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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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CCAR Israel Solidarity Trip: Fearful Is Not the Same as Not Feeling Safe

From Monday, the first day of the CCAR Israel Solidarity Trip.

Fearful is not the same as not feeling safe.

Wise words from our tour guide, Uri.

Wise because he gave us permission to acknowledge our feelings.


I feel safe.

I know what to do in the event of a siren.

I know that we will avoid any truly dangerous situations.

And I know that, statistically speaking, I have a better chance of winning the lottery than being killed by an incoming rocket.


But that doesn’t mean that I haven’t had moments of worry.

Of concern.

Of fear.

Fear of being awakened from a deep sleep by a siren.

Or being in the shower during a siren.

Which, when the particulars are stripped away, are really a fear of being alone. Of being vulnerable.


In the secure staircase during an air raid siren.

Today, in Ashkelon, the siren sounded.

On a gorgeous, bright day.

While we were in a session in one of the loveliest apartments I have ever seen with a stunning view of the Mediterranean Sea.


The siren sounded and I wasn’t afraid.

We walked calmly to the stairwell which was right next to the apartment.

Neither alone nor vulnerable.

I was not afraid.


And then it was over. We returned to the apartment and our dialogue.

It was over and we were OK.

I was OK.


Even the slightest bit relieved.

Because all day I was waiting.

Waiting for the siren.

Standing on the edge of Sderot, we could see the tanks.

We could hear their fire.

We saw the rockets as they headed into Gaza.

I had been waiting for the proverbial other shoe.

So that when it finally happened, the fear of the unknown was released.


A second siren about fifteen minutes later.

Neither alone nor vulnerable.

I was not afraid.

Rabbi Schorr is part of the CCAR Solidarity Trip to Israel.

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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.