As our group of PAS travelers settled in last Monday evening for a seventy-two-hour solidarity mission to Israel, I found myself returning to the words of the contemporary Hebrew poet Michael Zatz:
Madhim eikh hakol nireh zeheh, k’she-klum lo nishar oto davar, “Amazing how everything looks unchanged, even when nothing remains the same.”
Israel. A country which I have visited more times than I can count, where I have lived for extended periods at different times of my life, where I met and fell in love with my wife, where members of my family live. A country and commitment that is as fundamental to my being as the air I breathe. A country that some two months since the horrific Hamas attacks of October 7th may look unchanged, but where nothing remains the same. Forty-five members of our community on a trip that sold out in less than an hour, under the leadership of Rabbi Koffman and our trip provider, J2. Seventy-two hours in a changed Israel that changed every one of us – forever.
The externalities are obvious. The airport is quiet; the number of airline carriers, limited. The traffic, lighter; the hotel where we stayed operating at decreased capacity, save for the displaced Israelis also staying there. The music on the radio is somber, reflecting the national mood, and the billboards typically selling this or that product, or promoting this or that political party have been replaced with messages of solidarity, support for soldiers, and reminders to bring the hostages home. Most of all, the people. The quarter-million fighting-age Israelis one does not see, given that they have been called into military service. Israel is a country at war, and while there was never a time – and I will return to this point – that we felt unsafe, it was a very different Israel from what I had ever experienced. If you will allow me one moment of levity in an otherwise serious sermon: In the thirty minutes of free time we had one night prior to a group dinner – the only minutes we had free in seventy-two hours – our group invested in more Judaica than did King Solomon when he built the Temple. Park Avenue Synagogue did our part for Israel’s sagging tourism industry; of that I am sure.
Why did we go? Everyone had their own reason. We will hear from two participants next Friday night. We went to show solidarity. We went to bear witness. We went to empower ourselves with images and words to tell Israel’s story to the world. We went because, as a shiva house teaches, even when you can’t take the pain away, there is comfort in letting a person or a country know that they are not alone. We went because we are a community that shows up – in advocacy and in philanthropy. As Joseph says in this week’s Torah reading when asked what he is seeking, et ahai ani m’vakesh, it is my brothers I seek. We went seeking our sisters and brothers. As great as the impact of the visit would be on us, we were told that for those with whom we met, our presence gave them strength and made a difference.
What did we discover? We saw a country that, to a person, is traumatized. As one speaker explained, the terror inflicted on Israel on October 7th was a combination of Nazi sadism and ISIS barbarism. Some of us visited Kfar Azza, one of the kibbutzim attacked on that day. It is Israel 2023, but it could have been Kishinev 1903 – smashed windows, bullet-ridden walls, ransacked homes, and burnt remains. To my dying day, I will never forget the sights and smells – the sukkot, frozen in time since the attack occurred on the final day of the festival. Alon, the soldier who walked us through, is himself a resident of Kfar Azza, his life saved only because that night he happened to be staying with his parents in nearby Sderot. “Dead; dead; hostage; dead; unknown . . .” he recited as he stood in his neighborhood pointing to the homes of his friends. Sixty-two murdered, eighteen taken hostage - Kfar Azza was just one of the communities attacked that day, over 1200 murdered in all.
And while all that would have been enough, the sensory overload of our visit was heightened by the sounds and shockwaves: the boom, boom, boom and rat-a-tat-tat of mortar and artillery. We were physically safe, but it was unnerving all the same. We all understood that a few kilometers from where we stood, a war was taking place. Each boom was akin to smacking the lid of an emotion-filled jar ready to spill over. We experienced it as one, but our reactions were not all the same. I turned to one congregant after a particularly loud boom to see if they were OK (because I was not) and they said, “Yes.”
“Why?” I asked.
“Because,” they replied, “the sounds we are hearing are the sounds of the IDF taking care of business.” This is not 1903; this is 2023. Jewish blood is not free for the taking, and the IDF was making that point crystal clear.
The surviving populations of Kfar Azza and other communities attacked and at risk have been relocated. We visited one group of survivors now living at Kibbutz Shefayim just north of Tel Aviv. The stories we heard were horrifying and heartbreaking, and we well understood that we were speaking with survivors, the lucky ones – if one can say such a thing – still alive to tell their story. Families huddled together in safe rooms for twenty-plus hours. Final texts sent and received as cell phones and hope gave out. Parents and children murdered before each other’s eyes, women – mothers, wives, sisters, and daughters – raped; siblings taken hostage; desperate evacuations and soul-searing choices made. We also heard from a young man, Tomer, who somehow was able to survive the massacre of concertgoers at the Nova music festival. Some testimony we heard, some testimony will never be heard, some testimony comes by way of forensic evidence. We heard from a Zaka representative, tasked to identify and care for human remains, about dental records and DNA testing bearing witness to the inhumanity of Hamas and still being analyzed to this day. There is no shortage of evidence, no denying the atrocities. The evidence was not hidden even by the perpetrators themselves, recorded as it was on their go-pro cameras and uploaded to their social media accounts.
The attack took place on October 7th, but the ripple effects of the trauma are ever present. We met with Lia Naor, the director of Healing Space, a mental health effort aimed at providing support for those young people suffering post-traumatic disorder. We met with the head of psychiatry at Ichilov hospital, Dr. Reanan Eitan, known to this community as Cantor Schwartz’s sister. The protocols for this moment are being written in real time. The needs are endless, the caregivers themselves in need of care, so acute are the trauma and the demands on them.
And the agony of October 7th is compounded each day by the continued plight of the hostages. Hostages, hostages, hostages. I would give you a number – some 240 abducted, some 140 remaining in captivity – but the truth is, we really don’t know. We have no reliable list of hostages. We have no access to the hostages. We have no knowledge of their condition – whether they are alive or dead. What we do know – what the medical team who treated the released hostages knows – is that the hostages have been subjected to unprecedented cruelty, suffering psychosis-inducing physical, psychological, and sexual assault. We shudder at the thought of what might be happening to the remaining hostages – right now, right now, right now. As the media, campus, and congress seek moral equivalencies, calling for cease-fire and scolding the IDF, we must never forget the horrific and continued plight of the hostages. We went to Kikar HaHatufim, Hostage Square. We sat with family members of those abducted; we heard their stories. Together with Bina, Israel’s secular yeshiva with whom our community has a long-standing relationship, we prayed with hostage families, with all the Israelis present, for the safety of the hostages, for their release, and for the comfort of their families. And yes, if you are wondering, this is where the tears flowed. A sorrow so severe that it transcended words. We prayed, we sang, we held each other, and we cried together.
There is trauma, there is grief, there is sorrow, and across the country, there is a deep sense of betrayal. How could this have happened? How could the government have taken its eye off the ball? No warning, no intelligence, no army – the scandal is outrageous. A start-up nation laid low and humbled. Not just an attack, but as one speaker explained, a loss of Israeli sovereignty. As I was walking through Ben Gurion Airport, I couldn’t help but note the juxtaposition of the photo display of Israel’s history and the photos of the hostages in captivity – the Zionist ideal of self-determination contrasted with the powerlessness and victimhood of October 7th. In one of our sessions, a fundraiser for Kfar Azza was describing the investments needed: infrastructure, mental health, and small industry to rebuild the community. A survivor was standing within earshot. “And security,” she blurted out. “Don’t you forget security.” There is no way that she, nor any member of her community, nor any of the communities in the south – or north – are moving back unless the government assures them, in word and deed, that they are safe. There is a feeling that the government has betrayed a generation, a distrust that the government will care for their future safety. Once this war, please God, is over, the political earthquake will be sizeable. As one speaker shared, 2024 could be the most consequential year in Israel’s history since 1948.
Traumatized and angry as Israel may be, there is a palpable feeling of solidarity. The government’s betrayal of the population has resulted in Israelis stepping up and working together in common cause – a bottom-up movement to compensate for a top-down failure. The heroes who ran into danger on October 7th, the overflow of reservists who signed up in the wake of that day. The sense of volunteerism among youth, elderly, every age, every profession – an all-hands-on-deck moment. Those who protested the government before the attacks are now leading the efforts to save the country. There is a softening of some, but not all, societal division; as one speaker described, a potential perestroika in the Haredi community. As for us, we donated bags and bags of supplies and clothing. We volunteered at the hamal centers in both Jerusalem and Tel Aviv – well-oiled distribution centers the size of multiple football fields, run entirely by volunteers – extraordinary in their scale, scope, energy, vision, and competence. It was not lost on any of us that this country that was tearing itself apart from within before October 7th is now rallying as one like never before.
We heard from more speakers than I can count, each one better than the one before. Not surprisingly, we left with more questions than answers. In the immediate term, how can Israel balance the contradictory goals of destroying Hamas and bringing home the hostages alive? How can Israel maintain its humanity in the face of an enemy that continues to prove itself to be so inhumane? What exactly are the present military goals of the IDF and what criteria will signal that those goals have been achieved? How much time does Israel have to do what it needs to do in the face of international pressure? How will Hezbollah, Israel’s enemy and Iran’s proxy in the north, respond? What does the future hold for the Arab communities within Israel, in the West Bank and across the Gulf states? What is the future vision of Palestinian-Israeli shared society, and what needs to happen to develop a sane center and keep Israel’s toxic extremes in check? In the years to come, how will Israel rebuild – not just its southern communities and defense but its fundamental social contract? One speaker optimistically spoke of Israel’s rebirth. How can we, as a diaspora Jewish community committed to Israel’s well-being, help midwife this vision of an emergent nation?
I do not have the answers to these questions, but these are the questions I am asking, and I ask that you ask them and try answering them with me. Our Torah reading does not lack for sins – Joseph’s arrogance, his brothers’ jealousy, Jacob’s inaction – a catalogue of sins of commission and omission. Perhaps the most damning of all happens at the end of our Torah reading. Imprisoned, Joseph famously and successfully interprets the dreams of Pharoah’s servants – the baker who does not survive and the cupbearer who does. Joseph asks the cupbearer to remember him in his captivity. The final verse of our Torah reading reads: v’lo zakhar sar ha-mashkim et yosef va-yishkahehu, Yet the cupbearer did not remember Joseph; he forgot him.
This sin, the sin of forgetting, of tapping in and tapping out as our brothers and sisters exist in emotional and literal captivity, is a sin we cannot commit. We dare not forget our people in this desperate hour. The same bottom-up sense of solidarity and volunteerism that is taking place in Israel must be mirrored in our own community. Philanthropy – yes. Donations of needed goods and supplies – without question. A refusal to enter intra-Jewish debates by taking potshots at other Jews – absolutely. Our people does not lack for enemies; why would we create more from within our ranks?
And we need to take it to the next level. Park Avenue Synagogue must lead by example. To make sure as many of our congregants, children, and grandchildren as possible bear witness and show solidarity. Forty-five of us came and went safely this week; if you can, so should you. Be ambassadors for Israel’s story armed with firsthand experiences and facts that will steel our resolve and counter the TikTok lies of our enemies and detractors. Partner with the appropriate communities and organizations like the Jewish Agency for Israel to help Israel heal and rebuild. Foster the relationships seeded this past week, seed more, and most of all, know that the only thing standing in the way of you and your next act of advocacy, volunteerism, or philanthropy is you. I am grateful, deeply grateful, to each participant in the mission for stepping up. More importantly, I am inspired by your expectation that our experience together will serve as a stepping stone, not the capstone, of our community mobilization on Israel’s behalf.
We are rattled, we are raw, and we are resilient. For all that our group witnessed in Israel – for all the brokenness, for all the tears shed – there is strength, there is courage, and there is a can-do spirit. For all that Israel has endured, the resilience is awe-inspiring. Od lo avdah tikvateinu – our hope is not yet lost. In Israel, in America, wherever we stand, we stand together with Israel.