I continue to think about my recent mission to Israel in the midst of the Gaza Operation. I have written my political analysis, but there was another aspect to my trip. We rabbis went in order to see for ourselves the critical events of those days, but we also travelled there as a “solidarity” mission. We were trying to show the people of Israel that they were not alone or isolated. This was an opportunity for twelve American rabbis to connect with the people.
We had our numerous official meetings, and they were significant. We met with Knesset members, military leaders, local politicians, and government spokespeople. We talked with our Israeli Reform rabbinic colleagues, social justice activists, journalists, and writers. But our most significant conversations most often occurred in informal, unplanned, spontaneous moments. In only five days I tried to see as many of my friends as possible. I wanted to know their thoughts, feelings, and concerns. I sat and talked with Americans, Israelis, and Palestinians I know well. I spent time in conversations with cab drivers, waiters and waitresses, and shopkeepers. I grabbed lunch with soldiers taking short breaks from the Gaza battles.
Perhaps my favorite encounter occurred completely by accident. We went to a mall outside Ashkelon, near the border with Gaza. We wanted to find a clothing or sporting goods store where we could buy socks, t-shirts, energy bars, and other items for the Lone Soldier Center in Jerusalem. A few of us walked into a camping store and encountered five soldiers just back from Gaza. I asked them what they needed, and they said they were looking for camping headlamps. It turned out that they were part of a unit of twenty-five soldiers attached to a tank division. Their job was to repair the tanks at night after whatever battle took place during the day. It didn’t take long for our small group of Reform rabbis to purchase enough headlamps for all the members of the unit. In the process, we made friends and spent the afternoon talking with them over coffee at Cafe Aroma. One worked at Google. Another owned a pub. One was an engineer. We shared pictures of children and grandchildren and told our various stories. I am not sure I will remember the military briefings or talks from Members of Knesset, but I will remember the conversations with those IDF reservists at the mall in Ashkelon.
For me, that is what matters in Israel. The politics can be infuriating. The leadership is often deeply disappointing. There are troubling forces at play in Israeli society. I have no patience for the Ultra-Orthodox control of family law or the messianic fanaticism of the Settlers. But the ordinary Israeli people are remarkable, and every conversation seems intense and passionate. The Israelis I know truly want to live in peace with their Palestinian neighbors. They want to live a good life with meaning and values in a beautiful Mediterranean setting rich with history and significance.
I always return to Israel because I feel an intense connection with the people who live there. Let us pray that they will find peace in this next year.
Rabbi Samuel Gordon serves Congregation Sukkat Shalom in Wilmette, IL.