By Rabbi Stacey Blank
If you happened to read my last post reflecting on the rocket attack on Israel, I ended with a question: What can I do?
I was happy to receive a call from the Israeli Reform Movement who wanted to organize a group to go down to Ashkelon, which is located 10 kilometers (6 miles) from Gaza and 105 grad rockets were launched on the city and 13 caused damage to buildings, homes, and schools over two weeks of escalation between Hamas and Israel in November. We were asked to lead activities for students at a middle school as a way of easing their transition back into school. Many students suffered from shock and trauma and it was difficult for them to resume normal studies. I jumped at the opportunity and happily added to my car for the hour and twenty minute ride down from Jerusalem an Israeli rabbinical student, a young worker in the Reform movement headquarters, and the director of the Reform kindergartens. Our plan was to lead activities about Chanukah, since that fun holiday is just around the corner.
Driving through Ashkelon, which has some lovely parts and is by the sea, I didn’t see any signs of damage. It felt like a normal, beautiful sunny day in the land of Israel. At the school, we met more people from the Israeli Reform Movement headquarters and six 18-year-old participants in the movement’s Pre-Army program from Jaffa. The energetic principal of the huge school (seven classes of at least 30 kids in each grade!) greeted us with a smile and was clearly organized for our visit – for me, already a sign that they wanted us to be there and made this a priority. She repeated the request that had been sent out in the email: Please do fun activities and nothing too serious or requiring too much deep thought. These kids need respite.
I entered first a seventh grade classroom, armed with about five different activities depending on how things would go. Discipline is generally an issue in Israeli schools, and I was happy to see a teacher there to assist. I divided the class into two groups and we had a “contest” answering trivia questions about Chanukah, and then we had a “sing down” of different Chanukah songs (there are more Israeli Chanukah songs than for any other holiday!). They got really into it, and they even learned new things about the holiday. From there, I went to a 9th grade class that was much smaller (Only afterwards, the teacher said, “Maybe I should have mentioned before you started that this is a class of kids with learning disabilities”). We started the trivia, but emotions ran high among some girls. So, I switched to a more serious topic – but optimistic! – sharing some Jewish sources about the value in Chanukah of light – our need for light, the inner light that resides in each and every one, and the teachings in Judaism that instruct us to bring that light to the world. The students spoke about making peace, there should be no more war, being loving people, and how we can be supportive to each other. I ended the day with an 8th grade class. What can I say – it was the end of the day and the 13-year-old hormones were raging! We also did the trivia game and as the time ran out, I was proud of myself that I managed to pull the class together (better than the teacher was doing, I am sad to say) and leave them also with the message of the special light that each of them has inside of them.
The amusing part of the day – each class was fascinated with my foreign name and my accent (all the kids I met were native Israelis except one girl who was excited to tell me after the class that she was born in Canada). So at the start of each activity, I had to explain my origin and framed it to them in a joking way: You guys are the real tzabars (natives), and I am the real Zionist!
The fascinating part of the day – This was Israel. In each classroom, there were white Ashkenazic kids, dark kids of North African descent, Russians, Ethiopians, some boys with kipot, some boys with earrings. This was Israel’s melting pot/salad. There was youthful enthusiasm, joking and laughing, singing, alongside hormones and teenage spats. But our common conversation – in this secular public school – was around our holiday, Chanukah and there was a place and a message for all. And despite the shouting, the emotions, and all the antics of this age, I really did feel the love and appreciation from the kids and staff.
We never spoke about the rockets, not with the kids and not with the teachers. On the one hand, I was so focused on my mission. But also, it wasn’t what I came there for. We came there to smile, laugh, be a part of the Jewish People, and to move on together.
Rabbi Stacey Blank served as the rabbi of Congregation Darchei Noam, an IMPJ Congregation in Ramat HaSharon, from 2007-2012. She helps facilitate the relationship between the youth organizations BBYO and Tzameret, as well working with families and individuals who arrive from abroad, mainly performing bar/bat mitzvah ceremonies and weddings. This post was originally published on her blog.