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A Long, Painful Summer: More Meditations On Israel

I love Israel. The landscape, the language, the food, the mix of old world culture and hi-tech innovative breakthroughs, the mix of east and west, its mix of deep spirituality, irreverent atheism, passionate doubt, and zany mysticism. I love the mix of brash chutzpah and soul-searching analytical reflectiveness. I love that Israelis buy more books per capita than any other country in the world.

Israel is in many ways where I became an adult. After living in Israel for a year during college, I moved back upon graduation.  It was there that I first lived in my own apartment, looked for a job, got a paycheck direct deposited into my account, and learned to cook for myself.  Israel was where I was able to explore my personal Judaism and realize that I didn’t have to go to rabbinic school in order to have a rich, fulfilling, Jewish life, and it was where I made the choice to not become a rabbi (yes, I later changed my mind again, but it was the right choice at the time).

IMG_2542Israel is my family, both metaphorically and literally.  I married into a large, warm Israeli family twenty-four years ago. They have truly become my family over these years.  When I worry abstractly about Israel, I worry concretely about them and their emotional and physical wellbeing.

And yet loving Israel doesn’t mean loving everything about it. Like any family, and I speak here of the metaphoric family, not my actual family, there are those members I tolerate just because they’re family. And then there are those I can’t even abide. They stand for all that I stand against. You know what that’s like. Just because they’re family doesn’t mean you have to like them.

It’s been a long, painful summer.

I confess that I’ve been in a social media semi-hibernation mode this summer.  I’ve felt paralyzed, powerless, unable to say or do anything helpful or productive. It’s been shocking to watch the conversation, both domestically and internationally, devolve into black and white rhetoric, often laced with ancient anti-semitic tropes. People I love have taken extreme and often ill-informed positions. Blame is thrown back and forth, with all sense of nuance and complexity absent from the conversation.

And conversation is probably the wrong word in any case. When accusations are tossed without context, and without reflection, that is not a conversation.

As things heated up in Israel, the CCAR made a quick decision to organize a solidarity mission to Israel in order to both show support to our friends, family, and colleagues in Israel, as well as to provide our members with a more nuanced sense of the reality there.

It was a somber time to be there, and of course the tension has only increased.  We set up meetings with a varied group of people in different parts of the country.  We met with Knesset members and soldiers, activists and negotiators, reporters and scholars. Many of those we spoke to while there voiced deep concern for the future of Israel’s soul, and worries about growing extremism on all sides.  A number of speakers  talked about the national soul-searching that must come when some semblance of stability is restored.

IMG_2135In a prayer service with our Israeli MARAM colleagues one morning, we read several new prayers written by Rabbi Yehoyada Amir.  One is a Mi Sheberach for those wounded, which speaks of the suffering of those of both nations who lie in sickbeds, and the other is a Mi Sheberach for the members of the IDF.  The service was followed by a conversation with our local colleagues, who shared what they are going through, trying to serve and support their communities while in the midst of fear and concern for their own families and still continuing their work in areas like human rights and peace.  Their stories were moving and powerful – and in some cases very painful.

Like so many of those we spoke to, our colleagues also talked about being torn up by the deaths and suffering of the Gazan civilians, even as they grieved the deaths of the young Israelis killed in the conflict.  In the face of fear and pain, they refuse to let go of empathy and give in to hate. They are living out what we are taught in Pirke Avot: in a place where there are no human beings, be a human being.

I am worried.  I worry on Israel’s behalf, and I worry about Israel.  I worry about what will happen to Israel, and I worry about the choices Israel will make.  Even as we witnessed the pain and worry of our colleagues and friends and relatives, we also were grateful to see flashes of hope here and there.  There are many who think that the questions being asked in the public sphere within Israel will lead to a better future.  Even in the midst of new waves of hatred, there are new partnerships being created by those seek peace and coexistence, and are concerned with issues of human rights. So I continue to hold on to hope in the midst of worry.

I would guess that I am not alone in struggling to articulate something meaningful about Israel for the coming high holy days, words that express both deep love for Israel along with concern, a sense of complexity, and a message of hope.

With issues this big and complicated, sometimes prayers and meditations are a helpful way to begin to get a hold of concepts that otherwise feel almost impossible to grasp.

Toward that end, I offer you some readings related to the events of this summer which you are welcome to use in your communities.  We ask only that you use them with attribution.  Please also see additional readings we posted earlier.

Here is a poem written by the liturgist Alden Solovy, inspired by a workshop he held with us during the CCAR trip.

IMG_2633These Ancient Stones

When these ancient stones whisper to us,
They yearn for our steadfast love.
They yearn for us to remember
How Israel walks through history,
With justice and wisdom,
With righteousness and mercy.

God of our fathers and mothers,
Let compassion enter the land.

When these ancient stones whisper to us,
They yearn for our devotion and our service.
They yearn for us to remember the vision of our ancestors,
Their strength,
Their love of God and
Their love for our people.

God of generations,
Let tranquility enter the land.

When these ancient stones speak to us,
They yearn for peace.
They yearn for us to learn
How to turn swords into plowshares,
And spears into pruning hooks.
They yearn for us to remember
That we have been outcast on foreign soil,
That we are bound by Torah to guard the land
And to protect the stranger in our midst.

God of all being,
Let joy enter the land
And gladness enter our hearts.

Two Readings by Rabbi Yehoyada Amir, the Acting Chairperson, MARAM – Israel Council of Reform Rabbis, translated by Ortal Bensky and CCAR staff. (See the Hebrew, posted earlier)

A Prayer for the Wounded

May the One who brought blessings to our fathers Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and to our mothers Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah, bring blessings to the wounded of both nations who lie on their sickbeds. Instill in their caring physicians hearts of wisdom and good sense, in order to restore them to full health and give them encouragement. Bestow God’s holiness upon their relatives and loved ones in order to stand with them in this time of need and to give them love and faith. Strengthen their spirits to chose life in times of pain and suffering. Hear their prayers and fortify them so that they will continue to lead lives of health, creation, joy and blessings. And together we say: Amen.

 A Prayer for the Israel Defense Forces

May the One who brought blessings to our fathers Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and to our mothers Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah, bless the soldiers of Israel’s Defense Forces, and all who stand guard in order to protect the Land of Israel. Give them strength against our enemies, and strengthen their spirit to preserve their highest values at this time of trial. Protect them from all troubles and afflictions, so that they will return in peace and joy to their families and friends, and may they prosper as human beings and citizens in their land.

Rabbi Hara Person is Publisher of CCAR Press and Director of Strategic Communications for the Central Conference of American Rabbis

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Insight and Inspiration from the CCAR Israel Solidarity Mission

On very short notice, a group of twelve American rabbis, all members of the CCAR, embarked on a five-day mission to Israel. It was our hope to demonstrate our solidarity with the people of Israel during a difficult and challenging time. It was also our hope to gain insights into the current situation, unmediated by the cacophony of cable news reports and the flood of postings on Facebook.

When I announced my plans to my congregation two days before I left, I received an overwhelming number of responses. Most people said, be safe, but so many others also thanked me for going, hoping that I could help them understand what was occurring in Israel and Gaza.

Our impulse for demonstrating solidarity was quickly validated. When we arrived in Israel, everywhere we went, everyone thanked us for just being present—for being there. That in itself was significant in many ways.

But we also went in search of greater clarity and understanding. I want to share some of my first impressions. The situation is incredibly complicated. There are no easy answers. There are not even any difficult good answers. This most recent Gaza war is heartbreaking, infuriating, frightening, but even, at times, inspiring.

CCAR trip visits Reform Kehillat Yotzma in Modi'in.
CCAR trip visits Reform Kehillat Yotzma in Modi’in.

This past year, I read, as well as taught and discussed, Ari Shavit’s book My Promised Land. Keeping that book in mind was a good place to start in gaining a background on current events.

His book validated my own favorite phrase: All problems started as solutions. It should be remembered that Hamas was created by Israel in the hope that it would be a conservative, religious based organization to oppose the PLO, a radical secular group led by Yasser Arafat. Hamas had been seen as a solution. Today, it is the problem. Shimon Peres once said: “It is easy to be clever, but far more difficult to be wise.”

I will offer a couple of recurring themes, motifs, memes. First, there is a difference between tactics and strategy. The Iron Dome is a tactic. Tanks, planes, and drones are tactics. Tunnels are tactics. War itself is a tactic. But is there a real strategy for dealing with Palestinians in Gaza or the West Bank? Tactics often maintain the status quo. True change requires strategy and vision. One can easily imagine the current tactics leading to victory, but as military conflict comes to an end, will Israel confront another eruption of violence in another year or two? Is the long-term goal merely managing the violence, controlling the population, “mowing the grass”? The realistic fear is that there will inevitably be a continuing series of uprisings unless the greater issues are addressed. Any long-term strategy must be based not on military power but on politics, economics, and education. Many feel that Israeli leadership has squandered the opportunities of the last five years to truly come to grips with the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Instead, Gaza became more and more unlivable, a place of hopelessness for a people with nothing to lose.

Instead of any possibility of reconciliation, the tactical choice for both sides was continued terror followed by a military response. In that setting, war would be inevitable. If not now, sometime soon. And, sure enough, there is war, but to my mind, this was an unnecessary war.

It began several months ago when Hamas, seriously weakened economically and politically, was forced to join in coalition with the PA. That was a political defeat for them. Yet Israel then broke off negotiations with the Palestinian Authority (PA).

The kidnapping of three yeshiva students in the West Bank followed. Prime Minister Netanyahu immediately blamed Hamas for the kidnapping, and he did so with absolute certainty. For eighteen days all of Israel and the Jewish world was obsessed with the fate of those youths.  Borrowing from the public relations campaign devoted to the Nigerian girls kidnapped by Boko Haram, Jewish social media filled with people holding posters saying, “Bring Back Our Boys”. Israel and world Jewry were consumed with the fate of these boys. But JJ Goldberg, writing in The Forward, claimed that the boys were kidnapped by a rogue family/tribe tied to Hamas but not directly answering to Hamas. Even more troubling, it appears that the boys were killed almost immediately and that the Israeli authorities knew. Some say that Israel was not certain of those deaths and could only know for certain once the bodies were discovered. That may well be true, but the ginned-up PR campaign was, in my mind, cynical manipulation that, in the end, had devastating consequences.

Once the boys’ bodies were found, there was profound national mourning, a communal cry of weeping. But genuine pain among most Israelis devolved into racist hatred that manifested itself in racist gangs roaming the streets shouting Death to Arabs, Death to the Left. Arabs were beaten up, and, most horrifically, the teenager Muhammed Abu Khdeir, was burned alive by right wing thugs. In the protests that followed, his cousin, Tariq Abu Khdeir, an American citizen, was beaten by border police, and the beating was captured on video. There was revulsion and outrage in most of Israeli society, but quite quickly attention was redirected to rocket attacks from Gaza. Rocket firings from Gaza began in full strength. But were the attacks from Hamas really a direct response to the death of Muhammed Abu Khdeir?

On the Israeli side, the kidnapping of the three youths provided the pretext for the re-arrests of Hamas operatives who had been freed in return for the release of Gilad Shalit. The re-arrest could be seen as a breaking of the 2012 truce agreement. While rocket fire from Gaza into southwestern Israel had continued, the massive number of rocket attacks only began at this point. Were the rocket attacks really in response to the killing and beating or, in fact, a reaction to the arrests of the previously freed prisoners?

I offer no idealization of Hamas. I believe they are very bad actors. They use terror to try to absolutely destroy Israel. Annihilation is their ultimate goal. Their leader, Khaled Mashal, now based in Qatar, wants to eradicate the State of Israel from the holy land. Any means can be used to get to that end. In his thinking, Palestinian civilian deaths are an asset to that cause. They help weaken Israel and turn the world against it. Yes, Hamas hides in civilian areas. Their headquarters are embedded below a hospital. They put weapons in UNWRA buildings and fire rockets from schoolyards and mosques. All that is true.

Yet, with full implementation of the Iron Dome defense, Israeli leadership knew that Hamas was militarily impotent. Israel commanded the air. But Hamas still possessed the potent tactic of fear. The rocket attacks were aimed (loosely defined) at civilian populations. We visited Sderot, Gdera, and Ashkelon, towns where rockets strike terror and fear. People run to shelters. Children’s playgrounds have equipment built with reinforced concrete to be used as shelters in case of attack. Parents and children can’t leave their homes or go to summer camp or the community pool. It is an untenable situation.

Emergency food supplies for communities in the south.
Emergency food supplies for communities in the south.

But the fear of rockets, and the subsequent focus on the Hamas tunnels, exemplified the schizophrenic Israeli attitudes of invincibility and vulnerability. Israelis feel invincible from the air, both in offense and defense, but there is a feeling of great vulnerability because of the threat of the tunnels beneath their homes, kindergartens, and greenhouses.

The Iron Dome is really quite incredible. It is able to calculate the trajectory of a rocket and intercept only those rockets that would pose a real danger and let the others fall in open fields. It has been a game changer. Hamas was ultimately impotent in terms of attacks from the air. I was reminded of the Ali-Foreman fight. In his rope-a-dope tactic, Ali just took all of Foreman’s punches until his opponent was too tired to hold his arms up. Finally, in the eighth round, Ali knocked out the exhausted Foreman. With the Iron Dome in full operation, Hamas could fire off a thousand rockets until its storehouse was exhausted. None of those rockets was effective.

That is not to say that the aerial attack was not frightening, but it was ultimately ineffective.

Israelis became attuned to the sirens and warnings of the rocket attacks. Everyone had apps on their cell phones tied to the alarms and telling them where the danger might be. Three times during our own trip we had to react. Twice when we were in a meeting in a home in Ashkelon, overlooking the Mediterranean, the sirens sounded, and we found shelter in the stairway or in the home’s safe room. Once the sirens sounded at 2 a.m., and guests in our hotel in Tel Aviv came out of their rooms and went to the secure area.  (I slept through that one.)

The Iron Dome was managing the rocket attacks, but the discovery of the tunnels was far more terrifying. The existence of the tunnels was not really new information. Hamas had used the tunnels before; the capture of Gilad Shalit was the best-known example. But the Israelis did not fully appreciate the extent of the tunnels. Once this became known, people could easily imagine sitting down to dinner or going to sleep and suddenly having terrorists pop out of the ground to kidnap or kill them or their children. This would be a nightmare scenario, and Israeli forces reported discovering plans for a coordinated attack on Rosh Hashanah that would have resulted in terrible deaths as well as kidnappings.

But, once again, these are discussions of tactics, not strategy. The Israelis will figure out a way to defend against the tunnels. I suggested a twenty-six mile trench. Seeing the road building engineering taking place along the Bab el Wad entrance to Jerusalem, it is clear that Israel has the capability to move mountains. There will be better sensing devices. There was talk of artificial earthquakes collapsing the tunnels. Perhaps they will sink steel plates into the earth. Give them time. There can be an effective tactical response.

Ultimately the Gaza war will end. As I write this, it appears that the IDF is redeploying and withdrawing from Gaza. The compelling question now is what will come after the war. What will be the future of Gaza and the Palestinians, and most importantly, what will be the future of Israel? The true threat to Israel is what is tunneling beneath the surface of the society.

There was overwhelming support for Operation Protective Edge. The IDF remains the beloved institution of Israel, “our beautiful self,” in the words of Miri Eisin. The soldiers are everyone’s sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, neighbors. Most every Israeli supported the goals of combatting Hamas and bringing peace and security to Israeli kibbutzim and towns. We arrived in Israel only a few days after the funerals of Sean Carmelli and Max Steinberg, American youths who had gone to Israel and volunteered for the IDF. As “lone soldiers” they were without the typical family circle of support. But their funerals demonstrated that they were adopted by the entire nation. More than 20,000 people attended their burials and, more significantly, truly mourned for them.

Anat Hoffman addressing the CCAR group.
Anat Hoffman addressing the CCAR group.

Israel was united in grief when soldiers died, but, when this war ends, will the sense of unity last? In all our meetings and discussions we returned to a recurring theme: what will follow the war? Israeli society has deep fissures, chasms, fractures. At the moment they may be on the back burner, but Israel will have to confront dangerous forces from within. The horrific death of teenager Muhammed Abu Khdeir exposed the extent of racist fascism in certain sectors of the Israeli population.  The Settler Price Tag gangs (Tag Machir) have operated with virtual impunity for the last number of years. They attacked Arabs, Israeli leftists, Christian clergy, and others. The writer Amos Oz has called them Jewish neo-Nazis. There has been little or no effort to catch them or punish them. They have been supported and encouraged by equally racist rabbis and politicians. In a meeting with Anat Hoffman, the director of the Israel Religious Action Center, she said that too often in Israel the lesson of the Holocaust is that the world is against us and seeks our destruction. Instead, she said, the real lesson should be: how does a democracy disintegrate into fascism?

Many people have warned of the pending earthquake waiting to erupt once peace returns. There are great divisions in Israeli society. Avrum Burg once stated that, in Israel, there are extremists on the right, extremists on the left, and extremists in the middle. But this is now more than a humorous phrase. The Price Tag neo-Nazi gangs represent one extreme manifestation, but the Israeli Jew-Israeli Arab tension is very real. There are members of the Knesset and members of the ruling coalition that have called for the denial of some basic civil rights of the Arab citizens of Israel. More than 20% of the Israeli population is Arab, and yet their position in the Jewish State often seems precarious. Marauding gangs have also attacked leftists, or those they perceive to be on the left. In addition, and with less violence, there are two distinct worlds in tension between the settlers of the West Bank and Israelis living on the coastal plain. The settlers are seen as religious nationalistic fanatics, while the Tel Aviv, Herziliyah, Haifa Israelis are seen by the right wing as hedonistic secular heretics.

Rabbi Donniel Hartman has spoken about the multiple tribes of modern Israel.  Some of the bitter animosity that exists between those tribal groups has already resulted in violence. There is renewed fear that whatever cohesion that has existed in Israeli society is quickly breaking down. There are the ultra-orthodox and the secularists, new Russian immigrants and the Israeli Sabra society, Sephardim and the entrenched Ashkenazi elite, the underclass and the oligarchs. Add to that the frustration over political corruption and a lack of opportunity for those without the necessary connections, and there is deep concern about a potentially volatile battle for the future direction of the Jewish state.

The Zionist dream was about returning the Jewish people to a normal existence. From the year 70 to 1948 Jews had lived without power. They were subjects in other countries, and they had little control over their fate. But 1948 changed all that. The Jewish people had power, and today Israel is indeed a powerful nation in terms of its military and economy. It was easy to be ethical when powerless. How does a state act with the highest morals when it is powerful and when it must battle a terrorist enemy deeply embedded among a civilian population living in a densely populated urban environment?

We met with Colonel (Res.) Bentzi Gruber, Deputy Commander of the Southern Brigade. His PhD thesis was: “Ethics in the Field: An Inside Look at the Israel Defense Forces.” Col. Gruber was quick to admit that neither Israel nor the IDF was righteous, but there were rules of engagement based on clear objectives and standards. Having said that, collateral damage was inevitable, given the nature of these battles. Israel must accept some of the responsibility for the consequences of its massive fire power. The death of innocents, especially children, was heartbreaking.

Candles on Har Herzl
Candles on a fresh grave on Mount Herzl.

Finally, the Zionist dream was a democratic Jewish state where the eternal values of prophetic Judaism could be lived out in the real world, not just in the minds of theologians and philosophers. When the final tank leaves Gaza, and when the fighter jets return to their bases, what will be the future of Israel?  Will the Settlement Enterprise continue its course in direct conflict with the definition of Israel as both democratic AND Jewish? It can’t be both, if Israel continues to occupy the West Bank. Will fascist racists continue to influence the ruling coalition of Bibi Netanyahu? Alternatively, will a coalition of Israel, Egypt, Jordan, the Palestinian Authority, Saudi Arabia, and many of the Emirates come together to create a peaceful Gaza where economic opportunity provides hope for a population that has been living lives of desperation? Will this coalition be able to create a new Marshall Plan for Gaza? More importantly, will this finally be the time to recognize that the old tactics will not resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? There is talk that new peace initiatives are surfacing in response to the Gaza war. If so, there may still be hope for a solution to Israel’s life among its neighbors.

Ultimately, however, the real existential threat to Israel is internal. It is quite miraculous that Israel has thrived for sixty-six years in spite of continuing war, absorbing millions of immigrants and living with deep religious and tribal divisions. But it has. The question now is what is the vision for the future? Amos Oz has stated that Israeli leadership has been driving a car with a windshield covered in black paint. The only means of navigation has been the rear view mirror. They are very aware of where they have come from, but they are unable to see the road in front of them.

I went to Israel on a last minute mission to demonstrate solidarity and to arrive at a deeper, more authentic understanding of the current conflict. As a small group of rabbis, we achieved our goal as a solidarity mission. As for greater understanding and clarity, the situation is enormously complicated. I cannot claim to have arrived at clear solutions to a conflict that has frustrated so many thinkers and analysts. Yet I continue to return to Israel. I always find it inspiring and energizing, while, at the same time, it remains demanding and often infuriating. To me, Israel matters. I always try to remember that Israel was created and built by idealists, dreamers, and visionaries. Let us hope and pray that it can be led once more by those ideals of equality, opportunity, and peace.

Rabbi Samuel Gordon serves Congregation Sukkat Shalom in Wilmette, IL.

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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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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.  


CCAR on the Road Israel

Challenges and Inspiration: The Final Day of the CCAR Israel Trip

T'filah at Beit Daniel, Tel Aviv, with Rabbi Or Zohar
T’filah at Beit Daniel, Tel Aviv, with Rabbi Or Zohar

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.

Colonel Bentzi Gruber

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.

At Leket

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.