Rabbis Organizing Rabbis Social Justice Torah

Joining Hands, Marching Together

On Tuesday, five of us[1] flew to South Carolina to march in the NAACP’s Journey for Justice.[2]

Why? This poem from American poet Langston Hughes (1902-1967):

“Let America be America again.
Let it be the dream it used to be.
Let it be the pioneer on the plain
Seeking a home where he himself is free.
            (America never was America to me)…”

We began. Passing the Columbia State House, we noted the poignant absence of the Confederate flag, finally removed following the tragic, racist church shootings in June.

At the front of our column, an American flag was carried high by a black veteran of Korea and Vietnam. He drew his name, Middle Passage, from a slave forebear.

“Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed-
Let it be that great strong land of love
Where never kings connive nor tyrants scheme
That any man be crushed by one above.
            (It never was America to me.)…”

Each block, passing stores and restaurants, folks came out to cheer. Cars honked, passengers waved support. We marched through middle class and lower middle class neighborhoods – and people noticed. They came out for hope. We were a bit of evidence that black lives matter.  And not only to blacks.

“I am the poor white, fooled and pushed apart,
I am the Negro bearing slavery’s scars.
I am the red man driven from the land,
I am the immigrant clutching the hope I seek-
And finding only the same old stupid plan
Of dog eat dog, of mighty crush the weak…

I am the people, humble, hungry, mean-
Hungry yet today despite the dream…”

We weren’t a large group.[3] And there wasn’t much publicity, in local or national news. What was the value in our participation?
We Barnert folks celebrated our own Rabbi Martin Freedman z”l, a Freedom Rider in Tallahassee, FL.[4] This was our chance to “walk the talk.”

Times have changed. But not enough. I walked alongside an Episcopal priest. She was white, her husband was black, and their bi-racial children suffered terrible discrimination. Her 14 year old son had been arrested by police in Edison, NJ on charges of assault.[5] But there had been no assault. Her son, walking in their white neighborhood, was stopped by police; when he answered a question with a smart-mouthed teen response, they handcuffed him.

This mother was drawn to a ministry with black prisoners, guiding them to manage anger and resentment, to forgive and then shape new lives.[6]

We marched with Keshia Thomas, a black woman devoted to spreading the message among frustrated teens that violence is wrong, period. Her story: in 1996, the KKK tried to organize a rally in Ann Arbor, MI. Hundreds of people gathered to protest. A rumor spread that someone was a Klansman, and people began to mob him. Keshia leapt forward and spread herself over the man, protecting him. A photographer from LIFE captured the moment, and Keshia gained a name for peaceful resistance. Her message has influenced thousands. Most recently she met young people in Baltimore after the death of Freddy Grey and the subsequent torching of a CVS store. “Look across the street,” she said to them. “There’s a Senior Home. What do you think those folks are thinking and feeling about you? Would you want to be in that home, and not feel safe going out on your street? Find another way to protest. Advocate peacefully with me!”

Alongside the American flag, we carried a Torah. Each night it was passed to the next day’s Jewish marchers. Torah: symbol of just civilization. Torah: witness to our own brand of persecution. We get it. So we speak out.

“…For I’m the one who left dark Ireland’s shore,
And Poland’s plain, and England’s grassy lea,
And torn from Black Africa’s strand I came
To build a ‘homeland of the free.’ …”

Civil rights earned can be lost. Racism is real.  Criminal injustice is real. The challenge to the Voting Rights Act is real. The cycle of Poverty is real.

Returning at the end of the day, we unwrapped the Torah around us, and shared our reactions. We recalled the Jewish Journey, fleeing slavery, seeking freedom.

“Standing on the parted shores, we still believe what we were taught before ever we stood at Sinai’s foot; that wherever we go, it is eternally Egypt; that there is a better place, a promised land; that the winding way to that promise passes through the wilderness. That there is no way to get from here to there except by joining hands, marching together.”[7]

There’s a lot more to be done in our nation. Let’s do it together.

Rabbi Elyse Frishman serves Barnert Temple in Franklin Lakes, NJ and is the editor of Mishkan T’filah.


[1] The Barnert team: Lisa Dugal, Marni Neuburger, Isaac Hart (a sophomore at Glen Rock High School) and Anya Gips (senior at Fairlawn High School and BarTY President) and me. Read Anya’s and Isaac’s pieces separately!

[2] August 1-September 16, from Selma to Washington, hundreds of Americans are walking in solidarity for black civil rights.

[3] In fact, the greatest number of participants over the last 25 days has been Reform Jews.

[4] Our journey was much safer than his – we had the protection of state troopers.

[5] Her story echoes others I’ve heard of young black teens walking the streets in white north-western Bergen.

[6] She said to me, “Forget prison reform. It’ll never happen. After decades in my ministry, I’ve learned to devote all my energy to the victims, helping them move beyond their radically unfair pasts.”

[7] by Michael Walzer, adapted from Exodus, as found in Mishkan T’filah

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Fields of Life, Part 4: CCAR Solidarity Mission to Israel

From Day Three of the CCAR Israel Solidarity Mission 

“May God bless and keep you always, may your wishes all come true. May you always do for others and let others do for you May you build a ladder to the stars and climb on every rung. May you stay forever young. Forever young, forever young, may you stay forever young.” (Bob Dylan, 1973)

I’ve made the pilgrimage to Mount Herzl Cemetery in Jerusalem many times to pay tribute to the presidents and prime ministers of the State of Israel. I’ve stood silently and reflectively at prominent monuments, and felt the pride of a nation that is my second home.

This morning we entered into quiet of the Cemetery and sat in the shade, listening.

Shema Yisrael, Listen Israel… 

We listened to the wind breathing through the trees.

We listened to the yeshiva children dancing along the stone paths, conscious of this sober place yet unrestrained in their childhood.

And we listened to a mother’s story of her first-born son, Guni Harnik, killed in the Lebanese War in June, 1982. “Guni was not killed because he hated Arabs, or because he wanted to be a hero. He was killed because of his love for this beautiful land … He wanted there to be peace upon you and all of Israel. And if one day there is peace, and no more wars, then the story of Guni will be like a fairytale … something you remember like a teddy-bear or a song…”

Of Guni, Rabbi David Forman wrote that “he was the paradigmatic example of a Jewish hero: selfless and devoted.”

He was a Jewish hero because it wasn’t his death that this young soldier Guni Harnik gave to us. He gave his life – his love, his devotion, his energy and dedication. He offered up his heart and soul.

Guni Harnik wasn’t a martyr. He fought in war to save lives. He was a life-giver.

“May you grow up to be righteous, may you grow up to be true. May you always know the truth and see the lights surrounding you. May you always be courageous, stand upright and be strong. May you stay forever young. Forever young, forever young, may you stay forever young.”

FrishmanBlog2We rose from our places and walked along paths graced by tall cedars. We climbed steps, our eyes grazing the ground for small stones to carry with us. We came out onto a plateau, a cemetery set apart from the monuments of leaders. The military cemetery for the young soldiers.

The gravesites are beds. They are raised and set in a frame of Jerusalem stone, blanketed in rosemary and lavender. The pillow is their gentle attribute, words engraved in gold sharing name and lifespan and combat unit. This one we stood before was Yoni Netanyahu, older brother of Bibi Netanyahu, commander of an elite Israeli army commando unit and the only Israeli soldier killed during during Operation Entebbe in Uganda on July 4, 1976. He was thirty years old. We all knew his story, but we listened to it again. A deeply righteous young man who wanted only to save lives, of hostages, of his own team. He gave his life so others would live. And through memory – though it is not nearly enough — Yoni lives. And though memory, a dream lives on.

FrishmanBlog4We stood quietly by the gravesite of Michael Levin whose story we had heard the day before visiting the Lone Soldier organization. We listened to his life again. We Jews remember by becoming more righteous. We remember influence, purpose, hopes and dreams. This is how life carries on with meaning.

We walked from there to another section, covered by a vast canopy, a sukkah of sorts to protect us from the sun. All who stand there feel so vulnerable.

These graves are decorated with photos of young men and women in their prime, beaming in their uniforms. Athletic badges lined the borders of one, a Sponge-Bob balloon bobbed over another, little rocks with favorite sayings and tiny toys rested. And flowers… fake flowers, real flowers, color everywhere. Life.

IMG_2135And a few rows further: mounds of sandy earth covered in wreaths of flowers, red, yellow, green, orange… Mounds of earth piled high over fresh graves, the newest losses.

Four fresh mounds of earth.

And three young men sitting over the sites, mourners, psalms in hand, tears in eyes, bodies davening in the pain of loss. Back and forth back and forth, lips moving quietly, open and close open and close, tears trailing down down …

And next to these raw, fresh graves at the edge of this new line was the grave of Max Steinberg, a lone soldier, age 24 from Woodland Hills, California. 30,000 people attended his funeral last week.

FrishmanBlog5We wondered how his site had been completed so quickly – the walls raised, the blanket of rosemary sown, the pillow resting with its gold engraving. Someone suggested that it was hurried along so that his family would still be here and know that their son’s burial site was whole. That when they returned to California, they’d carry in their hearts the picture of his body protected, his resting place secure.

Then Rabbi Rebecca Einstein Schorr realized that where we were standing was the spot where the next graves would be…

And we knew this would be soon.

And since this morning, four more soldiers have been killed in a booby-trapped UNWRA building leading into a Hamas tunnel.

These are the names of the 56 Israelis soldiers who died since July 8 in this war to preserve life.

  • Sergeant Daniel Kedmi, 18.
  • Sergeant Barkey Ishai Shor, 21.
  • Sergeant Sagi Erez, 19.
  • Sergeant Dor Dery, 18.
  • Staff Sergeant Eliav Eliyahu Haim Kahlon, 22.
  • Corporal Meidan Maymon Biton, 20.
  • Corporal Niran Cohen, 20.
  • Staff Sergeant Adi Briga, 23.
  • Staff Sergeant Moshe Davino, 20, served in the Combat Engineering Corps.
  • Sergeant First Class (res.) Barak Refael Degorker, 27.
  • Chief Warrant Officer Rami Chalon, 39, served in the Paratroopers Corps
  • Captain Liad Lavi, 22, served as an infantry soldier.
  • Staff Sergeant Avraham Grintzvaig, 21.
  • Staff Sergeant Gal Bason, 21, served in the Combat Engineering Corps.
  • Second Lieutenant Roy Peles, 21, served in the Paratroopers Corps.
  • Staff Sergeant Amit Yeori, 20, served in the Combat Engineering Corps.
  • Staff Sergeant Guy Boyland, 21, served as a combat engineer in the 7th Armored Brigade.
  • Staff Sergeant Guy Levy, 21, served in the Armored Corps.
  • Sergeant Oron Shaul, 21, was a combat soldier in the Golani Brigade, killed in action.
  • Master Sergeant Yair Ashkenazi, 36.
  • Lieutenant Paz Elyahu​, 22, served as a combat soldier in the Paratroopers Brigade.
  • Staff Sergeant Li Mat, 19, served as a combat soldier in the Paratroopers Brigade.
  • Staff Sergeant Shahar Dauber, 20, served as a combat soldier in the Paratroopers Brigade.
  • Captain Dmitri Levitas, 26, served as a company commander in the Armored Corps.
  • Captain Natan Cohen, 23, served as a company commander in the Armored Corps. He was posthumously promoted from the rank of First Lieutenant.
  • Staff Sergeant Avitar Moshe Torjamin, 20, served as a combat soldier in the Paratroopers Brigade.
  • Master Sergeant Ohad Shemesh, 27.
  • Sergeant First Class Oded Ben Sira, 22, served as a combat soldier in the Nahal Brigade.
  • Lieutenant Colonel Dolev Keidar, 38, served as the Commander of the Geffen Battalion of the Bahad 1 officer training base.
  • Sergeant Major Bayhesain Kshaun, 39, served in the Northern Brigade of the Gaza Division.
  • Second Lieutenant Yuval Haiman, 21, served at the Bahad 1 officer training base.
  • Sergeant Nadav Goldmacher, 23, served at the Bahad 1 officer training base
  • Staff Sergeant Tal Ifrach, 21, served as a combat soldier in the Golani Brigade.
  • Staff Sergeant Yuval Dagan, 22, served as a combat soldier in the Golani Brigade
  • Sergeant Shon Mondshine, 19, served as a combat soldier in the Golani Brigade.
  • Staff Sergeant Jordan Bensemhoun, 22, served as a combat soldier in the Golani Brigade.
  • Staff Sergeant Moshe Malko, 20, served as a combat soldier in the Golani Brigade.
  • Sergeant Nissim Sean Carmeli, 21, served as a lone soldier in the Golani Brigade.
  • Sergeant Oz Mendelovich, 21, served as a combat soldier in the Golani Brigade.
  • Sergeant Gilad Rozenthal Yacoby, 21, served as a combat soldier in the Golani Brigade.
  • Captain Tsvi Kaplan, 28, served as a combat soldier in the Golani Brigade and was set to become a company commander.
  • Major Tzafrir Bar-Or, 32, served as a combat soldier in the Golani Brigade.
  • Staff Sergeant Max Steinberg, 24, of Woodland Hills, California, served as a lone soldier in the Golani Brigade.
  • Staff Sergeant Shachar Tase, 20, served as a combat soldier in the Golani Brigade.
  • Staff Sergeant Daniel Pomerantz, 20, served as a combat soldier in the Golani Brigade.
  • Sergeant Ben Itzhak Oanounou, 19, served as a combat soldier in the Golani Brigade.
  • Staff Sergeant Oren Simcha Noach, 22, served as a combat soldier in the Golani Brigade.
  • Staff Sergeant Bnaya Rubel, 20, served as a combat soldier in the 101st Battalion of the Paratroopers Brigade
  • Second Lieutenant Bar Rahav, 21, served in the Combat Engineering Corps.
  • Sergeant Adar Barsano, 20, served in the Armored Corps.
  • Major (res.) Amotz Greenberg, 45.
  • Staff Sergeant Eitan Barak, 20, served as a combat soldier in the Nahal Brigade.
  • Staff Sergeant Matan Gotlib, 21, of Rishon LeZion, a combat soldier in the elite Maglan unit.
  • Staff Sergeant Omer Hey, 21, of Savion, served as a combat soldier in the elite Maglan unit.
  • Staff Sergeant Guy Elgranati, 20, of Tel Aviv, served as a combat soldier in the elite Maglan unit.
  • St.-Sgt. Guy Algranati, 20, of Tel Aviv was killed in a booby-trapped tunnel shaft in southern Gaza on July 30. He served in the elite Maglan infantry unit.
  • St.-Sgt. Omer Hay, 21, of Savyon was killed in a booby-trapped tunnel shaft in southern Gaza on July 30. He served in the elite Maglan infantry unit.
  • St.-Sgt. Matan Gotlib, 21, of Rishon Lezion was killed in a booby-trapped tunnel shaft in southern Gaza on July 30. He served in the elite Maglan infantry unit.

We walked silently down steps, and stood in a circle to reflect together, to offer Kaddish, sanctifying the gift of Life.

I thought about our stories.

I thought about our young B’nai Mitzvah students, standing with the Torah in their arms.

To each of them, I say, “As you hold this Torah, not only does it become part of you, but your story becomes part of the Torah – and of us. Your story deepens and changes us. You hold this Torah in your arms. And you hold us. As the Torah will support you, so will we. Our stories are shared.”

Our stories are shared. Our stories last. Our stories live. When we listen. 

Shema Yisrael. What will be our destiny? Our purpose? Our influence? Who will be loved?

Who will live longer because we cared enough to give all that we could?

“May your hands always be busy, may your feet always be swift, may you have a strong foundation when the winds of changes shift. May your heart always be joyful, may your song always be sung. May you stay forever young. Forever young, forever young, May you stay forever young.” (Bob Dylan, 1973)

 Rabbi Elyse Frishman is the rabbi of Barnert Temple, in Franklin Lakes, NJ.  She is also the editor of Mishkan T’filah, the Reform siddur. 

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Field of Hope, Part 3: CCAR Solidarity Mission to Israel

From Day Two of the CCAR Israel Solidarity Mission

It’s the 23rd day of the war in Gaza. This is a war. For Israel, it’s not a choice. It’s an obligation.

Though I feel physically safe, truly, I don’t bear the emotional weight that Israelis do daily. Sirens don’t disrupt my life; I return to New Jersey Thursday night.

 Today we woke early to a full day. After a night of two sirens around 3am, we slept until 6:30, woke and met with Israeli Reform rabbis in Tel Aviv. We drove to Jerusalem to deliver packages to the Lone Soldier Organization. After lunch, we talked with leaders of Tag Mei’ir, the Light Tag an organization devoted to countering racism and hatred. Next we gathered at the Knesset and met privately with four Members of Knesset. Our final meeting was with the Director of a Coalition of Trauma Management Organizations. We ate dinner at 9pm.

And then I came into my room and turned on the TV to catch the news. Oy. It’s so depressing. Every foreign station – CNN, BBC, SkyNews – is anti-Israel. It feels as though we are living in two different worlds. Everything I have witnessed — every video and collection of photos we’ve seen; every person we’ve spoken with (and the selection as been quite diverse) have corroborated the same things. The rockets are embedded in civilian and humanitarian sites. The tunnel network is an underground city and extends 70 feet beneath the earth and out into Israel and beneath Israeli homes. Without a doubt: Hamas is intent on destroying Israel. What are the journalists not seeing?

IMG_2114So let me step aside form the war for a moment.

Let me share two experiences from this lengthy day that uplifted me.

Tag Me’ir: Light Tag

Over and again Israelis have been sharing their concern over rising extremism.

In November 2009, three right-wing orthodox rabbis, including the Chief Rabbi of Kiryat Arba in Hebron, published a book published called King’s Law. It included all possible Jewish texts justifying the killing of non-Jews. The book ignited attacks on Arabs. In December that year, one of the authors added an article specifically relaying the idea of a price tag for Arab actions – a quid pro quo, but displaced. If an Arab anywhere hurt any Jew, any other Arab or Arab sympathizer was fair game for revenge. 34 churches and mosques have been defaced. A bomb was thrown onto a Palestinian taxi with a full family inside, all severely injured. Grafitti, threats, intimidation and violence have grown exponentially. These Jewish terrorists call themselves Tag Mechir, meaning Price Tag.

Outraged by the corruption of Judaism, other Jews created a counter organization, Tag Mei’ir, Light Tag. With the support of IRAC (our movement’s social justice and advocacy organization in Israel, directed by Anat Hoffman), they appealed to the Supreme Court. After three years, the Court determined that the book wasn’t inflammatory! Tag Mei’ir appealed. The Court agreed to another hearing – in February 2015.

So Tag Mei’ir gathered a coalition of 45 groups from across the religious spectrum to protest and raise consciousness that Israel will not be bullied by the extremists. Not prosecuting anyone has led to copycat behavior, leading to the recent murder of Mahmoud Abu Khadir, the young Palestinian killed in Jerusalem in revenge for the Hamas murder of the three Israeli teens.

Now, with the war, the entire Israeli population has moved to the right. So the extremists are even more so.

Just last week, three Arabs were severely beaten with iron pipes in south Jerusalem. When the police arrived, they didn’t rush the victims to the hospital. First, they interrogated the beaten men to see if they had brought this on themselves. Consider all the ways in which this harms everyone. So: Tag Mei’ir visited the men at Hadassah hospital, wanting to offer comfort and apologies. Rabbi Rick Jacobs, President of the URJ, joined with them. Entering the hospital room, the patients flinched at the sight of their yarmulkes, certain this was to be another attack.

Tag Mei’ir brings another Jewish voice to the attacked communities. Members visit different Arab sites or communities impacted by Tag Mechir to show support, decrying Jewish terrorism. At each event, the media is invited, and the victims and the group dialogue publicly. The message: Jewish terrorism isn’t Judaism, and we are ashamed of that behavior.

More Voices of Hope

This afternoon, we spent almost three hours with four Members of the Knesset: Nachman Shai from Labor, Dov Hanin from Chadash, the Arab-Jewish party, Dov Lipman from Yesh Atid, and David Tzur, from HaTenuah.

It was enlightening and exhilarating. I have much to share but for now, let me tell you about MK Dov Lipman.

MK Rabbi Dov Lipman with Rabbi Steve Fox
MK Rabbi Dov Lipman with Rabbi Steve Fox

MK Lipman is an orthodox, American-born Jew from Silver Springs, MD. He came to Israel in the summer of 2004 for the first time. Everyone on the plane was making aliyah. The pilot said, “Relax, enjoy the flight, I’m taking you home.” In that moment, all became clear to him: he wasn’t running away, he was running to…

Dov Lipman traveled through Israel, and when he came to Bet Shemesh, he observed what appeared to be a very diverse community. He thought it would be perfect for his family. It turned out that it lacked that pluralism he thought he was joining. A horrible series of attacks on young orthodox girls came from extremist men who felt that the girls shouldn’t be standing on the street. Lipman wrote about it on Facebook. His post was picked up by a secular Tel Avivian, who arranged an interview on TV, which led to a huge rally in Bet Shemesh, organized by Lippman and the secular activist – and Lipman discovered the power of collaboration. That became his vision. When Yair Lapid asked him to join his political party, he agreed.

MK Lipman fights for the rights of all Israeli citizens. He’s an absolute enigma to the Knesset: a staunch orthodox Jew who cares about the rights of women, of secular Jews, of each and every Israeli, Jew and Arab.

My eyes welled and my heart filled as I listened to the integrity of his passion.

He declared, “It’s not just ‘how do we get along?’ We are Jewish and democratic. Yet we don’t agree on what is a Jewish state. Are ‘Jewish’ and ‘democratic’ even compatible? What worked in 1948 doesn’t work now. We now have extremes and we’ve pushed people away from Judaism. I have learned: you can have different ideologies. But we agree on 80% of the issues and should move those forward. Then we can discuss the remaining 20%, and we will work them out. Each of us will have to give up some. You have to pick and choose.”

We are different: reform, orthodox, men, women, straight, LGBT, Arab, Jew…But Israel belongs to us all. And it’s possible, if you are patient, if you are thoughtful, if you are smart and sensitive and committed, it is possible to realize the vision. Lippman absolutely inspired us. This is Israel. Our Israel. The field of hope.

Is there hope?

Today more rockets fell, more missiles struck ammunition piles amidst homes and schools, more tunnels were attacked and more terrorists and soldiers wounded and killed… It was a terrible day. More journalists condemned Israel. More Israelis questioned American understanding of the Middle East. Egypt and Israel are joined with Saudi Arabia in an attempt to squash Hamas. Quatar and Turkey are allied with Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood and Isis and Hezbollah and Iran to achieve the extremist Islamic agenda. No one is certain of next steps.

But we have become certain that our coming here, our being in Israel this week means so much to each Israeli we’ve met: the politicians, the activists, the soldiers, the cab drivers, our friends, our families…

And this we believe: the Jewish State must be the home for all Jews. At the same time, it must not be racist, it must embrace all its citizens, it must strive to excel as a place of hope and dreams.

And in so many ways, Israel does.

Today, we learned that the front used to be on the border. Now the front is the home. Every Israeli man, woman and child must learn to be ready for the siren, to race into the shelter, to be disrupted at any time of day. It is nerve-wracking and debilitating. Every parent is afraid for her or his child, for each soldier who is someone’s child. Every person prays for a true peace — though hope for peace is low, and a ceasefire would suffice.

But every Israeli is not satisfied with merely living in a land in the Middle East. This is Israel, the land of hope, Hatikvah. No one is giving up.

Everyone is giving more.

 Rabbi Elyse Frishman is the rabbi of Barnert Temple, in Franklin Lakes, NJ.  She is also the editor of Mishkan T’filah, the Reform siddur. 

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Fields of Gray, Part 2: CCAR Solidarity Mission to Israel

From Day Two of the CCAR Solidarity Mission to Israel

We drove to Sederot to meet Colonel Benzi Gruber, whose PhD thesis is “Ethics in the Field: An Inside Look at the Israel Defense Forces.” He taught us: “To understand the ethics, one needs to understand how decisions are made.” It’s different when you’re in an office philosophizing vs in the field. In the field, “you have 8 seconds to decide. You’re tired, carrying 65 pounds minimum on your back. After four hours, exhaustion limits your IQ…”

But there are always ethical boundaries, even or perhaps especially in the field.

First, is force used only to accomplish the mission? 

Second, is the force used to target innocents? Hamas terrorists are dressed like everyone else – so how do you know who the enemy is? And as I shared earlier, when videos reveal that a scene began with guns next to the terrorist, but then the gun is removed, and the terrorist appears to the outside world in this edited film as a non-combatant…

Israeli soldiers are taught: when in doubt, don’t shoot.

So the third boundary: Is the collateral damage proportionate to the immediate threat? If a terrorist is in a car with four children, is he laser targeted? The answer depends on whether he is literally on his way to do something dangerous. If more people would be killed in that action going forward, he and the innocent children will be killed. I saw videos of missiles being diverted into open fields because a targeted Hamas leader or terrorist was not doing something dangerous in that moment, but had run into a crowd of people, or a home, or a school…

Colonel Gruber taught: a committee of rabbis, philosophers, military leaders sat and studied Judaism and applied our heritage of wisdom to modern war ethics. These guidelines rule military behavior today. Any new chief of staff must consult those and abide by those rules.

We learned: Jewish ethics teach that property and people are not equivalent. While buildings will not be destroyed punitively, if a building must be destroyed to protect soldiers, it will be.

FrishmanBlog1The IDF will blanket a neighborhood with flyers, make phone calls, send harmless but clear artillery warnings to get people out of the way. Sometimes, troops are ordered not to go in.

We asked: What’s the system for review and accountability for guiding soldiers post-decision? We learned: After each day, there are reviews in the field. Israelis do hold themselves accountable. They make mistakes – and they print them in their newspapers. They take themselves to task.

But they are not evil. They do not deliberately target civilians.

Hamas does. Colonel Gruber’s military base sits 1 mile from the Gaza Strip. It’s not been hit once, not even close. Over a thousand rockets have been aimed at roads and towns and cities – at innocent children.

Colonel Gruber emphasized: “We can’t solve the problem, we can only manage it.

Right now, we’re in defense, not in offense. We are destroying tunnels and stockpiles of rockets. It’s a ‘forward defense.’”

After lunch, we returned to Ashkelon.  I was deeply moved by the Israeli flags waving at the entrance to the city. They were a proud statement of presence. This is our home.

We met with the ex-Deputy Mayor of the city, who took us to an apartment high up on the 16th floor with a panoramic view of the city and coast north and south. To the north was Ashdod and to the south, the electric plant serving Central Israel – and Gaza. Hamas has fired many rockets into that plant, causing Gaza to lose much of its own electricity.

At 5pm, suddenly the siren went off. We moved calmly into the stairwell and waited the requisite ten minutes before FrishmanBlog2returning. Almost immediately, the siren went off again, and we returned to shelter. This time I went into the ma’amad, the “armored room” in the apartment.

All new Israeli buildings require this construction. Our guide Uri Feinberg’s ma’amad doubles as an uncluttered playroom for his children, so that they won’t be afraid when they need to stay there.

Was I frightened? Truly, no. The Iron Dome is an extraordinary success story. More on that tomorrow.

We turned on the news, and there was Ashkelon: rocket fire recorded and disabled.

But tragic news came later: five soldiers were killed in Gaza today. A nation mourned. Did you know that at the funerals of two lone soldiers last week, 20,000 people attended the first – and 30,000 the second? It wasn’t for the media. Hearts were breaking for the loss of two children of our people.

We drove to a mall, to purchase supplies for Lone Soldiers. Several of us entered a camping store to buy headlamps, needed in the tunnels. (Certain supplies are not readily channeled to combat units; our efforts were to help shortcut this).

FrishmanBlog3In the store were five soldiers, members of a Northern Gaza Reserve unit. Nothing sexy about their work: they were mechanics, repairing tanks and other equipment.

Someone asked them, “Do you need headlamps?” We were persistent. In minutes, we stocked their unit of 25 men with headlamps – and socks and t-shirts. (We bought more for the Lone Soldiers whose organization we visit tomorrow).

We met Kafir, a bartender; Nir, sporting an earring; Aidan the young commander of the unit, a lieutenant; and an auto mechanic, Asaf. All but one were married with young children. All of their families are frantic with worry.

Each of them spoke of their concern for the innocent Palestinians caught in the grip of Hamas.

We walked out in silence and in tears.

How tiny is this nation, and how much we are family. No one is a stranger. Every person’s child is our own.

“When the night lies so still Oh before I go to sleep I come by, I come by Oh just to look at you In the dim light I say That in my own small way I will try, I will try To help you through.”

PS It’s 2:45am here in Tel Aviv. Just as I am about to click the “send” button, a siren has gone off. Up I jumped from my seat — knowing exactly where to grab my key and phone (everyone knows to go to bed properly clothed in case). I left the room and walked rapidly to the “ma’amad” down the hall. An instant small community quickly gathered — American, British, French, Israeli hotel guests. A small boy had a fever and we mothers shared advice across languages.

Ten minutes later, I’m back in my room. Laila tov, good night.

Rabbi Elyse Frishman is the Rabbi of Barnert Temple in Franklin Lakes, NJ.  She is also the editor of Mishkan T’filah, the Reform siddur.  


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Fields of Gray, Part 1: CCAR Solidarity Mission to Israel


“When the night lies so still
Oh before I go to sleep
I come by, I come by
Oh just to look at you
In the dim light I say
That in my own small way
I will try, I will try
To help you through.”

(Fields of Gray, Bruce Hornsby, 1993).

Ultimately, it’s about the children. Israelis, Palestinians…

Our trip was to include a visit to the Barzilai Hospital in Ashkelon, a city on the Mediterranean Sea, halfway between Tel Aviv and the Gaza Strip. Wounded soldiers are treated there. Last night, we were asked politely not to come because so many visitors had inundated patients.

But my godson, Daniel Reichenbach, the son of NFTY’s Paul Reichenbach, is there. Dan is 23, a “brother” to my sons and daughter. He made aliyah, joining sisters Sara and Joey. And he entered the Israel Defense Forces, finishing basic training this year. His unit was called into Gaza three weeks ago.
I can’t imagine how his parents manage this, especially long distance.

Here’s an excerpt from another father. Rabbi Nir Barkan  co-leads our sister congregation Kehillat Yozma in Modin. His son is in the IDF. He writes:

“Omri is a combat soldier in one of Israel’s elite units and is fighting on the front in Gaza. We haven’t heard from him in six days and the worry and anxiety are eating away at our souls. For most of the day, we manage to avoid the nightmares, but the nights….the nights. But I’ll return to the nights later.
“The weekend newspapers lay strewn around us in piles, as in homes everywhere – here in Israel and abroad. This weekend everything – the news items, endless interpretations, assessments, speculations of ‘what if’ and ‘maybe,’ opinion columns and feature articles – deals with Operation Protective Edge which began 19 days ago and shows no signs of ending.

“I think to myself, ‘I don’t see any light at the end of the tunnel.’ I don’t share my thoughts with Anat who is trying to pass these difficult and suspenseful hours by flipping back and forth between TV news channels and internet sites. She has created a Whatsapp group for the parents of Omri’s unit – a collective therapy support group of parents equally as helpless as we are.

“The exposure of the threatening Hamas tunnels, the discovery of huge stores of ammunition directed at Israeli settlements as well as the continued firing of rockets at Israeli targets all leave me with the feeling that this is a just and unavoidable war – even given all the evil and horror that war general – and this one in particular – brings.

“I choke when I hear the phrases ‘a war for our home’ and ‘a unavoidable war’ – not because I have the slightest doubt that these statements are true, but because this is the first war in which Anat and I are parents of a combat soldier at the front. We have been fighting daily for our very survival for more years than we have had a State. A war for our home. An unavoidable war. Truly there is no other option. Those who study history know this to be true. A hand extended in peace (and mine is extended despite everything) is no substitute for a watchful eye and eternal caution. Any peaceful solution or resolution will be greeted by me with wary caution. I am suspicious of international friendships – not surprising given the complicated and conflicted neighborhood in which I was raised.

“It’s one thing for Anat and I to have been in a lifelong, continuous struggle to maintain our sanity – as children, adolescents and adults in this country. It’s quite another to have a son fighting at the front…

“We somehow get through the days… but the nights. The nightmares cross decades of traumas. They leave us with black circles under our eyes, with a perpetual feeling that it’s difficult to breathe and with a terrible fear – a fear of an unexpected knock on the door, of a Red Alert siren, of a telephone call notifying us that…..

“We are so impatient to hear the phone ringing with the special ringtone we’ve set for Omri’s calls. So impatient to hear his beloved voice in real time saying “Hi Abba….I’m okay” – tired and battered but whole in body and soul. We are so impatient to learn that the traumas of war that have accompanied us have not been imprinted on his flesh.”

How grateful and relieved to learn this morning that Omri was safe. I can’t imagine.

So Dan Reichenbach has been serving in Gaza, too. And then Sunday, he came down with a virus; he was removed from combat and sent to Barzilai Hospital. Wonderful news!

I had to visit, to hug and shower him with kisses. Our group agreed, and this morning, we drove down to Ashkelon.

Two days ago, Israel learned that Hamas’ vast network of tunnels stretched out to beneath the kibbutzim and moshavim in central southern Israel. Hamas planned to attack on Rosh Hashanah, kidnapping for ransom and murdering men, women and children. Each tunnel is burrowed over 70 feet underground. The underground landscape of the Gaza Strip has been transformed with concrete and electricity – an untold sum of money and supplies smuggled in from Quatar and Iran, and supplies “reallocated” from the Palestinians themselves. All those Israeli fears about cement not being used to build the schools and hospitals and residences: justified.

And 160 Palestinian children have died in forced labor.

Yesterday I saw photos and videos from Reuters showing Hamas terrorists using children as shields. Ambulances filling with terrorists, old men with grenades strapped around their bellies walking into Israeli hospitals. (Israel has set up a field hospital for Palestinians at the northern border of Gaza, and welcomes ill Palestinians into hospitals such as Barzilai). One film showed a wounded terrorist on a stretcher, then a man hiding his machine gun and people beginning to wail – only the scene of the wailing for an “innocent victim” made global news.

How often does the news report that Israel broke the newest cease-fire? Or announce loudly “Israel resumed fighting” and then as an afterthought “because Hamas began rocketing?”

P1390690Two days ago in Sederot overlooking Gaza – and I heard Hamas break the morning cease-fire with rocket launches. And then, I saw the Iron Dome response, it’s white laser trail streaking the sky.

There is no doubt, friends: Hamas rockets are buried under schools, hospitals, mosques. Under homes, in parks where children play.
Life is as precious to Palestinians as it is to Israelis. Children are precious to all

But not precious to Hamas.

It’s hard to believe that evil is real. Even with the horrific impact of gun violence in our nation, we’ve not associated this with people deliberately out to kill us. Our murderers are insane with access to weapons.

Evil people are sociopaths. They care not for the value of a life. The worst are those who engage others in their quest to destroy.
We Jews should know better. Survivors of the Holocaust and their families understand this.

On July 11, in a phone call with Ari Shavit (author of My Promised Land, a difficult and troubling expose about Israel’s formation by this Haaretz journalist – a must read), Ari offered this moral context in the analysis of the Hamas-Israeli conflict. “We are facing an evil force. I feel for the people of Gaza; they’re suffering and they’re impoverished. This is their life experience. But Hamas – so called government and leadership – is truly a religious fascist regime. It’s not only evil because of the way it wants to destroy Israel, but because it oppresses its own population (and mistreats minorities). The human shield is immoral.”

I entered Barzilai Hospital and found my way to Dan’s room. I was so happy to see him — and him to see me. Three army buddies were visiting, and it was wonderful to meet them. It was very hard to leave. I took pictures and texted his family.

Walking out of the hospital was heavy and sad.

I took a deep breath and returned to our bus.

Our children are precious to us.