Gratitude | Rabbinic Mission to Israel
Posted on 11/22/2023 @ 05:00 AM
Since that fateful day of October 7th, the words of Yehuda HaLevi, medieval poet, “My heart is in the East, and I am in the far reaches of the West”, had been ringing in my ears and my soul was yearning to be with our people in Israel during this unthinkable time. When the opportunity to join 15 rabbis from South Florida for a Rabbinic mission was presented, there was no hesitation in my steps. I am so grateful to Rabbi Fred Klein of the Rabbinic Association of Greater Miami and the Greater Miami Jewish Federation for responding to the moment and putting this mission together and to Rabbi Efrat Zarren-Zohar and CAJE for making it possible for me to attend. I was blessed to travel alongside my colleagues as we set out to provide pastoral care, chizuk (strength), support and offer spiritual presence to our Israeli brothers and sisters.
I’ve been traveling to Israel every summer since I was 9 years old. The weeks leading up to my trips in the past were always filled with excitement as I thought about all my favorite places to visit. This was a trip I had not planned for. I had no idea what I was going to experience and didn’t know what to expect. The trip was powerful, heart wrenching, soulful, painful, and transformative. Everyone we met—a wounded soldier in the hospital, a survivor of the music festival, families of hostages, survivors of the kibbutzim massacres and soldiers on the front; they all expressed a deep and heartfelt message of gratitude. “Thank you for being here with us, especially now. You have no idea what it means to us to know that you were willing to get on a plane and be here during the war. We are forever grateful”. Even at ELAL security they ended the anxiety provoking questioning with “thank you for coming to Israel, especially now, wow, thank you”.
This is a time of gratitude in our secular calendar. As we prepare to sit together at our Thanksgiving tables we are reminded of the many empty tables of our brothers and sisters in Israel whose loved ones are being held captive in Gaza, whose loved ones were killed in defense of our Jewish homeland, and whose loved ones were murdered on October 7th. I am sharing with you reflections on my trip and asking that as you sit together with your families on Thanksgiving that you tell these stories and join me in bearing witness to a critical moment in our people’s history. Share with your families the messages of pain, the expressions of hope and the strength of Am Yisrael. Share the feeling of gratitude that Israeli’s expressed by our presence there and do whatever you can to let our family in Israel know that you are with them, support them, and love them.
Mourning & Comfort
Everything was different this trip. We landed and entered a deserted airport. Every home and office building donned an Israeli flag, posters of the hostages were on every corner and the slogan “together, we will win” was found all over the country. It seemed everywhere we went there was a symbol that suggested life is different here now, “we are at war”. We encountered these signs along our journey and they now serve as snapshots that will help tell the story of our soulful encounter with the people of Israel.
We saw a sign on a simple piece of paper, printed presumably, from someone’s home computer and taped to the outside of an apartment building. It reads: “Nichum Avalim” which translates to “comfort the mourners” and the arrow directs you to the place where a family is gathered for shiva.
As people walked along the sidewalk of King David street, the main thorough fare in Jerusalem, they diverted from their path of routine and made their way to bring comfort to people in their time of loss. All over the country signs like these appear, guiding people to the next shivah call. Whether you knew the person who died or not, it doesn’t matter, you attend because it’s a mitzvah to comfort people during times of darkness, loss and pain. You go, because in Israel, everyone is part of the larger family of Am Yisrael. You go, because we’ve lost over 1400 people, and their families need us.
We met a beautiful woman at the military cemetery. Her husband, a doctor, was killed when he ran out to help others who were under attack. She has not left his grave site. When rabbis from our group knelt by her side, they learned she has a 3 year old, and a one year old at home and in her hand atop the fresh soil of his grave, lay a sonogram image. She’s 6 months pregnant.
In Jewish tradition mourners rend their garments, a ritual called Kriah. Kriah, tear, resembles the tearing of our heart when we lose someone we love. Over time we can mend the garment to make it whole, but there always remains a memory of the stitching. The tearing is physical, it’s prominent, it’s painful. The country is mourning. We are mourning. But the chizuk, the strength, of this incredible, resilient, supportive and loving family of Am Yisrael makes your heart beat with pride and brings tears to your eyes.
Sacred Service of the Heart
Yaffa Ganz, author of many beautiful Jewish children’s stories, once wrote, “our prayer can be a wordless cry from the depths of the heart.” We visited the plaza outside of the Tel Aviv Museum of Art which has become gathering place for families of the hostages. Every day and every night people from around the country gather to sing, sit together, and offer strength to the families and one another. As if that wasn’t powerful enough, it’s become a sacred space for people to express their prayers for redemption and their love through art installations. Large scale installations fill the plaza. As you walk around you see people’s pain, you experience their faith, and you are blown away by their creative expressions of hope.
I came upon a group of about 8 people sitting behind large wooden easels. As I got closer, I saw that each of them had a picture of one of the precious souls being held captive in Gaza pinned to the side of the easel. Each one was painting their portrait in their own style—be it acrylic paint or charcoal. They were so focused. So intentional. So thoughtful. I watched the man on the right, lean in and with such precision he painted the side of sweet Yagil’s face. He wanted it to be just right. The kavannah, the intentionality, the kavod, honor, thoughtfulness and love that guided each stroke of their brush was so moving. In the Torah the word “avodah” describes the sacred work of the people who built the mishkan, the portable dwelling place of G-d. Avodah means service, holy work. There was no other word to describe what I was saw– it was a living, breathing expression of avodah—sacred work---avodat halev—service of the heart. It took my breath away.
Hope & Promise
Our tour guide, Zalman, was amazing and his insights brought meaning to our experience. Zalman, who is currently in the reserves, and whose son is just 11 months shy of entering the army himself, shared something with our group as we were preparing to meet with a group of soldiers returning from Gaza. He said, “in Israel, when you welcome a baby into the world even before you give them their name, you look at them in their hospital crib, and with a tear in your eye, you know they are on loan for 18 years. Then they become a chayal and belong to the state as a soldier of Am Yisrael.” His words pierced my heart and stayed with me as we spent time with soldiers just returning from 11 consecutive days within Gaza. The mud of Gaza was still on their boots and the adrenaline of battle was beginning to subside and smiles started to find their way to their beautiful faces. They shared with us that as one unit of soldiers enters Gaza and the others leave, they write the phone numbers of their comrades mothers on their arms so when they are back in Israel they can call the mothers and say, “I saw your son or your daughter today and they are fine.”
Our chayalim (in the photo below) are 20, 24, and 27 year old men. They looked at us in the eye and said, “we promise we will win, Ein Li Eretz Acheret, we have no other land and we have no other choice. We promise our family and our people this will never happen again.” We raised a glass and in unison, said, L’Chayim, To Life! That L’chayim, meant so much more than just a regular toast. It was a prayer. May G-d watch over them and protect them. May they return home to their families and friends, and may they be granted a long and joyful life. They risk their lives to protect and defend their families and their home. They risk their lives to ensure a future of promise for generations of Am Yisrael.
On the last day of our trip we visited the hall of memory at the military cemetery in Jerusalem. On the walls are the names of every soldier and police officer who’ve given their lives in service to their country. The names are organized by date of when they were killed. Just as we were about to leave a sweet little girl in a pink tutu dress, ran by and just like little kiddos do she brushed her hand along the wall. That sweet little hand touched the names of soldiers who lost their lives on October 7th.
I was able to snap this photo because even in the moment, it was so clear to me that this was a moment of tikvah, of hope, even in the midst of darkness, even in the midst of war, there she is, the future of Israel. She is who our soldiers, pictured below, were promising to win for. The ones whose names are on the wall gave their lives to defend the place she calls home and one day she too will grow up and serve knowing that she stands on the shoulders of those who came before her and gave their lives to protect her.
Od Lo Avda Tikvateinu, For our Hope is not lost. The strength of Israel rests in the hands, hearts, souls of Am Yisrael, the people of Israel. It was very hard to get on the plane and leave my people, and my spiritual homeland during this time. Our mission was to go and provide strength and support. What they gave to me in return was a rejuvenated soul and a renewed spirit. Their promise was to win and make sure this never happens again. My promise to Israeli Sheli, to my Israel is, I will continue to fight for you, defend you, pray for you, volunteer and support you and plan my next trip to show up for you! I am so grateful to our Israeli brothers and sisters for their resilience and their unwavering commitment ensuring that Israel, the Jewish State, will prevail. Am Yisrael Chai!
Please donate to assist victims of terror and their families.
Save The Date!
Reflections & Insights from Israel
Thursday, November 30th
7 – 8 pm on Zoom
Rabbi Laila Haas, CAJE's Director of Adult Learning & Growth will share reflections from her trip to Israel and create a space to share and ask questions.
A Free Virtual Program
Registration is required.