Israel Update #2 from Rabbi B — 1/23/24:
Shalom from Israel! Hello friends, I am writing to you from my hotel room in Tel Aviv after what was a very challenging and emotionally draining day. The morning started off nicely with a 6:45am walk through Jerusalem with my friend Rabbi Noah Chertkoff. We wound our way around Jerusalem, sharing nostalgic moments from when we lived here for our first year of HUC and ended up at the shuk. Of course we had to buy some rugelach from the Marzipan bakery. After our walk we loaded into our bus and headed to the Arab village of Rahat, home to a large Bedouin (Muslim) population. The Bedouins are Arab Muslims, and they are also Israeli citizens. In Rahat we met with an inspiring young woman named Ayesha who shared openly and candidly about her community’s struggles in Israel, not feeling Palestinian enough for the Palestinians and not feeling Israeli enough for the Israelis. But Ayesha and her community have been working to make change, and their community center offers a number of ongoing experiential programs bringing Jews and Arabs together with a cause. Ayesha was joined by the director of the center as well as her Shaikh, both of whom were adamant about the importance of building bridges. The presentation ended with a 7 minute move about the Bedouins who jumped into action on October 7 and saved a number of people, putting their own lives in grave danger. It was a very moving meeting.
While we were near Gaza we decided to take some time to go to the site of the Nova Music Festival masacre to pay our respects and see the place for ourselves. The site, a big park near Kibbutz Re’im was gorgeous, with lots of trees and open spaces. Like K’far Aza, it’s so jarring to think about the atrocities that took place here. You’ll see in the pictures that in what was the main stage music area there is a memorial that has been set up for the dead and those who are still held captive in Gaza. Being in this space was just devastating, as I imagined these kids who were enjoying a weekend of dancing and fun, not knowing that their lives would be ending hours later. The spot feels particularly heavy. Our tour guide Beni explained to us through tears (how could one not feel emotional here) how the attack happened, where people ran, and where they hid. Our group said a memorial prayer on that spot, praying for the souls of all those kids who were just in the wrong place at the wrong time. The Jewish National Fund has planted a tree for each victim on the site and there are many memorial tags, signs, pictures, and items. In one of the attached videos, you can hear an explosion in the background as we could hear Israel striking in southern Gaza.
Overall this felt like a very important day, and is one that I know I will never forget. The contrast of the beautiful light landscape versus the utter darkness of what happened here, somehow makes these attacks even more severe, even more evil. As I mentioned, we heard both from Lir and others throughout the day that there are some who say that October 7 didn’t really happen, that it was all propaganda. I wish that were true. Because to witness the aftermath of these sites, to see the remnants of pain and suffering with my own eyes, to hear the stories and see the bullet holes and charred remains, I can tell you that something truly evil happened in this place.
May we all have a little more empathy tonight, for everyone in Israel and Gaza. From Mishkan Tefilah: “Let there be love and understanding among us. May peace and friendship be our shelter from life’s storms.”
We were met at the gate of K’far Aza by Lir, a 27 year old lifelong resident of the kibbutz who survived the October 7 attacks. There were a number of other groups there, all wanting to witness K’far Aza. The kibbutz itself is beautiful and lush and green - it was so hard to square its physical beauty with the horrors that happened there. Someone from our group asked Lir how she felt about leading this type of tour. She indicated that she wants everyone to know what happened here on October 7, especially as some around the world say that October 7 never happened. Setting foot on K’far Aza the gravity and barbarity of what happened there is immediately evident. Lir walked us through the different neighborhoods of the kibbutz and we saw house after house filled with the evidence of these murders and terrorism. Lir told us which of her friends lived in which homes, who was murdered and who is still a captive in Gaza. The pictures don’t do it justice, because there was just too much to photograph. The personal stories were the most tragic. Text conversations were printed from October 7 as people said goodbye to their loved ones or tried frantically to get some sort of help. A couch where two young adults were shot to death remains in their house so we can bear witness. The place is riddled with gunshot holes, each one tells a specific, horrible story. She showed us a hole in a lamppost as we learned that was the bullet that killed the mayor of the kibbutz. Just tragic in every way. The kibbutz would like to rebuild someday, but they are a long way from that point. Again, I’ll talk more about this following sabbatical. I’m including a number of pictures and there were so many more and so many I didn’t take.
Finally we headed north to Tel Aviv where we checked into the hotel and heard a presentation called Rays of Light. This newly formed organization's mission is to amplify women’s voices from October 7, to tell their stories, and to use art as a way of healing and grieving. They are recording women’s stories and then pairing them with displays of moving sand art, and the sand art tells the story. I know that’s not a great explanation, but it’s almost midnight here and I haven’t slept much! We watched two of the women’s stories that were recorded in English and they were extremely moving and powerful. When the English versions get uploaded to their website or social media I will link to them.
Israel Update #1 from Rabbi B — 1/22/24:
Shalom From Jerusalem! Hello friends - I am writing to you from my hotel room having just completed a whirlwind first day of our Rabbinic Solidarity trip to Israel. I will write more about this trip after the conclusion of my sabbatical, but wanted to share some pictures from today. After our uneventful overnight flight, we arrived in Israel and started our trip immediately.
From Rahat we got back in our bus and headed down to the Gaza region starting first at K’far Aza. K’far Aza borders Gaza (Aza is how you say Gaza in Hebrew) and it was one of the kibbutzim that was attacked the most ferociously on October 7. It is hard to put into words what this experience was like, because the horrors we witnessed, even 109 days later, felt very fresh and very raw.
We meandered our way out of Mt Herzl and headed into Jerusalem where we met with the rabbi and CEO of the Conservative Yeshiva, discussed the Jewish values of a solidarity trip, and heard about their community’s reaction to October 7. From there we checked into the hotel and met with Khaled Abu Toameh, a Muslim arab-Israeli reporter who often reports from Gaza and the West Bank. We heard his perspective on October 7, the war with Hamas, and what it’s like to live in Israel as an arab citizen. Finally we rounded out the night we a walk around our beloved Jerusalem ending up at a restaurant on Emek Refaim for dinner. We returned to our hotel that is not only housing travelers, but also families displaced from Ashkelon and Sderot. The multi-generation family in the rooms across from ours have a large family and have been here for months.
Our amazing tour guide Beni Levin took us from the airport to Mt. Herzl, the site of Israel’s national cemetery to start our trip with some reflection and empathy. We happened to arrive as a funeral for Rebecca, a young soldier originally from the Netherlands, was taking place. I didn’t feel right taking a picture there, but it was moving to hear Rebecca’s story, as well as to see the huge group of people who showed Rebecca’s family love and compassion by just being there. We then went up to the new section of the cemetery which is the final resting place for soldiers who have been killed in the current war. It was there that we happened to meet Ilana, the mother of Avi Ashkenazi, z’l, who told us all about her son who was killed in November. Avi was great with computers and could have done anything he wanted in the tech field, but he felt like he needed to be protecting Israel. We all shed tears as Ilana lovingly talked about Avi, cared for his grave, and talked to him. She said that we could share this picture and remember him. Standing there with a deeply grieving mother was devastating and powerful.
Israel Update #3 from Rabbi B — 1/25/24:
Shalom from Israel! After a very heavy day yesterday, our wonderful tour guide Beni (his company is LET.travel) decided that today’s theme would be hope. There is a powerful story that I told a few years ago, written by Rabbi Hugo Gryn about his time as a boy in Auschwitz. One winter evening in the barrack, Gryn’s father drew him into a quiet corner, explaining that it was the first night of Hanukkah. He watched in amazement as his father plucked a few threads from his prison uniform for a wick and lit them in the day’s now melted butter ration. Then the boy became angry; how could they waste this precious food for a makeshift menorah? His father replied: “My dear son, you and I have seen that it is possible to live for a very long time without food. But Hugo, a person cannot live even for a day without hope.”
It is easy to feel hopeless in these dark times. Witnessing the aftermath of these horrible atrocities in person, I certainly felt many moments of hopelessness and despair. But there are so many reasons to be hopeful about Israel and all of humanity, and today’s tour highlighted some of them.
After our morning walk around Tel Aviv got rained out, our group met in the hotel for a traditional Israeli breakfast (Israeli salad is the best) and some catching up. We then loaded our bus and stopped at a very special school in Jaffa (the city connected to Tel Aviv). This school, called Yad b’Yad (Hand in Hand) is one of 6 public schools in Israel that work to bring together Jewish and Arab students. Each class is split with Jewish students and Arab students. Many of the Arabs are Muslim and some identify as Palestinian and some are Christian. Classes are taught by teams of two teachers, one Israeli and one Arab. The kids learn both Hebrew and Arabic, and share traditions with one another. There is so much hope that this model offers. We got to witness a gym class where the kids were running around and playing and just being kids. Together. They celebrate Jewish holidays and Muslim holidays in the classroom. The teachers model positive interactions for the kids and though it’s not perfect, it is an inspiring school for sure. We asked the principal if things had changed for the students since October 7. He said that some of the teachers were nervous to come back after they were closed, but they have been able to find common ground and acknowledge that there is much that binds our people together. Not to mention the kids were really cute and asked us funny questions.
We got back on the bus after some great discussions and stopped by the Tel Aviv shuk (market) to do some shopping. I got our kids some t-shirts that they’ll likely never wear and some chocolate that they’ll likely devour in a matter of minutes. It was fun to see the lively marketplace that was also a good mix of Jews and Arabs.
I have been thinking about my dad a lot while we have been here. The last time he and I were here together was in 2003 when he brought me to Jerusalem to start my year in Israel in rabbinical school. I remember going to the old city together and seeing him haggle relentlessly with the merchants, truly embracing his Israeliness. Unfortunately that gene didn’t get passed on and I’ll accept any price the merchant gives me. Oh well. My dad loved his home country, and even in times of great distress (he snuck home to Israel from college in the US to fight in the 1967 war without telling his parents) he was hopeful about Israel’s future. That optimistic hopeful gene seems to have transferred to me, so I am grateful.
After the shuk we rode over to a hospital in Tel Aviv where many soldiers are recovering from injuries sustained in the Gaza war. We got to meet with a number of soldiers whose love of Israel and the Jewish people was inspiring. Talk about hope and optimism - even though these young people were recovering from serious injuries, and many of them witnessed horrible carnage on October 7, they were all hopeful about the future. Seeing this Gaza war from inside Israel and hearing that Israelis have so many different opinions (each person has their own plan for long-term peace) has been a good reminder that there is so much more nuance than the media would have us believe. Meeting with Arab community members in Israel was eye-opening as well. Hope certainly resides with all of the young people we met. An additional benefit, I ran into Yeshi, who used to live in Columbus, and she’s now a nurse in this hospital.
Our day continued after the hospital and we were again focused on the survivors of the Nova Music Festival masacre. On the way to our next location we were joined on our bus by Ron who shared his survival story from that horrible day. Later in the day we heard from another survivor named Noam who narrowly escaped death a number of times at Nova. Ron described in detai how he and his brother escaped, but there were so many cars that the street and entrance area was totally blocked. They ran and hid nearby and found an abandoned car that was still running. Ron and his brother were able to pick up a bunch of people along the way and finally made it far enough north where they were safe. At a certain point in their journey, Ron decided that they needed to turn around and drive back toward the festival because he had left two friends behind in the chaos of the first few moments. Everyone in the car (12 of them) didn’t like that idea, but Ron felt he couldn’t leave his friends behind. And miraculously, he was able to find them and drive the entire group back to Beer Sheva where they were safe. Noam, unfortunately, saw a lot of carnage. When it became clear that an attack was happening somewhere, but they couldn’t get out, Ron took out his bluetooth speaker to play music for the people around him to calm them down. There was finally an opportunity for him to try to escape, so he drove some people as far as they could, but couldn’t get through. Noam and his girlfriend Jenny and a few other people ran as fast as they could and hid beneath the vines of a large tree in the area. They had to sit completely silently for more than 4 hours, as they could hear Hamas terrorists only a few feet away from them. Finally, luckily Noam had taken his back seats out of the car, so he was able to rescue a lot of people as well. He now feels that it is his mission to tell this story and to help make sure nothing like this happens again. Both of those stories, and so many others from Nova were both terrifying and completely inspiring at the same time. These young people who were in such a horrible position weren’t just thinking about themselves - they were thinking about their community and complete strangers. Ron turned back and drove toward danger to pick up his friends. Noam calmed complete strangers and packed as many people as he could in his car. I know that I will be focusing on the beautiful acts of humanity and kindness that were displayed that day through the darkest of times.
This afternoon we visited two organizations set up to help people who are in need. The first is a special gathering place once a month for people from the Nova music festival and their supporters. There were over 4,000 people at that festival, all of whom were traumatized by those events. We heard from people who were there that they couldn’t focus on anything or go to work. So this place is a place of healing. It is a gathering space with comfy furniture, music, projects, food and drink, and artwork from Nova. When we were there, we saw probably 30-40 people just relaxing and talking, some sitting on pillows on the ground, some drinking tea. It felt like a holy space as well. We also visited an organization called Brothers in Arms. This organization is so impressive. Originally the organization was set up to organize protests around judicial reform in Israel. But when October 7 happened the quickly pivoted to assist the government in collecting much needed supplies for displaced families and soldiers. They took over the entire parking garage of the Tel Aviv Convention Center and have been helping people since the day after. Donations have poured in steadily, to the point where they have more goods than they can give away. It was another example of people coming together, with no personal gain, to help others.
In the evening before dinner we took some time a what is now called Hostage Square in Tel Aviv. This is a permanent vigil for those who are still being held captive. It was very moving to see the Shabbat table set, the tunnel which has the same dimensions as some of the tunnels under Gaza, to hear people singing songs of hope and keeping these souls in our minds. We continue to pray for their quick and safe return.
These stories of humanity and people doing the right thing only scratch the surface. There are so many more stories from October 7 and beyond that are truly inspiring and remind us that the good in our society will always outweigh the evil.
Beni was right - this truly was a day of hope.
As our trip wraps up, I will find some time after Sabbatical to write more about the trip, to talk about it on a Friday night, and share more in-depth in an upcoming class.
This has been such a powerful and meaningful and exhausting journey. But in the end, it is the goodness of people, the care they show for one another, the humanity displayed after tragedy that will stick with me for a long time. Hope will always endure. L’chaim, to life.
While witnessing the aftermath of terror, I have also felt fortunate to witness true Israel resilience throughout this trip. Ayesha our new Muslim friend, who faces resistance from both her community and Israelis, still pours her heart into building connections and empathy each day. And in K’far Aza our guide Lir, even after losing so many loved ones in such a violent way, shows up to her empty kibbutz each day to take people around and show them what happened. She loves K’far Aza and plans to rebuild and one day raise her kids there. And finally, the women of Rays of Light are working hard to produce art that tells these important stories and helps heal the broken hearts and souls. For this resilience, for love in the face of hate, for empathy for every human being, tonight I am grateful.
It feels so right to be here right now, to smell the Jerusalem air, to show our brothers and sisters our love and support by being here. More updates tomorrow night and when I return from sabbatical I’ll write more in-depth about this experience.