I travelled to Israel at the end of July, one of 13 rabbis, organized by the Central Conference of American Rabbis, as a solidarity mission while the war raged between Israel and Hamas in Gaza. The goal of Israel’s “Operation Protective Edge” is to disable Hamas’s ability to fire rockets into Israel, now capable of reaching Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and Haifa. And to destroy the network of tunnels Hamas has been digging and reinforcing with cement intended to build schools, hospitals and homes; tunnels dug across Israel’s border as a terrorist tactic to instill fear in those communities underneath which the tunnels reach, intended to kill or kidnap Israeli civilians and soldiers. Any sovereign nation has the right, actually the obligation, to defend itself against enemy attack. Israel can claim that right to justify its extensive military operation. I wanted to travel to Israel, on behalf of Temple Solel, to show up for our brothers and sisters, collect and bring needed supplies to IDF soldiers, understand more deeply the complicated politics at play in Israel and the surrounding region, and return to share my experiences within Solel and the greater community. Here’s one story from the beginning of my trip.
It was motzei Shabbat, the end of Shabbat, and I heard on the news that there was going to be an anti-war demonstration in Tel Aviv’s Kikar Rabin, Rabin Square. I took a cab from my hotel to the square. On the radio in the cab, driven by a Russian Jew who made aliya in the mid ‘90’s, played the traditional music marking havdalah, the ritual that moves us from Shabbat into the new week. What other country would you hear a cabbie play such music? The music concluded with the prayer of hope that Eliyahu ha’navi, that Elijah the prophet, who in our tradition will usher in the Messianic age, will arrive soon. Such an irony, as I stepped out of the cab to an anti-war rally. There were no signs of Elijah.
The square was quite a sight to behold. An estimated 5,000 Israelis were gathered peacefully, with speaker after speaker denouncing the level of force Israel chose to use in Gaza, the resulting high number of civilian deaths, physical devastation, and the emerging humanitarian crisis. These were not fringe Israelis. These were proud citizens, with children fighting in Gaza, who themselves had served in the IDF. And, of course, there was a counter rally. A few hundred flag-waving Israelis, shouting loudly at their fellow citizens, denouncing them as traitors, who had turned their backs on the IDF soldiers fighting on the front lines. And, literally in the middle, was a large police force, on foot and horses, protecting the anti-war protesters from the counter protesters; Jews protecting Jews (and some, very few, Israeli Arabs) from Jews. It actually was a powerful reflection of Israel’s democracy in action – freedom of speech. If only the peoples of the surrounding Arab countries could speak so freely.
The square is named after Yitzhak Rabin (z”l) who, on November 4, 1995, was assassinated by an Israeli Jewish religious extremist, Yigal Amir. Rabin, a military man, a warrior who fought for the modern State of Israel, as an elder statesman, led with the greatest courage of his life, for peace. As Israel’s Prime Minister during this time, Rabin took the bold steps to put a halt to further building in the West Bank settlements, and was prepared to make land concessions with the Palestinians, for the sake of peace – bold steps for which he would pay with his life. Rabin, to garner public support for his actions, held a massive peace rally, in this very square (previously known as Kings of Israel Square). After an inspiring speech, challenging Israel to seize this window of opportunity for peace, departing the square, Amir shot Rabin in cold blood.
Now, almost 20 years later, off the square, down a dimly-lit pathway, in ear-shot of the rally, I stood alone, next to the memorial statue of Yitzhak Rabin, in the very spot he was assassinated. For any number of contributing factors, mostly a lack of political will and courage on both sides of the table, Israeli and Palestinian, the prospects for peace has taken a detour in the past two decades, a peace now barely discernible. Alone with former Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, in the barely illuminated dark, I could see the bronze bust of his proud, pensive, determined demeanor, shaking his head from side to side, with a tear rolling down his cheek. Had all for which he sacrificed been in vain?
Israel, indeed, needs to defend her borders and her people. Yet, as a warrior amongst warriors, Rabin understood, with the hard-gained wisdom of battle and age, only a political solution will break the cycle of violence. If we are ever to see the Prophet Elijah, it will take men and women, Israelis and Palestinians, Jews and Muslims, with the imagination, creativity and courage of Yitzhak Rabin to reach across the table to one another, for the sake of peace. Someday, God-willing, I, or my son, or my grandchildren will stand in this place, along side Elijah, and see Rabin nod up and down, with a smile on his face.
Rabbi John A. Linder is the spiritual leader of Temple Solel, Phoenix, Arizona.
Anyone who has ever planned a trip knows that a great deal of time and effort is involved. This emergency solidarity mission took us across this country over the five days and provided opportunities to hear from a variety of experts including four Members of Knesset. And without exception, every one of these meetings was of great value.
Just as our Tradition teaches us that there is meaning in the white spaces of the black letters in the Torah, sometimes our most profound experiences occur not in the scheduled instances but in the spontaneous ones. The unplanned interactions were, for me, the most meaningful moments of this trip.
Israel is a tiny country. And with mandatory army service, it is impossible to not know someone who is currently involved in the conflict. A brother. A son. A nephew. The friend of the son of a friend. Doesn’t matter if you are hotel maintenance or a Member of Knesset. And more than three weeks into Operation Protective Edge, everyone has his or her own personal experience with sirens or dashing into a shelter. No one is immune to the constant threats.
This is what we came to do: to listen. Not to pontificate. Or speculate. Not to solve. Or to advise. But to listen. To really listen.
In Ashkelon, we met some soldiers while shopping for the Lone Soldier Center: In Memory of Michael Levin, whose yahrtzeit was just this week. While our task to buy supplies for the Lone Soldiers was admirable, we had actual soldiers right in front of us. So we introduced ourselves. We told them who we were and why we had come to Israel right in the midst of the war. They told us that they were combat mechanics charged with fixing the tanks and other vehicles coming out of Gaza. We asked them what could we buy that would be the most beneficial.
“Headlamps,” they said. So that they could use both hands to work in the dark.
So we did. We purchased headlamps. For their entire unit.
And we listened. And looked at photos of their wives and their children. And, after taking pictures so that their buddies would believe that a crazy group of Reform rabbis had come all the way from the United States just to be there in that moment and buy them new headlamps, reluctantly we parted.
Days later, we learned that “our” unit had been the one tasked with fixing the tread on a tank damaged in Gaza. Our headlamps were being put to good use.
Over and over, we told people why we had come now. Why, when common sense ought to send us running in the opposite direction, our emotions prevailed and brought us to Israel.
“How long have you been here?” asked Dror, the taxi driver.
“Just a week.”
“Those huge bags for just a week?” he laughed.
“They were filled with things I brought for the soldiers. Now they are mostly empty.”
His eyes glistened. As he whispered, “thank you.”
Rabbi Rebecca Einstein Schorr is the editor of the CCAR Newsletter.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
We 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.
We 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.
And 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.
We 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 SergeantYair 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.
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?
So 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 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.
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 thethird 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.
The 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 returning. 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).
In 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.
[author] [author_image timthumb=’on’]http://ccarravblog.wpengine.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/12/hp_photo.jpg[/author_image] [author_info]Rabbi Hara Person is the Publisher & Director of CCAR Press. [/author_info] [/author] No matter how many times I travel to Israel, the actual entry into the country never ceases to move me. From the moment we enter Israeli air space, to the actual landing on Israeli soil, I am still filled with a sense of awe at what it means in the scope of Jewish history to arrive in the State in Israel.
Today is officially the first day of the CCAR Israel Fam Trip and Solidarity Mission. The original purpose of this trip was to teach rabbis ordained in the last ten years how to lead a congregational or community trip to Israel (hence “Fam”, short for familiarization). Because of the events of the last two weeks, we also opened up the trip to colleagues who wanted to come and support Israel at this challenging time.
I am excited to get to know this diverse group of colleagues, who come from around the country, and represent many different ordination years. Rabbi Michael Weinberg, of Temple Beth Israel, Skokie, IL, is our group leader and I am honored to be the CCAR staff leader. We are also joined by Rabbi Jonathan Stein, CCAR President, from Temple Shaaray Tefila in New York City. I am also looking forward to learning from Uri Feinberg, our wonderful madrich from ARZA World/Da’at.
Even though I have been to Israel over thirty times since I first came to Israel with NFTY’s CAY program in 1983, I know from my experience on the previous CCAR Fam Trip that I will learn much and get to see Israel anew.I am also looking forward to using the new CCAR resource for Israel trips, Birkon Artzi: Blessings and Meditations for Travelers to Israel, edited by Rabbi Serge Lippe. This fantastic resource will help deepen and enrich our experience as we travel around the country. As we opened with our first discussion this afternoon, we began with a beautiful reading from the book, which helped set the tone for what will be an intensive, emotional and thought-provking time together.
Now we’re off to Kehilat Yotzma, to pray with our colleagues Rabbi Kinneret Shiryon and Rabbi Nir Barkin, and then to Shabbat dinner at our madrich‘s house.