Each day, 2-3 volunteers will write up some reflections and share some pictures of our mission. Having all arrived safely in Israel, I (Rabbi Lucas) offered a kavanah (intention) for our first day – gratitude. We are all grateful for the support of our family and friends, for our health to be able to travel and participate in this mission, for the blessing of Israel. After meeting Dani, Nir, and Gilad, the notion of gratitude took on a whole new meaning. They are leaders of an organization called barefoot farmers which employs a natural setting and a variety of therapeutic approaches including work with horses to address PTSD and other forms of trauma in combat veterans and those affected by the events of October 7. I left feeling grateful for their courage in addressing issues of trauma with vulnerability and openness. I also left mindful of the many sacrifices that soldiers make to their wellness – some physical, others emotional – in their efforts to keep us safe. We owe them our support and gratitude.
Michael Ozer- Temple Beth Am
Getting off the plane was easy with total biometric entry. Passport Control was empty…. expected but still startling.
On the bus…a brief kavanah by Rabbi Ari Lucas on “gratitude”.
Our guide David Keren was introduced by Rabbi Kligfeld whi has know him since he directed his USY Nativ program in 1990. David was a tank commander during the Yom Kippur war. David tells us how even young soldiers today feel they are fighting for the life of the Jewish state.
Danny’s Farm: Moshav Sitriya
Danny begins by expressing thanks for our visit. The importance of being present for those who have lived here for the past 120 days is one of the prime reasons our solidarity mission is here…that is the true essence of solidarity.
Before the war Danny’s Farm helped mainly at-risk children. Since the war, there’s been a pivot to help soldiers with PTSD.
Danny described animals as helping to treat the “soul”. They have treated over 2000 soldiers since the war with horses and nature. The Ministry of Defence has now designated it officially as a treatment facility. Thus they are now getting official referrals, although the majority of those they see are still by word of mouth(70%)
Gilad was introduced. He is now 70. As a 19 year old paratrooper soldier in the Yom Kippur war he lost 43 soldiers from his platoon. His father was an Auschwitz survivor. In 1973 PTSD was not known as a diagnostic entity. Gilad came to Danny’s Farm 2 yrs ago. After a year of being with a group of soldiers and sharing time with the horses and other animals, he feels much better. His feelings of shame have faded, and he indicated that he feels better accepted for his positive contribution.
Another participant in our visit was Nim who seems to be involved in fundraising for Danny’s Farm. He gave a brief description of how horses work to help in PTSD. Because they are so sensitive, being next to a horse can help soldiers with PTSD and children with developmental issues and special needs shed their defense mechanisms. Danny’s Farm works with professional social workers, psychiatrists, and volunteers to help service those who visit for therapy.
Thinking about the scale of the PTSD problem now in Israel in both the IDF and the civilian population after 10/07 boggles the imagination.
I’ll start this synopsis before we even left NJ. The gate for our flight at Newark on Saturday evening was completely full of Jews – young and old, reform and orthodox, even a few dogs! – all heading to Israel to bear witness and support those suffering.
My sister (Julie Rosen) and I were able to spend Sunday evening and Monday morning with our aunt, uncle, and cousins in Omer (about 15 min from Beer Sheva in the Negev). My family shared their experience on Oct 7 and the days that followed (evacuating from moshav sde nitzan), highlighting how different it was from previous “incidents” and how they’re feeling today, four months later.
Immediately upon meeting the mission group back at the airport in Tel Aviv today, JJ – our travel coordinator – thanked us for being here. He shared that the day-to-day lives of Israelis are back to “normal” – kids are going to school, adults are going to work, bars and restaurants are filling up… – but no one is okay “in the mind.” He told us that everyone has a heavy heart and the best thing we can do is give hugs. (One of our co-travelers, Sarah, stepped forward right then to give him a big one!)
Once we got on the bus, we made our way to Danny’s Farm, an NGO that works with soldiers experiencing combat PTSD. The farm has therapeutic horses, goats, and dogs alongside social workers, therapists, and psychiatrists. Since Oct 7, they’ve expanded to support those with PTSD for not only soldiers but also families of soldiers, families of hostages, and those who have lost children, siblings, or parents. To help manage the thousands who have sought out the farm in recent months, they’ve begun enlisting those who have been coming to Danny’s for a while to act as mentors and guides for newer individuals. This full-circle program has positively impacted all involved!
Danny reminded us that a “spiritual amputation is just as difficult as a physical one.” The farm’s goal is to help those suffering uncover the compressed PTSD to ultimately allow them to live “normal” lives, having worked through the traumas that hinder them.
Our evening ended with a lovely group dinner at the Orient Hotel, where we also encountered many evacuees. Despite the circumstances, I was pleased to see a large group celebrating a birthday with wine and snacks (I took a photo for them, even utilizing some of my rusty Russian skills!) as well as some teenagers laughing and having fun together, hopefully making the best of what is truly an awful circumstance.
Deborah and Michael Torgan- Temple Beth Am
We knew today would be one for the history books and it ended up almost too much to take in for one day. The best way to explain today was RAW. Just raw, raw emotions. It is hard to process everything that took place in just one day. It will take a while to navigate the meaning internally as a person and a Jew. Today was paradoxical with emotionsranging from sorrow, anguish, sadness and even anger, but strangely there was a strong sense of pride.
What can we say when what you experience hits you at your core like never before, witnessing things that one would hope to never see in a lifetime.
Initially the day began with the opportunity to feel like we were helping to “nourish” the communities and lend a hand where the workforce has been more reliant on outside help while understanding how the farming community is so important to Israel’s sustenance.
Our next stop was Kibbutz Nahal Oz and that was the beginning of the hard reality. Instead of seeing a vibrant community, there was this haunting feeling of noticing more dogs than people, hearing tanks repositioning instead of farm equipment tilling the land and then hearing and felling the artillery shelling that sent a realism unlike any other.
Listening to our guide Nadav was truly heart wrenching. For him to take us into his home, reliving his experience to share the minutia details of the atrocities of what occurred minute by minute was so raw. As on que we heard the booms and felt the shaking furthering the realization how fragile life is. One gets 7 SECONDS to get to safety! That just doesn’t seem plausible but,yet this is their existence. If one wasn’t feeling like they were about to hyperventilate in those moments he was sharing, it certainly was at the Nova Festival Memorial Site. Gut wrenching! Raw. How could over 3,000 young souls be allowed at a festival so close to the border without enough protection? It felt like a slow burn of sorrow as we walked through the area that intensified with the artillery sounds going off. Yet there it stood in front of us and around us, that pride of seeing Jews from all over Israel and the world side by side, no matter what religious position, sharing, singing, grieving, praying, believing and stronger by being there. In the end we very much appreciated the opportunity to be in groups to sit and decompress and share ALL OF THE FEELINGS! What a day🙏.
Joel and Nancy Caplan
We knew that being in Israel now would be an emotional jumble. Well, today was.
If there was a theme, it would be Am Echad — a United Jewish People.
NOVA: This is the site of the October 7 alternative music concert where Hamas terrorists butchered-or-kidnapped around 365 of the 2,000 twenty-somethings in attendance. The site is an open field, like a park, within a mile or so of the Gaza border.
Hundreds of poles have been set up on the site, with a life-size photo of one of the 365 on each pole. You wander among them and weep. [PHOTOS TO COME]
After davening Mincha, saying Kaddish, and debriefing together, I sang El Maley Rachamim in memory of the murdered young people as artillery explosions boomed from nearby. The booms were jarring, but they were from Our Side, doing — as Rabbi Kligfeld said — “the necessary work to protect the State of Israel”.
At the same time, a nearby group of fifty or so Yeshiva students stood arm in arm, singing “Acheinu” (Bring Our Captives from Darkness to Light) and “V’hi She-amda” (In Every Age Someone Wants to Annihilate Us, but God Delivers Us from Their Hands).
Rabbi Kligfeld commented, “Here’s one facet of Jewish unity: You see frum groups around us here, Yeshiva groups and others, who have come to mourn bohemian people whose lifestyle they might well have branded as ‘sinful’.”
We also saw at least three different groups of soldiers here, in uniform — not on security duty, but here to mourn and debrief, as we were doing. In the past, to instill “you’re here to protect the Jewish people”, groups have soldiers have been taken to Yad Vashem or Poland. Well, maybe now they’re coming here to do that.
NAHAL OZ: This is one of eleven kibbutzim set up in 1948 along the Gaza border, embodying the idea that “the border of Israel is marked by where we plow”. About 450 people were living in the kibbutz when, on October 7, hundreds of terrorists from Gaza swarmed in, shooting.
Nadav Tabari met us there, and said, “This is a military zone now. The place is empty. All the surviving members of the kibbutz are now staying at another kibbutz in the Galilee, and won’t return until at least the summer. Outsiders have been kept out — after all, if we can’t return to our homes, why should outsiders be able to see our homes?
“But you’re an exception, and so am I. I don’t have the authority to show you most parts of the kibbutz, but I can show you my own house, and tell you what happened. It’s over there, with the big hole on the roof from a Hamas rocket that hit it in late October. This is the first time I’m showing it to anyone since then.”
As we walked over, he stopped in front of this huge sign on the side of a building. [PHOTO TO COME] He said, “Fourteen of our families had members slaughtered by Hamas on October 7. These people you see here were taken hostage. Everything else is irrelevant for us until they come home. The three with hearts next to them have been released. See the second face from the left? That’s Omri. He’s one of our landscapers. I’m a 6th-grade teacher by training, but I now come back here several days a week to help with the landscaping and gardening. When Omri finally comes home, I want this place to look kept up.”
We entered his house and stood on the shattered glass and rubble left by the rocket strike. He told us about him and his partner Rotem locking themselves in the Safe Room of their house; about hearing friends’ last words over the phone; about Rotem, volunteer head of Civilian Security, getting the order to “prepare yourselves for death, and help the other kibbutz members prepare themselves to die, over the phone.”
Nadav told us about his friend Livnat, found murdered with her husband and three children in nearby Kfar Aza, huddled in bed together as the terrorists broke in. “I’m telling you her name so that I don’t forget her.”
“There are now three kinds of Nahal Oz members. 1) Those who don’t ever plan to come back, because it’s just too painful to be here. Rotem is one of these. 2) Those who vow to come back and rebuild. 3) Those who aren’t sure yet. That’s me. If Israel stays as divided as we were on October 6, maybe I won’t. If we can stay as unified as we were on October 8, then maybe.”
“I do want to thank you for coming. It gives us strength to know that we’re not alone. Having partners in the world is part of the healing.”
INDIVIDUAL HEROISM: Our tour guide is David Keren. Among other things, he was the director of the Nativ program when 18-year-old Adam Kligfeld attended that program for a year in Israel. David taught us much about Gaza and about Israel’s response to the many attacks coming from there over the decades. Two stories:
— Aner Shapira, about age 22, was David’s neighbor. He and his buddy, Hersh Goldberg-Pollen, came to the Nova concert. When the terrorists attacked, Aner and Hersh crammed into a tiny bomb shelter with about 25 other people.
Aner stood in the doorway and said, “I’ll protect you.” When a grenade was thrown in at them, Aner caught it and threw it back out. He did that seven times. The eighth grenade exploded, killed him, and ripped off Hersh’s arm. Hersh was taken hostage, dragged into Gaza. His mother, Rachel Goldberg, has spoken passionately all over the world — at the UN, at the Washington DC rally, with the Pope — to try to save him, not knowing if he is dead or alive. Years ago, Rachel was a counselor for the Nativ program, working under David Keren.
— David’s son had an army commander named Noam Tibbon. Noam finished his career in the army after many years. On October 7, he was swimming at the beach in Tel Aviv when he got texts from his son saying, “Terrorists are here — help!” Noam and his wife grabbed a jeep and drove furiously toward Gaza, armed only with a pistol. They fought, met others, got other guns, and finally got to their son’s house. Noam knocked on the window and said, “Saba is here.”
MESHEK MICHA-EL / KIBBUTZ ZIKIM — Since October, produce on many Israeli farms has been rotting on the vine, because with so many Israeli fighters helping with the war in Gaza and most foreign workers having left the country, there just aren’t enough people to harvest. We were eager to help, even for just a few hours.
This farm, only about half a mile from the Gaza border, is now run almost completely by volunteers, “from every part of society, from Supreme Court justices to … you get it.” It’s big: Before October, there had been about 150 workers, including 58 Thais and 25 Gazans, plus Bedouins, Druze, and workers from Malawi and elsewhere. The produce — lettuce, cabbage, chili peppers, sweet peppers, strawberries and more — is top quality and all certified organic.
Richard Peretz, former high-ranking army commander (general?), took charge of us right away, near one of the many bomb shelters that you see all over: [PHOTOS TO COME] Before putting us to work, he told us how he and his two grown sons had come immediately to help after October 7; how they saw evidence of the most horrible atrocities; how his sons went to fight in Gaza while he stayed as a volunteer on this farm; and how he, as a lifelong Labor party leftist, has changed his attitude about israel’s defense: “Now we must do what we need to protect ourselves.”
On October 7, terrorists invaded nearby Kibbutz Zikim from the sea (using boats) and from the air (paragliding). They killed picnickers on the beach before most of them were killed by the Israeli navy.
Richard put most of us to work weeding in the greenhouses, while hearing artillery and machine-gun fire. [PHOTO]
Others were packing chili peppers and strawberries into bags and containers, ready to put on supermarket shelves: [PHOTOS TO COME]
As we left, Richard told us, “Just now I got a call on my phone from an Unidentified Caller. I almost didn’t answer — but it was my son Eyal, calling for the first time in months, from Khan Yunis, to tell me, ‘Don’t worry, Aba, we’re strong.’” This tough ex-soldier was crying, and we cried with him.
He said, “By volunteering, you strengthen us.” But at the same time, their allowing us to volunteer gave US a sense of purpose, a sense of helping.
Richard left us with “Remember what Israel can do when it’s united. If all
the Jewish people would come and work together, nothing could defeat us.”
OR HA-NER — We passed this kibbutz, near Nahal Oz. Some 300 members of Or Ha-Ner have had to leave their home, and they are now being housed in the Orient Hotel in Jerusalem, where we are staying. We see these families and their kids in the hallways, in the lobby, and in the dining room for breakfast.
Since October 7, about 150,000 Israelis have been turned into refugees. They’ve had to flee their homes. But they’re not in refugee camps. Like the Or Ha-Ner kibbutzniks and the Nahal Oz kibbutzniks, they’re being housed in other ways, all over Israel. “That’s just what you do.”
Michael Steuer (TBA)
Our visit to the Gaza Envelope yesterday could be characterized as meeting with those who were attacked personally and directly by Hamas’ acts of war on October 7th. A farm in Kibbutz Zikim where many died and which lost nearly all of its foreign and Gazan personnel. Kibbutz Nahal Oz, and the harrowing story of Nadav, who survived the brutal attack on his home while losing neighbors, friends and family members. And the site of the Nova festival, which felt like visiting Babi Yar or Kishinev in the days immediately following the massacres of Jews there.
In contrast, our visit today to Tel Aviv could be characterized as meeting with those who have been fighting 3 different wars, every single day since October 7th. The loved ones of hostages whom we met at Hostage Square, who’ve been fighting a daily war to keep the return of their loved ones on the agenda of those in charge, in Israel and around the world. Eylon Levy, the English language spokesperson for the Israeli government, who’s been fighting a never-ending war of attrition with international opinion, through media interviews with often hostile journalists and in the vicious cesspools of social media. And Shani Yossefob, one of the leaders of Achim LaNeshek (Brothers and Sisters in Arms), the 2023 protest movement against the now-paused judicial reforms that on October 7th converted its national organization into the leading civil response organization, fighting a war of support, solidarity and tikkun olam, by collecting and distributing physical goods to those who need it, taking care of tens of thousands of internally displaced, and providing volunteers for almost every civilian need across the Israeli society. Each of their respective wars started that cursed October morning, and has been waging non-stop since.
In the middle of Tel Aviv, the square in front of the Tel Aviv Museum of Art became “Kikar ha-Hatufim” on October 7th, when family members and friends of Hamas hostages started to gather there to commiserate, and to bring attention to the faith of their loved ones. They have been there every single day since. On the square, which is not coincidentally opposite the Kirya – the headquarters of the IDF and where the Prime Minister and the War Cabinet meets daily, you will find many art installations expressing the horror, pain, longing and despair the family members and by extension all of Am Yisrael feels regarding the hostage situation, and what “our” family must be enduring in the terror tunnels of Gaza. Family members have set up tents in which they welcome anyone to talk with them, learn about their respective relative, or to just deliver a hug or another expression of support. An artist has created an installation that recreates an approximately 60 feet segment of a Hamas tunnel. Traversing it, even in this short tunnel with 2 open ends, you can feel the air being heavier and more humid once you reach the middle. Audio is playing the sound of explosions in the background. It paints a very poignant picture of what it much feel like for the hostages, to the extent that we can remotely imagine that on our way to a lunch at an Italian restaurant. Laura and I witnessed a former teacher of Omer Wenkert, a 22-year old boy who’s been a hostage for 124 days now, as she addressed a group of middle school aged children. She talked in detail about Omer, who we’ve now gotten to know better through her. And she impressed on the kids how it is all of our, including their, collective responsibility to do whatever we can to ensure the hostages’ release. Afterwards, some of the middle schoolers were crying and came to hug Omer’s teacher, who now ended up consoling THEM. To me this felt as another example of the incredible strength of the hostage families, each warriors for their own loved one as well as the collective, and who’ve being fighting their October 7th war to bring them home.
It’s not often that you get to meet your personal heroes, and not only not leave disappointed, but actually even more impressed than you were before. That’s what happened today in meeting Eylon Levy, the English language spokesperson for Israel that many will know from appearances on TV networks across the US, or from clips of interviews in international English language press shared via social media. Since October 7th, Eylon has been one of Israel’s most effective public relations warriors, not shying away from any interview or any question, and most powerfully, succinctly and clearly laying out Israel’s case, even in the most hostile forums and with the most hostile journalists looking to catch Eylon, and by extension Israel, in gotcha’s and embarrassments. One of his most famous moments perhaps is the viral moment of his response to a Sky News interviewer’s accusation that Israel might not value Palestinian lives as much as Jewish lives, because it was releasing more terrorists than Hamas was releasing hostages.
In preparation for our trip I reached out to Eylon, and he graciously agreed to meet with our group over lunch. He shared with us his perspectives on the war, the hostage crisis, public advocacy, Qatar’s role and anti-semitism, to name a few topics. All of his remarks were perfectly delivered, and his arguments perfectly laid out, but ultimately my personal objective for this meeting was to be able to thank him for his tremendous work since October 7th. In a time when it often feels like the whole world is against us, Eylon has been waging a Herculean fight in traditional and online media on behalf of “our side”, and has given many of us a voice and the words we were lacking to respond to detractors ourselves. His weapon might not be an M16, but armed with a camera and a microphone, he is one of Am Yisrael’s most powerful defenders, waging our war in the courts of public opinion every day since October 7th. Follow him at @EylonALevy on X and Instagram.
Brothers and Sisters for Israel
Our final stop in Tel Aviv was the headquarters of Achim LaNeshek, now known as Brothers and Sisters for Israel. Founded by 3 high-level military veterans in early 2023 as a protest organization against the government’s judicial reforms, on the morning of October 7th the leadership of the organization ceased all their protests and political activism, and leveraged their existing infrastructure that reaches 100’000s to activate the largest civil aid project in Israel’s history. By that evening, thousands had gathered at the convention center, a makeshift headquarters, and started organizing a civil response to many challenges the government was not equipped to handle. Which at that moment in time, was a very long list. Specialized “desks” were established, each with a specific area of responsibility. To name a few – procurement of critical goods, delivery/transportation, evacuation of people in the south and north of the country, missing persons, education of evacuated kids, employment office for evacuees, and many more. Tapping into the high-tech industry experience of many of its leadership, Achim LaNeshek has been remarkably quick and efficient in providing solutions for critical needs, when and where they arose. From day 1, thousands of volunteers would drive to and from the affected areas, delivering goods or physically evacuating people in harm’s way. Local distribution centers were set up in the south and the north, manned by volunteers, in order to take care of any physical needs the evacuees or soldiers/reserves might have. When it became clear that family members and even the government didn’t have a clear idea if some missing persons were killed or taken hostage, a missing persons desk was established that, with the help of the high tech industry, developed tools to scour the dark corners of the internet, such as Hamas telegram room, for pictures from Gaza and using facial recognition software to find out if anyone in these pictures matched missing persons. Now months later, the needs have evolved and physical good distribution is no longer needed, but the 250,000 of internally displaced people have ongoing needs such as housing, education for their kids, jobs, etc. Every step of the way, Achim LaNeshek provides pragmatic solutions and fills in the many gaps the government has been unable to handle. Their intention is to stay active and be a constructive part of the post-October 7th Israel. Judging by what we’ve seen they are capable of, it’s not a giant leap to expect that they will play a major role. Achim LaNeshek, founded by former military warriors, has become a national movement not to be disregarded, that will continue its daily fight of lifting up, supporting and restoring Israel’s civil society.
We all call the war that doesn’t really have a name “October 7th”. In reality, it is not 1 war, but many wars, in many parallel areas, and on every date since October 7th. Today in Tel Aviv, we experienced 3 of those parallel yet interconnected wars, and met the heroic warriors, Giborei Israel each, that are fighting them.
Michael Ozer- Temple Beth Am
Hand in Hand School יד ביד- Jerusalem
We were met by Sara Dena Drelich. She’s been with the school for seven years as a development person associated with digital communication. She also has a child who attends the school.
Hand in Hand operates a network of six integrated, bilingual, and multicultural schools that promotes a shared society of inclusion and equity between Arabs and Jews in Israel. It is part of the public school system in Israel where Jews and Arabs mostly attend separate schools. Each class at Hand in Hand has two teachers, one Jewish and the other Arab. This helps allow the students to understand each other and better appreciate their differences, as well as to develop mutual respect.
The Jerusalem school has students from age three through high school. The are six schools around the country, but the Jerusalem school is the largest. Enrollment is 2000 in total for all the schools with 700 at the Jerusalem Hand in Hand School. Although both Jewish and Arab students are enrolled, in the higher grades, the number of Jewish students drops as they have other options regarding educational opportunities in the higher grades.
Although Hand in Hand receives funding from the Ministry of Education, because they have two teachers per grade, one Arabic, and the other Jewish, extra money is needed. Private philanthropy, mostly in the diaspora, raises about 40% of the budget of Hand in Hand schools.
We walked around the campus and then had a special meeting with both a teacher and a counselor.
Daniel, a high school teacher of civics also coordinates development of the middle school and high school curriculums. More emphasis has been placed on combining some subjects like physics, chemistry, and biology to give students more flexibility in their studies. Also recently created was a interdisciplinary course in humanities that includes history, politics, and geography. A rooftop greenhouse highlights climate issues. More emphasis has been placed on project based learning.
Since 10/7 there have certainly been classroom tissues. Some teachers were called up to reserve service, creating feeling of loss and abandonment for some students in those classes. The war has created differing narratives among the Jewish and Arabic students, but the suffering and loss has created feelings of empathy for each other among the students. Students follow the news and their social media sites.
The teacher reported that often the students seem better able to easily express their feelings with their fellow students than their teachers.
Angham, the counselor, reported that extra funding has been raised privately to enhance counseling services and to provide support for emotional issues some children are experiencing.
On the bus following our time at the school, Rabbi Kligfeld discussed the tension between wanting to take care of our own and taking care of others as evidenced by the shared society programs such as Hand in Hand. He acknowledged the inherent tensions, and also indicated that our itinerary was intentionally created so that we participants could see both sides on these complex issues.
Laura Steuer – Temple Beth Am
Thursday, February 8, was another incredible, inspiring, difficult, and meaningful day in Israel: we volunteered, visited the Givati Brigade Association, and met with Dr. Danny Gordis.
We started our day in Beit Shemesh, a vibrant, predominantly orthodox city that has attracted immigrants from all over the world. It has steadily grown to over 153,000 inhabitants (we later found out that 25 babies are born each day!) with many new buildings and playgrounds. We were hosted by a wonderful organization named Ezrat Achim (or, to use the Yiddish pronunciation used by the representatives we met: Ezras Achiym), founded by paramedic and local head of ZAKA Rabbi Avraham Kopp, who realized many residents dealing with medical conditions did not have access to the equipment they needed and established a loan center out of his own home. It has since grown into an impressive warehouse that loans equipment worth tens of thousands of dollars free of charge, and an operation that offers treatments and social services. One of the employees named Aharon told us about the incredible efforts they have been doing for years providing medical assistance, mental health support and help to anyone who needs it. We even got to spend a few minutes in their very interesting “snoezelroom”, a multisensory space specially designed to help those with trauma. Since the war began, they have been working tirelessly to feed, uplift and heal soldiers and their families, and the displaced members of the border kibbutzim. Their kindness, generosity, and compassion were deeply inspiring and we were all happy to roll our sleeves and contribute by making delicious sandwiches and writing notes for the brave chayalim! As trivial and easy as it seems, especially compared to what these men and women are doing to protect the state, I got the sense that these gestures are truly appreciated, and that knowing we are all with them greatly boosts their morale. As Michali, one of the volunteers said: the “achdus” (yiddishized “achdut”, unity) has been remarkable.
After lunch, we headed south to visit the Givati Brigade Association, which was established to honor the legacy and fallen soldiers of Givati and to support veterans and their families. We were welcomed by the chairman himself, former commander of Givati’s Rotem Battalion Itzik Levitt, who told us about their incredible mission with typical Israeli humility and humor. He introduced us to his colleague Yehudit, who lost her dad, her brother, and her cousin on October 7 (she later told me that the pain is unbearable but what keeps her going is her mission to ensure her mom does not fall apart) and to two reservists who were just being released from active duty. Like so many others, they left behind their families, careers, and lives to put themselves in harm’s way for months, but made it sound like the most normal thing in the world (and they looked so fit, I almost fell off my chair when they said they were 50!). We also had the unique opportunity to talk with IDF commander Elkanan, live from the front lines via zoom, who gave us a glimpse into the unprecedented conditions on the battlefield and shared that they were finding weapons and munitions in every. Single. Home. In every mosque, in every school. Children’s textbooks with math problems like, “If I kill two Jews and then 3 more, how many Jews have I successfully killed?” I so wish more people could hear this. We watched a short, very powerful documentary about the heroes of Givati, and paid our respects at a beautiful memorial in honor of those who fell in battle. I left heartbroken, tearful, and in awe of the bravery these young, handsome men exhibit.
We ended our day with the incomparable and brilliant Rabbi Dr. Danny Gordis. As a huge fan, subscriber to his Substack, avid listener to his podcast and reader of his books and columns, I am very familiar with his incredible talent for explaining complex situations with the nuance, emotion, and sensitivity they require. I also always appreciate how personal his stories are: he began his talk by telling us he had just found out a few hours ago that the son of the supermarket owner in his neighborhood – whom everyone knew and loved – had fallen in battle. His words felt heavier and darker than usual, both for Israelis and diaspora Jews, as the awful outcomes and scenarios are terrifying. But he did not sound desperate. Because we know what we are fighting for, that the stakes could not be higher, and so as long as we can fight, we will. Each in our own way, we will push and stretch and do all we can to ensure that we can always say: Am Israel Chai.
Shabbat afternoon we heard from Mohamad Darwashe an Arab, Muslim, Israeli Citizen from a village in the Galilee. Mohamad claims his family has lived in the same village for 750 years.
Fascinating for me to hear his perspective on Israel’s relationship with respect to its Arab citizens where the state symbols and anthem do not represent its Arab citizens.
He specifically would not discuss Palestinians in the territories or areas surrounding Jerusalem from territories conquered from Jordan in 1967.
He spoke of how the Israeli Declaration of Independence promised a political and social equality. I read the text and he is referring to this sentence:
“ it will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex…”
Mohamad spoke about how his grandfather in July 1948 surrendered 6 rifles to the Haganah in the village he still lives in, under the promises of the Declaration of Independence. He then went on to explain that instead of equality, Israel administered military rule from 1948 to 1966 in Arab villages within Israel. He went on to explain that there has been a long, but not fulfilled promise of equality under the political realm as well as the social realm and that the “Israelization” of its Arab citizens has only started to begin in earnest when the military rule was removed in 1966.
He gave some fascinating examples, which to me, come across as anything you might find in an HR department to promote inclusivity and cultural sensitivity. One example was his daughter (who works at a science lab) not knowing that she couldn’t bring pita to the lunchroom during Passover. Another example was work not making an accommodation to let her work through lunch and leave an hour early during Ramadan. More examples, standardized testing during Ramadan should be earlier in the day to give the observant students an equal playing field so they don’t have to take the test later in the day when hunger sets in.
The “Israelization” of the Arab/Muslim citizens is to Israel’s benefit! And to the benefit of Jewish-Muslim-Christian relations. A rising tide, raises all boats.
I was encouraged to hear him speak of how even though Arabs are 17% of Israel’s population, they are 1/3rd of the health sector and that there are Arabs working in every sector of Israel. His own family is a testament to this success of “Israelization.” Mohamad has degree(s) from Hebrew University, and his daughter is a college educated scientist. So while there is work to do (in what society is there not work to do to help minorities succeed?), the country has a political process with civil liberties where change can occur.
He also spoke of his nephew who died working the Nova site as a medic. I found an article about his nephew here.
The 10/7 attacks created tremendous loss across all segments of Israeli society. Mohamad said that immediately after 10/7, polls showed Arab citizens of Israel identifying as “Israeli-Arab” instead of Arab or Muslim or Palestinian-Arab. That is obviously an encouraging sign, but I wonder what the polls would look like now after months of war and destruction in Gaza.
One last point about Mohamad. He mentioned 28 discriminatory laws, but the only one he named was the “Nation-State Law”.
I think the Nation State Law just reiterates that Israel is the home of the Jewish people. There is also a law dating to its foundation that the State allows any person who is 1/8th Jewish to become an Israeli citizen. There is no equal opportunity for a Muslim living outside of Israel to become an Israeli citizen, I think! So while I could become Israeli, even though my family hasn’t lived in Jerusalem since the Babylonian Exile in 586 BCE, a cousin of Mohamed’s who fled during the 1948 war cannot return or become a citizen of Israel. To me, I didn’t find this to be discriminatory because it is stating the obvious- the purpose of Israel is to be the home of the Jewish people and the immigration policy on who to accept into the country to become its citizens favors the Jewish diaspora. I do not believe this is discriminatory because it does not discriminate against existing citizens and their rights within Israel, although it does drown out their collective voice as an “Arab polity” or “Muslim polity”.
The next part of the day was a walking tour with David. His excitement was obvious, as Rabbi Kligfled pointed out David’s smile as he began to point out items on the tour.
David first took us to an archeological site a minute from the hotel. There were graves there that date back 2600 years. David explained how Jews buried the dead outside the city limits and that everyone lived within the walls of the Old City of Jerusalem. He also explained that people were buried with their artifacts and that would invite grave robbers. Amazingly, one grave was discovered with all sorts of possessions. One item of note, which is now in the Israel Museum is a necklace with the phrase of the Priestly Blessing “May God Bless you and Guard you” which is on necklaces to this day. It is a blessing that parents say every Friday night before Shabbat dinner to bless their children. It is also a blessing said by the Kohanim every day in Israel and every Yuntif outside of Israel in many congregations. It is also in the repetition of the Amidah.
David shared his amazement that an archeological find from 2600 years ago of a Jewish grave, with a neclace containing a verse from the Torah was discovered in Jerusalem by a Jewish archeologist in an independent Jewish state. If you need an example of how Israel is the rebirth of the Jewish people, and the return to the land, this is just one of many examples.
We walked around the neighborhood of Yamin Moshe, and learned about how it was the FIRST neighborhood outside of the city walls, and how walls that look similar to the old city were built around the neighborhood to protect from robbers or wild animals.
David also told us that since 1848 Jerusalem has a majority Jewish population, so next time you come across a Berkeley student looking to free Palestine from the Tigris River to the North Sea, let them know about the majority Jewish population of Jerusalem for nearly the last 200 years.