By Rabbi Bennett F. Miller, ARZA Chair
Below is the concluding report that I prepared prior to my arriving at JFK this morning. As I am sure you all know, our hopes are that the missile strikes would not begin again and that the ceasefire would hold. I have chosen to leave my words as they were written prior to the renewed shelling. Let us all hope and pray that the missiles will go silent again very soon.
Jerusalem, no missiles, no sirens, not even a false alarm as the day begins. Of course, a quick breakfast and we are on our way.
We enter one of the great historic buildings on King George Street. It is home to the Jewish Agency for Israel, the Jewish National Fund, and the World Zionist Organization. Just walking the halls you feel the history of the Zionist enterprise since Theodor Herzl first called into session the World Zionist Congress in Basel Switzerland, dreaming of a return to the Jewish national homeland. (The next World Zionist Congress will be in October 2015. You all will hear more about it soon as you will be eligible to vote. I hope to be on the ballot, representing our Reform Movement).
We meet with Becky Caspi, one of the unsung heroes of the Jewish People. Together with a small staff, Becky and her colleagues have been busy meeting with representatives of towns and cities in the south, reviewing requests for proposals and evaluating them to see how to help those in need of respite care, relief, trauma counseling and so much more. From the very beginning of this war the Jewish Federations of North America have been working with all of these groups to provide vital assistance. Imagine some 45 thousand children who are taken out of the area where missiles are falling; they are taken to safe areas, to parks, going on “vacation” so that they do not spend every moment of the day in safe rooms. And there are hundreds and hundreds of families who have been evacuated because where they live has been endangered (including some of the areas where Hamas has built underground tunnels, with terrorists ready to pop up out of their holes to kill Jews. I wish I was exaggerating). You won’t read about the details of the evacuations in the press because to publicize it would give Hamas a sense of victory; remember, its goal is to rid the area of Jews!)
To date, through the JFNA Stop the Sirens Emergency campaign, more than $12 million dollars has been allocated. And it is all being allocated to JAFI (the Jewish Agency for Israel), JDC (The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee), ORT (the Organization for Rehabilitation and Training), ITC (Israel Trauma Center), IMPJ (Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism) and Masorti (The Conservative Movement’s arm in Israel). I am always overwhelmed by the Jewish communities of North America and how they respond to crises wherever Jewish life is endangered. Our own Jewish Federation of Middlesex County is a full participant in this endeavor (if you have not yet made a financial commitment to the Federation’s Stop the Sirens Campaign, please do so). We get a full and thorough briefing. But, of course, Becky’s response to us is, “I am not going to say thank you. I am going to say Kol Hakavod. Do not underestimate what you have done in coming. I am aware of the cost, the time, and the effort. And the impact on all of us is beyond measure.”
We leave Becky and walk a few blocks to Ben Yehudah Street. We are going on a shopping spree, well, sort of. We spread out into a few small groups and I go to one of the army surplus stores. I buy a few flashlights that a person wears on the forehead. And I also purchase a Pakal kit. This is a portable coffee maker, including thermos, gas container and cooker. These items will be given to “lone soldiers,” who are serving in the army. These soldiers are living here in Israel without having family here. They don’t have parents and grandparents to buy them these items. So we do and then we bring them over to the “Lone Soldiers Home.” Among the lone soldiers is Ben Rathauser, one of our Temple’s young men; and Koby Hodes, who graduated from the Temple a year ago is about to become a lone soldier, too. Koby has joined me for the day. Such a nice young man!
It’s not a home, but it is a home. It’s located on the second floor of an alley off of Ben Yehudah Street. There is another one in Tel Aviv and also in Be’er Sheva. The “Lone Soldier’s Home” is a place for the 5900 soldiers, mostly from North America, but also from other parts of the world, who have come to serve in the Israel Defense Forces. Here they can come for all kinds of help: aid in getting an apartment, furniture, advice, friendship, join for a barbecue or share in a beer, and so much more. Everyone in the country knows about lone soldiers. In fact, one of them, Max Steinberg, was among the first to be killed in action in Gaza. Some 20,000 people showed up at his funeral. He was a young man from California. He is now one of the many buried on Mt. Herzl in the military cemetery. I’ll visit his grave later in the day. And one young man told me that he received 37 invitations to be adopted by families in Israel. We drop off our gifts; they will soon be given to lone soldiers. A quick bite at one of the old favorite humus and falafel stands on King George Street, and then off to Mt. Herzl.
The next hour or so will be very quiet for each of us. We walk among the graves of some of the heroes of the Jewish people; not the scholars or Nobel Prize winners, or philanthropists; and we don’t visit the area where Israel’s political figures are laid to rest. We are there to visit the graves of those brave, courageous soldiers who gave their lives in defense of Israel and the Jewish people.
I stop at the grave of Jonathan Netanyahu, brother of Bibi. He died in the rescue of Jews at Entebbe in Uganda many years ago. You can tell from the pebbles and stones on his grave that many come to visit and pay homage. And I stop at the grave of Michael Levin, a lone soldier, who died in the 2nd Lebanon War a few years ago. He was from Philadelphia. On his grave are all kinds of items, pebbles, stones, Phillie’s hats, and more. Rabbi Josh Weinberg, ARZA’s president tells us that he knew Michael Levin; they had played basketball together every Friday Michael and his best friend Ben would meet and drink coffee together. Sometime after his death, Michael’s mother visited Israel and went to the cemetery. When she got there, she found Ben (it was a Friday) with his Pakal (the portable coffee kit) making coffee. At first she was angry until Ben told her that he and Michael used to drink coffee together every Friday. “Ben,” she said, “please come every Friday and continue to drink your coffee here with Michael.” More quiet and more visiting graves, some very freshly dug, only a few days ago. There have been 64 killed by Hamas, 60 soldiers among them. And Hamas wants to declare victory!
Speaking of victory, there is no victory here. I think Israel is in trauma. The population is exhausted from a month long battle, from more than 3500 missile raining down anywhere at any time, from running to safe rooms or lying down a few feet from the car until the “red alert” is over, worrying about sons and daughters and husbands and fathers who are on the front or in Gaza. No one is suffering Post Traumatic Syndrome because they are still in the midst of the trauma. The PTS will come later, and the country will find a way to confront it. Israel has no choice. And there is not victory for Hamas; they have brought about death and destruction to the Palestinians that is incomprehensible.
At the same time, in Israel, I have never seen such resilient people. Today, people were out in the streets, at the cafes, going to work as they have done every day. To do any less would give Hamas a victory. But the tourists have cancelled, the hotels are empty, and will probably remain so for several months. And who knows what will happen tomorrow at 8 AM (Friday) when the 72 hour ceasefire comes to an end. Everyone is wondering. A few friends have said to me (with a bit or sad humor) “Since you brought the ceasefire with you when you arrived, perhaps you could stay longer so that Hamas does not start up again.” I hope that my friends, that all Israel will have a quiet Shabbat. Everyone needs the rest.
One more stop, over to the NFTY office. NFTY (North American Federation of Temple Youth) is our movement’s youth program. Some 500 high school students spent the summer in Israel this year. Only 4 went home because of the war. The NFTY staff in Israel and New York made sure the kids were safe every day, designed and redesigned an educational program that transformed all of these kids into “Zionists” forever. And these folks communicated with parents every day, every moment of the day, reassuring them that their kids were safe. We owe them our deepest respect and gratitude. I am sure it will be a summer they will never forget. And now they are preparing for Birthright groups due to arrive, and in a few weeks, the next cohort of EIE students who will be studying for the semester.
A few minutes at the hotel to pack, down for a quick dinner, and off to the airport. I am on El Al Flight 001, bound for JFK. Three nights in Israel, two nights on the plane. One of the flight attendants asks me what I did during my stay in Israel. After I tell her, she pauses, and says, “thank you for coming, from all of us. You can’t imagine what it means to every person in Israel.” The same refrain, but genuine and heartfelt. I don’t know, I don’t think that what I did was so special or noble. I came because I had to, I visited with anyone I could, and I let them know that they are not alone.
There is an irony I want to share. When I was in Sederot I met a group (two busloads full) of Christians, (from Christians United for Israel). There was at least one from every state in the U.S. Like, us, the came to be in solidarity with Israel. And they are with me on the plane back home. They also came for a few days. I asked a lot people to join me. So many said they wished they could, but they didn’t come. The Christians did come. I can’t get it out of my head. Jewish leaders from America have come. They always do. But what about rest of the Jewish community? My dear friends at home, Israel needs you to come and to come in big numbers; not to come as tourists, but to come as family who care deeply. The Israeli economy is in shambles, the hotels are empty. One taxi driver told me his business is down 80 percent. Israel doesn’t need Tzedakah, it needs us to come and bring our support. And if there is another opportunity for me to return to Israel in the coming days I hope you will join me.
By the way, it may take months and the cost to Israel is enormous, but the economy will recover, and tourists will eventually return, but for now, you and I should be doing all that we can. My guess is that by Rosh Hashanah, normalcy will be restored. Israelis will argue with each other about the government, about taxes, about the economy, and about a one state or two state solution. You and I and they will engage again over the issues of Women of the Wall, conversion, discrimination against women and Arabs, the legitimacy of a rapidly growing Reform Movement and its right to be fully recognized in Israel. That’s how it should be. And I will ask you to join me in the World Zionist Congress elections so that we can fight the good fight on behalf of all of these issues and concerns.
You see, the Israel that we dream of is not yet a reality. And there are forces of hate in Israel, racists who are even willing to kill Arabs, thugs who will mug people on the street, and gangs of ultra-orthodox youth who are the antithesis of everything you and I stand for. That’s Israel, too. After all, Israel is not some mystical fantasy. It is a very real and exciting and thrilling land and people. And after two thousand years of dreaming about what it would be like to have a place where Jews could determine their own destiny, we now have it, for sixty six years we have it. The cost has been blood and sweat and tears and money and sacrifice and pride and joy and the dedication of World Jewry, together with every person who lives in the land of our ancestors.
Let’s celebrate all of that with pride, in solidarity, and together continue the sacred work of making Israel a model, a beacon of light in a world that has become so dark, for all the world to see.
I am looking up at the screen on the wall. It says we are somewhere over Italy. Next stop, JFK. I think it will take days to process it all. For those of you who have been patiently reading my words, I hope that I helped you to see a picture far different than the one you have seen on television, Facebook, or the newspapers. My reporting is biased, for sure. I have brought report of the most courageous people on the face of the earth, the “chosen people,” the “people of the book,” our brothers and sisters in Israel. I can’t imagine Jewish life without them and without the power of the Land of Israel that has nurtured and inspired our people since Abraham first heard the call of the Divine.
To everyone: Shabbat Shalom. I hope to see you at Temple later tonight. We will welcome the Shechinah, God’s Divine Presence, into our midst; we will sing songs of Shabbat celebrating Creation and the gift of Torah; and we will say words of Kaddish for all of our loved ones, for the 64 who perished, and for all the innocent lives that were lost in these past days.