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Reflections from Rabbi's Solidarity Trip to Israel

I spent a packed three days in Israel on a Rabbinic Mission from January 22-24, 2024.  Over the course of my time there, I sent back brief reports to the congregation and then followed that up with additional stories when I returned.  Please click on these links to take a look at the notes and impressions below. 
 
 
-Rabbi Rubenstein
 
 
Shalom from Jerusalem,
 
As I wrote to you last week, I am now on a brief rabbinic mission to Israel in hopes of showing our support for the people of The State of Israel in this period of war following Hamas’ attack on October 7.
 
While we only had a short time after arrival today, we packed in several meaningful experiences.  For now, I want to share just one powerful moment.
 
Most of you who have been to Israel have visited Har Herzl in Jerusalem.  This is a national cemetery and monument to some of the most prominent Zionist leaders and officials in our history.  It is also a military cemetery where soldiers from several generations of the IDF have been laid to rest.
 
Today we visited an area of the cemetery that was completely unused just a few months ago but which is now, sadly, full of new graves of IDF soldiers who died in the course of serving their country.  It was quiet in this section with just one visitor.  Our guide, kindly and compassionately engaged a woman, Ilana, in conversation.  Ilana was visiting her son’s grave (see below).  Ilana’s son, Avi Ashkenazi was killed in battle this past November.  Not among the very young soldiers we often hear about, Avi was 43 years old – married and the father of three children. His oldest had recently celebrated his bar mitzva.  Ilana shared some of Avi’s story with us. 

After serving in the Yahalom unit (an elite engineering unit) for several tours, he went on to graduate from the Technion.  With real aptitude in computer science, he was offered many opportunities to join Israel’s high-tech world which would have provided a certain satisfaction along with financial rewards.  Instead, Avi asked rhetorically, if he went into high tech, who would defend Israel. So, he continued to serve, eventually joining the Mossad.  Following his death, an official of the Mossad shared with Avi’s family that perhaps ten years from now, information would be released about all that Avi did in his role with the Mossad, fully showing how impactful his service was.
 
Of course, we were not speaking with Avi about his service, but with Ilana at Har Herzl.  That is, with a mother bereft of her son.  She told us that she has taken her heart and she just leaves it at the grave.  Her pain was clear, even through the pride with which she spoke about Avi.  She shared with us that the extended family took a big trip to the U.S.---including to Disney World in Florida - last spring.  It was a wonderful time.  She seemed glad to know that this was a wonderful time for Avi and the family.  They didn’t know at the time that this would be a final celebratory memory of the family being together. 
 
I am so glad to be here right now.  Seeing people, speaking with them, hearing about what these months (these very, very long months) have been like helps me understand better what it is to be an Israeli right now.  Along with the strain, it is clear that the strength of Israel remains.
 
As they sign off in Israel these days…
 
Besorot Tovot – May we be able to offer good news soon, 

Gravestone translation
Avi (Avraham) Ashkenazi
Son of Ilana and Ofer
Born in Jerusalem
Born – 12 Menahem Av 5740
Fell in the line of duty 21 Marheshvan 5784
He was 43 years old when he fell
May his soul be bound up in the bond of life
 
 
 
January 23 - Kibbutz Kfar Aza
Thanks to so many of you who wrote today to renew your wishes to me for a good and meaningful trip. It has been a very busy day, and each stop contains many stories.   But just as I did yesterday, I want to focus on just one experience in this email in hopes that I’ll be able to share more in the future.
 
Yesterday’s message focused on a meaningful but terribly sad visit with the mother of a man who was recently killed in the line of duty. And while I wish that I could share happier stories, that simply isn’t what this trip is about.  I’d like to share a bit about our time in Kfar Aza, one of the kibbutzim that lost many members on October 7 as well as having many taken captive.  Of course, there are many difficult things to hear and see at Kfar Aza today.  But I want to also share some hope that shone through the tragedy today in the presence of Lir, a young member of the kibbutz. 
 
Lir is 27 years old and grew up at Kfar Aza. She has been giving tours to visiting groups of Israelis (soldiers and others) as well as groups from outside Israel. It may seem strange to you that there are tours being given at the kibbutz.  It certainly struck me as strange in certain ways.  After all, this is all still quite fresh.  And for a member of the kibbutz to show strangers around her home (and by ‘home’ I don’t mean the house she lives in, but the kibbutz itself which she calls home) is jarring.  So, I asked Lir – How do you feel about giving these tours?  What does it mean to you to do this right now?
 
Lir told us that when she has had boyfriends, high on the list of agenda items to cover if it gets serious, is to tell him that they will need to live in Kfar Aza or a nearby kibbutz if they get married.  The beauty of that area of the country along with kibbutz life is precious to her.  Lir wants to draw attention to Kfar Aza because she wants Kfar Aza to return to life sometime; she doesn’t want it to be lost to this tragic moment.  And she worries that it may be too difficult for the members of the kibbutz to come back.  Even if the members are willing to come back, there is a lot of work to do.  Lir told us that there are 400 homes on the kibbutz; after October 7, only 40 of them are usable for people to live in.  That gives you a sense of the damage.  In addition, Lir talked about changing some of the look of the kibbutz for psychological reasons.  She didn’t go into detail, but she suggested that in order for members to come back, some physical changes would need to be made to the kibbutz so that it looks different from the way it looked on October 7 so as to allow people to settle back in without constant reminders of that day. 
 
Lir was also asked where she gets the strength to do these tours---she’s been doing them for four weeks so far.  Without hesitation she said that her family gives her the strength.  She suffered no loss within her immediate family on October 7.  Lir’s father says that their family owes it to the others to do what they can, while others are dealing with their personal grief. Still, Lir took us by the destroyed houses that she has known for her whole life.  She talked about people her age, people she grew up with, who were killed or are currently captives in Gaza. 
 
This was terribly sad, and I found our group getting increasingly quiet as the tour went on.  I certainly did.  But, I must say, seeing and listening to Lir was an inspiration.  Her dedication to her community and to telling these stories was a demonstration of bravery and love.  I won’t forget it.  
 
January 24 - Kikar HaHatufim: Hostage Square
I write to you from my El Al flight. I’m headed home. My trip has been a very short one—-short enough that some have asked me whether I thought it was worthwhile to travel so far for just a few days in Israel. As it turns out, my time has been the busiest of any trip I’ve ever taken to Israel. And ultimately, I measure this trip based on two criteria:

1) Has my presence here had an impact on Israelis in that they noticed us and appreciated our trip and the implied (and spoken message) of solidarity with the people of Israel and the State of Israel.  

2) Have my experiences in Israel been sufficient to carry back meaningful messages about how Israel is faring since October 7th?

I believe the answer to both questions is, yes. I hope that my earlier emails have given you a taste of my experience. But there are many more stories to share with you and, I hope, conversations for us to have.

For now, just a snippet (we are already taxiing).

One of our final visits was to Kikar HaHatufim-Hostage Square.  While I’m sure most of you have seen photos of the area, two are included here as a reminder. The clock, of course, is counting the time that the hostages have remained in Gaza. Knowing what we know about the conditions there from the hostages who were released, makes the fact that we are up to 110 days for the remainder of the hostages unbearable for their families and friends. And truth be told, standing their in Kikar HaHatufim gave me a fuller sense of the degree to which that pain is borne by all Israelis.  

It is difficult to stand in Kikar HaHatufim and not think about Lir who gave us a tour of Kfar Aza just yesterday. In addition to her explanations of how Hamas terrorists (as well as other fairly random Palestinians in the later wave of attacks on October 7th) killed members of her kibbutz and destroyed so much, Lir spoke of those who remain hostages in Gaza today. The set table is, in part, set for Lir’s friends and neighbors. This is all a way of saying that this is all very personal for Israelis. If it isn’t a hostage that they know, it is a killed or injured soldier, or someone from the north or south who was forced to leave their home and is still displaced. In spite of the fact that certain elements of society have had to return to normal (most schools are in session for example), and even though there were no sirens anywhere I went over the last few days (though the deafening sound of Israeli artillery was heard when I was down at the Gaza border), Israel is not back to normal. The news is a constant reminder of the war along with the reports of Israeli soldiers injured and killed in action.  Things are not ok.

Still, I’ve been reminded throughout this trip of the strength and resilience of Israel’s people. I have more stories of that — from soldiers, survivors of the Nova festival, Bedouin Arabs who saved Israeli Jews on October 7th, as well as more. I plan to share these stories and more in the coming weeks.

In the meantime, please continue to pray for Israel, keep in touch with family and friends there, speak out on Israel’s behalf.  In terms of symbolic action, I also want to give the opportunity to 20 people to purchase the dog tag necklaces dedicated to the hostages (see picture below). I purchased these at Kikar HaHatufim earlier today to bring them back to Michigan. The cost is $10 and proceeds will be donated to The Hostages and Missing Families Forum. 
 
 
What exactly was our group of rabbis going to do at Ichilov Hospital? I imagined a variety of scenarios which felt somewhere between awkward and rude. After all, our intention was to be in Israel in ways which expressed our solidarity; we didn’t want to be in anyone’s way. And we certainly didn’t want to impose ourselves on young adults who were recovering from injuries acquired while defending their country. Our concerns turned out to be unfounded. This visit was handled with great sensitivity. It was a moving opportunity for me and the other rabbis. I hope it was positive for the soldiers we spoke to. 
 
We arrived at Ichilov Hispital, a very large facility with the biggest trauma center in the country, in the early afternoon. We headed to the physical therapy department and sat in a circle as staff brought over a few soldiers at a time to speak with us. Around us, the unit kept going—-doctors and nurses, young men and women receiving visitors, others coming in for outpatient PT. And remember, these are young people (mostly young men)…so it wasn’t all that quiet. They were talking with each other, making jokes, etc… 
 
Here’s one story we heard. Yair is 26 years old and a commander in an engineering unit. Though it is called ‘engineering’, what Yair does is ‘create the space of the battlefield’. This means that when things are in the way, they bulldoze them, blow them up, and other related activities. Yair already served his three years in the IDF, and he had previously been injured. I should mention that Yair’s wife of just nine months, Naamah sat next to him as he shared his story. 
 
Without going into all of the details, Yair was in Gaza, in the process of discovering tunnels with his men when he was injured by a rocket propelled grenade (RPG). He lost consciousness quickly but he had serious burns on his arms and face (though it was hardly evident when we saw him). He was evacuated from Gaza to receive medical attention.
 
As it turns out, Yair’s wife Naamah is also in the army. She works in the office that first receives the call that a soldier has been injured or killed. So, when Yair reached the hospital, Naamah’s boss got a call about Yair. She heard his name on the other end of the phone and asked simply ‘Injured or dead?’  She was told that he was injured, in surgery, and in critical condition. She called Naamah into her office as if to speak about something related to the office and told her directly that Yair was injured and in surgery. Naamah took in the news and immediately said, I’m going to the hospital. Her boss said she would drive her. While they were still on the way, Naamah’s phone rang. It was the surgeon. He was able to tell her that Yair had survived the surgery and that he would be ok. 
 
As for Yair, he didn’t remember very much.  He remembered the morphine when he was first brought in and then the next thing he remembered was waking up and feeling Naamah’s hand in his hand. He said, ‘having her hand in mine, I knew then that I wasn’t dead and I’d be ok.’  That was the medical side of Yair’s story. Though he was born in Israel,  he told it in good English with a bit of a New York accent which he picked up from his father at home. 
 
I’d like to mention one other aspect of Yair’s story. As his unit was making its way through Gaza, they were inside many homes, including the home of a Hamas lieutenant. He knew whose house it was because there was a lot of material left there—-personal info, Hamas documents, weapons, etc…. Yair wanted us to know that he also found a 400-page book on the history of Israel in Arabic. It was published as a Hamas publication. Of course, all armies publish booklets and other material to help train and inform their soldiers. But unlike what we might have thought (or what Yair originally assumed), this tome was not a piece of propaganda. It simply told the history of the State of Israel with the names and parties of its leaders, information about the society and government system, etc…  
 
Why, we might ask, does Hamas think it is important for its soldiers to have this information? We can’t know for sure. And even though I am about to share Yair's opinion about it, I feel I need to point out that Yair is a young man; I don’t know what his training is outside the army, and he certainly wasn’t speaking on behalf of the army or Israeli government. Yair thinks that the presence of that book shows that Hamas is taking the long view of its battle against Israel; that it believes that, in order to be successful in this battle, they need to understand Israel as fully as possible. It shows that Hamas doesn’t think it can win the battle against Israel in the near term but they are prepared to keep fighting. This conclusion makes Yair feel that Israel has been taking the short-view, assuming that we will defeat Hamas soon. Yair himself said that he doesn’t know much about Hamas, its history, its structure, its past leaders. He believes that Israel needs to change its perspective in this battle against Hamas. What Israel’s military and political leaders would say to this conjecture, I don’t know. All I can say is that it came from the mind of a young man who has served his country bravely and nearly died through his service. His dedication to his nation comes along with a willingness to question how things are done and in hopes that Israel will continue to adapt to the changing situations around them. 
 
While I have focused on just one soldier, I should say that meeting all of the soldiers was instructive and, to be honest, quite fun even if we weren’t there for fun. From the young man who looked like he couldn’t be old enough to be in the army and spoke quietly (he is 20 years old and headed back to his units soon), to the loud and gregarious soldiers who cracked jokes even as they described how they rushed down to Gaza on October 7th, not quite knowing where to go or what they might encounter—they ended up engaging Hamas in battle and saved many Israeli lives. All of our conversations were full of young life and dedication to Israel. We thanked them all for their service and for sharing their stories with us. And we wished them good strong recoveries. 
 
Sincerely,
Rabbi Rubenstein 
 
Below you will see a photo of the outside of Ichilov Hospital along with a motivational sign on the wall in the PT department. In translation, it quotes Albert Einstein and says, “Life is like riding a bicycle: if you want to keep your balance, you need to keep moving.” 

                   

 

 

Though, I am back in West Bloomfield, I'm still carrying around many stories from my trip. I'm hoping to continue to share them in print as well as in person over the coming weeks.
 
Over the course of our trip, we had the opportunity to speak about the Israeli Arab population and how they understand their identity, especially in the wake of the October 7th attacks. Most American Jews, including myself, think of Israeli Arabs only fleetingly.  We know that there are many Israeli Arabs – 20% of the population actually - , but our attention is more firmly focused on the Jewish population. While that is understandable, my recent trip has me wonder if I am misunderstanding something important about Israel by not having a stronger knowledge about this population and what role they play within Israeli society.
 
So, I’d like to share with you regarding the visit our group made to the community center in RahatRahat is a Bedouin town of Israeli Arabs located approximately 15 miles north of Beersheva.  Of course, the residents of Rahat are already citizens of the State of Israel.  Listening to representatives of the community (two from the community center and one sheikh), they repeatedly spoke about their work within their community and in partnership with Jewish Israelis to more fully integrate into society.  I didn’t need them to point out (because it is already well-known) that the Israeli government over the decades has not always prioritized Bedouin needs for infrastructure, education, and other services.  Instead they spoke about projects which existed prior to October 7th and continue now to reach out and find common cause with Jewish Israelis.  They spoke specifically about a food distribution project in which pairs of Israeli Jews and Bedouin Israelis travel together to distribute food to communities in the area. 
 
It is good to remember that a Bedouin city like Rahat also had many loses on October 7th.  Twenty one residents who were near the Gaza border were killed, and another 6 were kidnapped to Gaza.  In addition, on the day that our group visited Rahat (1/23), the news was full of reports about the terrible loss of 21 IDF soldiers killed in Gaza; among them was a resident of Rahat. This is another reminder of the fact that the residents of Rahat are Israelis.  Not only do they live in Israel, but they sometimes die for Israel.  Though they are sometimes examined closely for their loyalty, they demonstrate their loyalty to Israel regularly. Though not Jews, they are a part of The Jewish State. I should point out that like any community, not everyone shares the same opinion.  There are Bedouin who are far more sympathetic to radical Palestinians.  But, as a community, Israel’s Bedouin community is quite dedicated to living as good citizens.  Along with that, they hope and expect greater access to services and opportunity, just like any other Israeli.
 
But I want to turn to a more positive and dramatic story that I heard in Rahat.  On October 7th, a woman from Be'eri, one of the kibbutzim near the border of Gaza was returning from a run and was approaching the gates of the kibbutz.  As she approached, she realized that an attack was in progress.  She happened to see one of the cooks from the Be'eri kitchen nearby.  Together the two of them hid from Hamas.  As it turns out, the cook was from Rahat.  He called his family back home and four of his cousins took off towards Be'eri. However, they didn’t get to Be'eri right away.  Instead, they came across people trying to escape from the Nova Music Festival.  They couldn’t pass them by.  That day, these Israeli Bedouin men saved between 30-40 Israeli Jews from the festival.  They then rushed to Be'eri to save their family member from Rahat as well as the Jewish resident of Be'eri.  On a day which was so tragic, these Bedouin Israelis are among the many heroes of October 7th.  It was an inspiring story and brought home the complexity of Israeli society.  And while Israeli Arabs are already a part of Israel, this story and others I heard show the possibility that exists in creating stronger partnerships between Jews and Arabs within the borders of Israel, even as there are still many challenges beyond those borders.
 
Sincerely,
 
Rabbi Steven Rubenstein
Sat, July 13 2024 7 Tammuz 5784