We began our final day today with t’filot at Beit Daniel, Tel Aviv’s central Reform congregation, led by the newly ordained and very musical Rabbi Or Zohar. After services Or shared his moving personal story, his professional journey, and the story of the congregation he founded, K’hilat HaLev. We also spoke with Rabbi Meir Azari, the founder of Beit Daniel about his important work.
Our next conversation was with Colonel Ben Tzion Gruber, from the IDF, who spoke with us about the ethics of warfare. He described in great detail the ethical conflicts faced by soldiers, and the way in which soldiers are trained to make ethical choices in situations that call for immediate action. He used specific examples from the recent conflict with Gaza, with film footage and photographs, speaking about the ways that Israeli tries to avoid collateral damage, including the advance leafleting of targeted areas, the use of phone calls and text messages to civilians to warn of incoming fire, and the last minute diversion of strikes when civilian casualties look likely. He also discussed some of the facts regarding Gaza that are often not reported or misreported by the media, like fact that over 10,000 Gazans a year are treated at Israeli hospitals, and that 35% of the electricity used in Gaza is supplied by Israel, among many others issues. It was a lot to take in but provided a fascinating look into Israeli military decision-making and provided the group with a unique perspective.
From there we went to Levinsky Square to learn about the situation of African refugees in Tel Aviv. We spoke to Danny, a volunteer from the Hotline for Migrant Workers, who described the terrible situation in which these refugees are living, without any legal rights, access to medical care, and in serious poverty. He told us that part of his motivation in doing this volunteer work is that his parents were refugees from Hungary, Holocaust survivors who made their way to Israel and found a new home for themselves. For him, Israel has a moral obligation to help these new refugees, regardless of the fact that they are not Jews. These people, mostly from Eritrea and the Sudan, come to Israel via Sinai, escaping persecution and danger in their home countries. Their presence has transformed South Tel Aviv, and created a major challenge to the residents and to the government. We visited a young woman from Eritrea now working in a daycare center that the community has established, and she spoke of wanting to go home when things get better there. She described a bleak existence in which people live hand-to-mouth existences, at the mercy of employees who are paying them “off the books”, and living without any rights or legal status. She also spoke of the prevalence of domestic abuse within the community, which she felt was due to the breakdown of the traditional extended family structure. The center in which she works is funded by donations, some of which came from the American Embassy.
Our last stop was at Leket: Israel’s National Food Bank, an inspiring organization that feeds the hungry throughout Israel. They collect foods from fields that would otherwise go uncollected, as well as unsellable food nearing expiration dates from manufacturers. They supply this food to organizations and schools around the country. At this time they are working to supply food to areas in the south that have suffered a great economic hit from the constant barrage of missiles which have caused businesses to close and many to be unemployed. They also have other projects like one that makes lunch for school children whose families don’t have the resources to provide nutritional meals for them, including both Jewish and Arab schools. The rabbis then donned rubber gloves and got to work, helping to sort surplus vegetables, pack crates, and load pallets that will head off to different community organizations tomorrow.
Finally, after packing and checking out, it was time for our final dinner, graciously provided by the beautiful David Intercontinental. In another one of the only-in-Israel moments, our host at the hotel turned out to be an old friend of Rabbi Alan Katz’s son. After a discussion reflecting on the experience of this powerful week of learning and experiencing together, and after expressing tremendous thanks to our member guide Rabbi Michael Weinberg, our tour educator Uri Feinberg, and the whole staff of ARZA/Da’at, most of the group set off for the airport, ready to return home with stories to tell and future trips to plan.