We noticed a streetlight that had been placed on top of a weathered stone. The area was busy and full of restaurants and coffee bars, and most people just rushed by without noticing the light or its base. But one student with a keen eye pointed out that the letters “LEG X” were carved on the stone. It was, we realized, a relic of Titus’ Tenth Roman Legion, which had destroyed Jerusalem and scattered the Jews throughout the world almost 2,000 years ago. It is surely one of the great ironies of history that the ancient stone had been recycled and now helps to light up the city for those the Romans sought to destroy.

I remember standing under that streetlight and feeling overwhelmed with emotion. For almost 2,000 years, Jews had waited to see Jerusalem rebuilt, and ours was the generation that lived to see it. We have seen Jews from 102 countries speaking 80 languages come home.

And I was struck by a question.

It is an unbroken pattern in history that civilizations rise, achieve greatness and appear indestructible, only to falter, crumble and disappear. Only the Jew has endured. How have we done it?

One of the most famous failures of our time was the late Steve Jobs. In his marvelous commencement address at Stanford University, he told the story of the three setbacks that shaped his life: dropping out of university, being fired from the company he founded, Apple, and being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Rather than being defeated by them, he turned them all to creative use, eventually returning to Apple and developing three of the iconic inventions of the 21st century, the iPod, iPhone and iPad.

That, it seems to me, is what has sustained the Jewish people over the ages, through all the defeats, persecutions and even the Holocaust itself: It is our ability to rebuild ourselves after destruction, to turn tragedy to creative use. Like that stone supporting the Jerusalem streetlight, the Jews have weathered the rise and fall of empires, and stone by stone have risen again to create new light. We are the “Startup Nation.”

Today, as Israel celebrates its 70th birthday, Jewish history is calling on us all to be ambassadors for the Jewish state. Never has this been more important. And never more so than in Silicon Valley, which plays an increasingly central role in shaping the future of Israel, and the world as a whole. Our efforts in this valley have a multiplier effect. We must all make Israel’s case in a world that sometimes fails to see the beauty we know is there. With God’s help, we will succeed.

70 years of Israeli statehood! Israel Independence Day kicks off the evening of April 18. To mark the occasion, J. asked dozens of Bay Area Jews to reflect on seven decades of the Jewish state. New ones will be posted daily here.

Rabbi Dov Greenberg
Rabbi Dov Greenberg

Rabbi Dov Greenberg is the executive director of the Rohr Chabad House, a Jewish Center at Stanford University.