An Open Letter to My Fellow Jews in the Diaspora

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Dear fellow Jews who don’t yet live in Israel,


We are living in extraordinary times, days in which atrocities about which we pledged “Never Again” have happened, with dozens of pogroms, over 1,400 brutally and barbarically murdered, and unthinkably, 200 Jews taken hostage, among them babies, infants, women, and elderly, even Holocaust survivors. Hundreds of thousands of young, beautiful souls – our children, brothers, sisters, cousins, nephews, nieces, and friends – have been called up, asked to risk their lives to protect our people, in Israel and around the world.


These are indeed extraordinary times, and we cannot and must not be leading ordinary lives.  It isn’t only the media and elected leaders that need to be careful about their language, their attitudes, and their focus.  All of us need to be more sensitive, aware, and thoughtful in not only what we are doing, but what and how we are messaging.  I don’t believe people generally have malicious or bad intentions, but our words online and offline matter, they can lift and support and boost morale or they can deflate, cause pain, make our brothers and sisters in Israel feel very alone. 


Don’t Move On: Nobody in Israel, not a single person in the country regardless of age, location, or religious denomination, has been able to return to “normal” or move on.  Hundreds of thousands have been called up to fight.  Their spouses, children, parents and family have had to pick up the slack, all while worrying non-stop about their loved one’s fate.  Cities in Israel have no men to run businesses, pick up the garbage, or serve the roles we take for granted.  Restaurants and food establishments have take-out only.  The government is already planning for, and citizens are starting to think about, food conservation.  This war has barely begun with a ground operation imminent and 200 hostages still not home.  There may have been events or tragedies in Israel in the past that caught our attention – we davened, we said Tehillim, we attended a rally, maybe called a Congressman, but then we more or less got back to normal fairly quickly. This cannot be our attitude right now. Our brothers and sisters in Israel have not returned to any semblance of normal and neither can we.  It is up to each individual and family to decide how to continue to live life, do what needs to be done, and yet remain acutely sensitive to what is happening in Israel.  We must be careful not to judge one another and how we strike that balance.  But one thing we can do universally is not move on. 


Think Carefully About The Words You Use: Making those in Israel, on the actual front lines, feel alone is compounding their pain, and is downright cruel.  If you were in Israel over Yom Tov and needed to get back to work, if your family and kids’ schools and life generally are outside of Israel, it is reasonable and understandable that you had to leave.  If your child was experiencing anxiety or trauma being in a country at war, you did the right thing bringing them back.  But you and they aren’t “evacuees” or “refugees,” you didn’t “flee” for your life, and you weren’t “rescued.” Your situation was no doubt stressful, traumatic, and difficult.  You deserve to and should work through those feelings and get support for them as needed but choose your language carefully.  An American who made Aliyah 20 years ago, who voluntarily put her family’s future and destiny in Israel and has three children now fighting in the IDF, described what it is like to read and hear American Jews, including those who daven daily to return to Yerushalayim, run from Israel, post about their stress and anxiety about their return, and describe themselves as evacuees.  If you needed to leave Israel or your child needed to come home, nobody should judge you, but talk about your experience sensitively, thoughtfully, and intelligently.  Leave Israel the way you walk away from the Kotel: backwards and wistful.  Don’t turn your back and run; walk away hesitantly, slowly, regretfully, and facing Israel the whole time.


Prioritize The Captives: There is so much pain and horror to absorb, so much fear and concern on our minds. We grieve and try to comprehend 1,300 funerals and shivas, we worry about half a million soldiers in uniform, but we must keep at the top of our minds the terrifying fact that there are 200 innocent people, including small children, being held by Hamas right now.  When three boys were taken nine years ago, Klal Yisroel held our collective breath and didn’t stop davening. There are TWO HUNDRED hostages being held in ways we don’t want to imagine. Like Yaakov was inconsolable until Yosef was returned to him, we must be inconsolable until the fate of those 200 is secured.


We Are All Part of this War:  Israel is battling on the front lines, but this is not only their war.  The horrific massacre and atrocities in Israel have revealed the ugly reality of Hamas sympathizers who live in major cities around America and Europe.  We have watched supposedly educated, respectable people not only fail to condemn brutal murder, rape, and kidnapping, but defend it, identify with it, and reveal that they would be perfectly fine with it being perpetrated against us, their neighbors, not in Israel but around the world. Hamas has in its charters not only to drive Jews from Israel but to kill Jews around the world.  This is not something that happened or is happening “over there.” You are not a spectator to this war, you are not on the sidelines.  We all have skin in this, and we should be acting like it. 


Use Your Influence: Every one of us can and should be having an impact on other people. We are responsible for influencing neighbors, co-workers, friends, and family by educating them on this war and advocating for Israel, or recruiting others to daven, learn and earn merits for our soldiers and for all Israel.  But let’s be clear, when soldiers are risking their lives, you are not defeating the enemy by insisting on going about business as usual in America, by shopping or going to fancy restaurants, setting a beautiful table, or focusing on fashion or planning your next vacation.  On social media, this isn’t a time to mark birthdays or anniversaries, display desserts or décor, get vacation advice or post anything that is tone-deaf and callous to the crisis facing the Jewish people everywhere. (Of course, we should continue to celebrate milestones, particularly our children’s. We should take vacation if we need to. We should set a beautiful Shabbos table. But we need to take extreme care with what we are posting publicly right now.)


This is our Family: If you don’t have a close family member in Israel, it is time to start acting like you do. If a member of your immediate family—a parent, sibling, spouse or child—were God forbid in crisis, in the ICU, or missing, or fighting for his or her life, could you be distracted?  Would you look for or welcome distraction?  Would you not be drawn to any news, any update on their well-being?  As one person online posted, when asked by a co-worker, “Do you have any family in Israel,” he responded, “Only a few million.” Our genuine pain, anguish, grief, and worry should not just be expressions of imo anochi b’tzaaa, sympathy and empathy for what another is going through. This is OUR pain, OUR anguish, OUR fear, and our lives, our priorities, our focus and our time must reflect it.  


Be Aware of And Sensitive To Those Around You: In your shul, among your neighbors and friends, are people who have children and grandchildren serving in the IDF. Their lives are on hold, they are tortured by the concern. In some cases, they have literally no idea where their children are or what their assignment is. There are parents and grandparents of children in Israel in yeshiva and seminary or who have made Aliyah.  This is personal to them.  Be thoughtful, sensitive, and kind how you speak, what you post, how you refer to what is happening there. For example, the shul lobby might not be the best place for you to weigh in on how many soldier casualties would be acceptable to you in a ground invasion, when you don’t know if the person behind you might be sitting shiva for one of those casualties.


Focus On Practical Things You Can Do: In America we might feel helpless at times but there is so much we can be doing. Check in on people in Israel or who have loved ones there:  text, email, call, show you care.  It takes a moment and it means the world.  Also: daven, daven, daven.  Each and every one of our heartfelt tefillos and perakim of Tehillim matter, they mean something to Hashem and also to those who know we are pouring out our hearts.  Learn, do mitzvos, perform chesed in the merit of those we who cannot be doing those things right now.  Advocate, write letters, reach out to elected officials, protest those who are telling the story inaccurately and thank those who are supporting Israel the way it deserves.  Pass up on a luxury you were going to afford yourself and send support for equipment, supplies, and an economy hurting badly. (Also, be mindful of where and to whom you are giving. Give generously, but make sure you’re giving to someone you trust (who themselves are making sure the funds are being used appropriately) or a known organization. There are many well-meaning people and campaigns, but sending supplies to soldiers or civilians is not always simple. Giving to a website or cause going around Whatsapp that has not been vetted may not be the best use of your support.)


Good Day? I was checking out of a store and the cashier asked me, “Are you having a great day?”  She did nothing wrong and it could be her employee handbook mandates she say that, but I had to hold back from screaming, “Great day?  Do you know the crisis my family is in?” Again, she did nothing wrong, but we should be careful about the language we use. On Motzei Shabbos instead of “gut voch” and “Shavua tov,” I wished others, “May it be a gut voch and shavua tov.” Instead of saying “Have a great day,” when I see others, I say, “May klal Yisroel have a great and successful day.” Think about how the words you use and the way you communicate indicates that you are acutely feeling being in an eis tzara.


Pace Yourself: It is understandable that you can’t make it to every rally and can’t and shouldn’t be (nor is it healthy to be) tied to the news 24/6.  All indications are that this crisis for Klal Yisroel won’t be over quickly.  We need to pace ourselves. Be aware of what is happening but let yourself take a break from your phone and don’t let it interfere with other responsibilities. Advocate, fight, cry, daven, learn, check in, give… and take a moment to catch your breath if the alternative is burning out. The challenge of keeping up with the intensity of the efforts and opportunities to help right now must not be an excuse to abandon all of them altogether and return to “normal.” 


My dear friends who live in the Diaspora – this is a gut check moment.  We will forever be defined and remembered for how connected we feel and act to Klal Yisroel and to those in Eretz Yisroel at this time.


When Bnei Gad and Bnei Reuven ask Moshe if they can live east of the Yarden and not settle in Eretz Yisroel proper, something the Midrash tells us they were the first to exiled later because of,  Moshe responds: וַיֹּ֣אמֶר מֹשֶׁ֔ה לִבְנֵי־גָ֖ד וְלִבְנֵ֣י רְאוּבֵ֑ן הַאַֽחֵיכֶ֗ם יָבֹ֙אוּ֙ לַמִּלְחָמָ֔ה וְאַתֶּ֖ם תֵּ֥שְׁבוּ פֹֽה׃ , “Are your brothers to go to war while you stay here?” 


Jews of the Diaspora are not being asked to come fight.  (Though some are heroically volunteering to do so.) We are not even being asked to come right now.  But our hearts, souls, and every fiber of our being must be in and with Israel, wherever we may physically be right now. 


In a previous war of the Jewish people against Amalek, Moshe stood and raised his hands heavenward. The Torah tells us: וִידֵ֤י מֹשֶׁה֙ כְּבֵדִ֔ים וַיִּקְחוּ־אֶ֛בֶן וַיָּשִׂ֥ימוּ תַחְתָּ֖יו וַיֵּ֣שֶׁב עָלֶ֑יהָ וְאַהֲרֹ֨ן וְח֜וּר תָּֽמְכ֣וּ בְיָדָ֗יו מִזֶּ֤ה אֶחָד֙ וּמִזֶּ֣ה אֶחָ֔ד וַיְהִ֥י יָדָ֛יו אֱמוּנָ֖ה עַד־בֹּ֥א הַשָּֽׁמֶשׁ׃ ,     But Moshe’s hands grew heavy; so they took a stone and put it under him and he sat on it, while Aharon and Chur, one on each side, supported his hands so his hands remained steady until the sun set.”


Moshe held both his hands up, directing the people’s prayer and faith to Hashem.  When it got uncomfortable and tiring for him, Yehoshua and Chur stepped in and helped him hold his hands up.  The Gemara explains that when it was too much for Moshe and he needed to sit, he sat down, but on a rock so that he would still feel the people’s pain and not feel comfortable during the war his brothers were fighting. 

We need to lift the hands of our brothers and sisters.  We need to refuse to be too comfortable, refuse to be distracted, refuse to move on or go back to normal until this war is won with the help of Hashem. 

With great love, respect, worry and concern,

 Rabbi Efrem Goldberg