Are They Humoring Us or Do Our Solidarity Visits Matter? Reflections on 2 Days in Israel this Week
I have been longing to go to Israel all summer. Each day while following the news and connecting closely with the unfolding of events I have felt drawn to walk the land of our forefathers, to be one with our brothers and sisters and to experience the destiny of our people not as a spectator on the sideline, but on the big stage itself. While some have experienced Israel fatigue, growing tired of the rallies, sermons and articles focused almost exclusively on Israel, I have felt the opposite – an increasing appetite and craving for more.
All summer long we have watched and read about the incredible displays of unity, the remarkable acts of chesed, the courage and bravery of a people forced to endure the kidnapping and murder of three of their children, the incessant fall of rockets, the danger of sending their boys into battle and the challenge of living normal lives in utterly abnormal circumstances. The people of Israel have more than risen to the challenges; they have been brave, filled with faith, and resolute in their unwavering commitment to our land, our people and our values. Like an uncomfortable itch that is gnawing to be scratched, each and every day of this summer I have been uncomfortably itching to show solidarity and to be part of our people’s experience in Israel directly, not simply watching from the side.
And so, when the opportunity presented itself to join nine of my rabbinic colleagues on a very brief solidarity visit to Israel organized by the Orthodox Union, I jumped at and I remain deeply grateful to my wife and our BRS President for giving their consent, support and encouragement.
What could one really accomplish in two days? How much could one see, do, and experience? The answer, I learned, is an enormous amount.
Our group made a shiva visit to the Turgemans, whose four-year-old son was murdered by a mortar. We visited an iron dome installation and a tank unit still gathered on the Gaza border. We met the people of Sderot, shopped in their stores, visited their Hesder Yeshiva and met with its Rosh Yeshiva. We met with an incredible youth program in Sderot and participated in a siyum by one of their madrichim (youth leaders) who studied most of the mesechta (tractate) during his time fighting in Gaza. We toured a Kibbutz two miles from Gaza that was hit 19 times by rockets in the last three months alone. We spent significant time with the Shaer family whose son Gil-ad was kidnapped and murdered. We met with the Chief Rabbi of the IDF as well as with Col. Bentzi Gruber, an expert on war ethics who is responsible for directing 20,000 soldiers. We visited Soroka hospital and spent time with injured soldiers and their families.
The real question is did our visit matter, not only to us who got to scratch our itch to be in Israel, but to the people of Israel itself? I must share with you that as I read our itinerary on the plane over, I was somewhat skeptical and even cynical. All summer we have seen pictures and read testimony of American rabbis and lay people who went to Israel to show solidarity. But while the trips made those who took them feel connected, inspired and motivated, what impact did they truly have on those whom they came to support?
Were the soldiers on the army base, the injured ones in the hospital and even the Sha’er family just going to humor us? Were the people in the south and dignitaries we met going to be courteous and kind on the surface, but in their hearts feel like props in a photo op? Our visit would certainly make us feel good, but would it really matter to the people we came to see?
Among the powerful messages of this short trip is not only did our visits matter, but we were blown away by how much they seemed to matter. I want to share with you a few of the reactions to our visit, not as an expression of self-congratulations, but to communicate and hopefully inspire you to coordinate a visit of your own as soon as possible with the recognition that it truly matters.
A few of us took a cab to daven at the Kotel early our first morning. The driver described that in the last 50 days he has barely had any business. He averaged 70 shekels of income a day while his fuel costs exceeded 100 shekel a day. He asked us to encourage visits to Israel as soon as possible to help the damaged tour industry recover and thanked us for being in Israel and supporting the economy.
We stopped in Sderot on our way to an army base in order to buy cold drinks, food and treats. The owners of the stores we entered described how challenging it has been to make a living this summer with so few people leaving their homes as the sirens sounded regularly and rockets fell incessantly. While of course we thanked them for the resilience and courage in not allowing our enemies to drive them from their homes, remarkably they overflowed with gratitude to our group for visiting and showing support. The woman who owns the Judaica store described how she was born in Sderot, got married in Sderot and will not be driven from Sderot. We hit a remarkable impasse when we tried to support her by shopping broadly while she insisted on giving us discounts in appreciation for our visit.
When we arrived at the army base on a steaming hot day, I knew the soldiers would appreciate the goodies, but I didn’t realize how much they would welcome our warm sentiments and love. Rabbis Topp and Posey bought cards written by the children of their community in LA. I watched as they handed out the cards to the soldiers and wondered if they would even read them after we left or just toss them aside. As we were gathering to get on the bus, I was amazed as a soldier rushed up to R’ Topp and asked him, “can I please have one too.” Our well wishes and messages of support clearly matter.
Our visit with Ofir and Bata Galim Shaer was transformative. They are beyond exceptional people who have emerged role models and teachers to us all. Their response to the kidnapping and murder of their son Gil-ad is nothing short of heroic. As we pulled into their home in Talmon, I wondered if they really wanted to meet with us. After all, shiva and sheloshim were completed and I imagined that they must be trying their hardest to return to some sense of normalcy. Not only did they greet us warmly and host us graciously, they were tremendously expressive of their gratitude for our visit and for demonstrating that we have not forgotten their ordeal. We went around and all shared the rallies, tehillim gatherings and sheloshim ceremonies held in our communities. We told them about how you, my beloved friends, felt their pain personally without even knowing them. They told us how our visit closed a circle for them as they heard about the support from American Jewry, but meeting us in person and by extension feeling the love of the communities we represent, gives them great comfort. Ofir hugged each one of us and gave us his email and cell phone number asking us to keep in touch.
There are, thank God, only three soldiers remaining in Seroka hospital ailing from their injuries due to the war. The first, Dan, who has undergone 12 surgeries in the last month, was not feeling well enough to receive us, but we spent time with his family. The second, Yehudah, sustained a direct injury to his head and has been in a coma for the last few weeks. He will please God wake up to find out that his wife has given birth to their son. The bris took place outside of his hospital room shortly before our visit and we were invited by the family to eat from the seudas mitzvah and share in the simcha, as bittersweet as it was. The third soldier, Roi, has undergone three surgeries in the last month and still needs more. We visited with him and his parents and frankly they all seemed tired from the attention and eager to just go home. They were lukewarm in our conversation until we shared with them how in all of our Shuls, every single day following davening we say tehillim on his behalf and for all of his comrades injured in battle. Roi and his parent’s eyes literally opened wide as they had no idea and couldn’t believe that people in our communities from the East Coast to the West Coast of America think about and care deeply about them literally every day. Their shyness to our visit turned to expressive appreciation as we invited Roi to visit our communities and enjoy a vacation to America on us.
Not everybody can go to Israel on short notice for a very brief trip. However, we can all continue to do more to show our appreciation, support and love to those who are sacrificing so much, some economically, some through trauma, some sustaining injuries and some paying the highest price for our people and our land.
If you can plan a trip to Israel in the short future, don’t hesitate, do it now. If you can’t, you can continue to contribute to causes that provide for our soldiers, you can send cards and messages to those who have experienced loss from this war and you can continue to daven for the recovery of the injured and the well-being of the IDF.
We learned so much from this trip, but most of all we learned that our expressions of support and love truly matter, so please don’t stop sharing them.