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Unity first

Groups from across the Jewish spectrum make solidarity missions to Israel

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Rabbi Steven Weil of Teaneck, the Orthodox Union’s senior managing director, distributes snacks to soldiers.

As rockets fell on Israel, the North Jersey Jewish community made a grand show of support through rallies and donations, but some local rabbis decided to show their support even more strongly, by putting boots on the ground.

Earlier in the summer, Rabbi Shmuel Goldin led a large group of congregants and friends to Israel, and the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey sent a mission as well. Local rabbis and laypeople, too, have been going on their own.

Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform rabbis jetted off to Israel in July and August, making a statement to their communities – and to Israelis – that the American Jewish community continues to support Israel, especially during times of war.

Rabbi Elyse Frishman of Barnert Temple of Franklin Lakes was in Israel from July 27 to 31 on a mission with the Central Conference of American Rabbis, the rabbinical arm of the Union for Reform Judaism. She was the only Bergen County rabbi on the 13-rabbi mission, which had been put together quickly the week before. Its goal was both to show support for Israel and to learn as much about the conflict as possible.

“I went because I wanted to learn how to decode what I was hearing in the United States,” Rabbi Frishman said. “What the newspapers and all the media were saying to me about Israel seemed so unlike the Israel I know and love.”

On their first night in Israel, while staying at a hotel in Tel Aviv, participants received a welcome that reinforced how the conflict affected all of Israel: the red alert sirens went off at 2:30 in the morning, waking the jetlagged rabbis.

“That was important just to experience that,” Rabbi Frishman said. “It was important to experience what the Iron Dome does and doesn’t do. There are those in this country who think, ‘Why doesn’t Israel just sit back and let all the rockets fly? It’s safe.’ Sometimes you need the experience to bring it home graphically for others.”

After their extreme introduction, the rabbis met with a military ethicist who explained the Israel Defense Forces’ military ethical strategy, and visited seam-line communities close to the Gaza border, including Ashkelon and Sderot. A foreign policy strategist explained that there’s no such thing as a military strategy, only a political one, and it’s important to understand there is no simple solution.

The rabbis also visited Mount Hertzl in Jerusalem, shortly after the deaths of three IDF soldiers who had just been buried there. “Standing at their gravesites, knowing that the ground we were standing on was likely to be filled with the bodies of other young soldiers, was heartbreaking and terrifying,” Rabbi Frishman said.

In preparation for the trip, she reread the Hamas charter, which reminded her there is a huge difference between negotiating with Hamas and negotiating with Palestinians.

“Hamas has a singular goal, which is to destroy not only Israel but the Jewish people,” she said. “The solution needs to be to delegitimize Hamas in the political realm and elevate a Palestinian leadership that can work alongside Israel. It does us no good to vilify all Palestinians and talk from that extremist view.”

In the Torah, Amalek is the traditional enemy of the Jewish nation, and Amalek’s descendants continue to plague the Jewish people today. Amalek is not always an external enemy, according to Rabbi Frishman.

“The reason we were overtaken in the desert was because we were enfeebled, we stopped listening to God,” she said. “Amalek is inside us. We have to be strong and protect ourselves, but ultimately we need to figure out how to get along with everybody else. We need to build alliances.”

Tag Mechir is a right-wing vigilante group that has been organizing so-called price-tag attacks against mosques, cars, fields, and other Arab property and people in Israel and the territories. While in Israel, the rabbis met with Tag Maier, a group dedicated to meeting with Arabs and promoting the message that the price-tag attacks do not represent Israel.

“Part of the work the Reform movement feels is important – and I feel is important – is to support those organizations in Israel that strategically, ethically, and successfully work on building alliances and to elevate their existence to others, so they know this is who Israel really wants to be,” Rabbi Frishman said.

Emergency missions always include two aspects, Rabbi Shalom Baum of Teaneck’s Congregation Keter Torah said. “It’s very inspiring and you also see a lot of pain. In general, the inspiration wins out.”

Rabbi Baum, the vice president of the Rabbinical Council of America, is part of a small group of Orthodox Union rabbis who meet every year, usually in the month of Elul. This year they were supposed to meet in Scarsdale, Ariz., but Rabbi Baum sent an email to the group with the subject line “Scarsdale or Sderot.” Its message was that “if we’re going to get together this year as rabbis, the right place is in Israel,” he said.

Rabbi Steven Weil of Teaneck, the OU’s senior managing director, agreed to arrange the trip, and from August 25 to 29 a group of 13 Orthodox rabbis from across the country visited soldiers, grieving families, and struggling businesses.

“It was a really a message to the people that we didn’t forget about you and we’re not going to forget about you,” Rabbi Baum said.

The group spent most of the trip in Sderot, visiting traumatized children, a yeshiva that had been hit by a rocket a week before, and Kibbutz Saad, which had been hit by 18 rockets. To fill a hole left by one of the rockets, the residents of Saad had planted a tree, which was “symbolic of what we saw of the determination to continue to live and grow,” Rabbi Baum said.

The OU has launched an emergency appeal that so far has collected half a million dollars from across the country to support therapy programs for children and their parents affected by the conflict.

Having only 15 seconds to find shelter after hearing the red alert siren has put an enormous strain on young children and their families, according to Rabbi Weil, and the OU is putting its efforts behind providing play therapy for the children, many of whom can’t even communicate because of their experiences.

“These kids are traumatized,” Rabbi Weil said. “That’s where the energy needs to go – to rebuilding the psyche and the emotional structure of these kids and their parents.”

On their first mission, earlier in July, the OU took five rabbis and 45 lay leaders. This trip was for rabbis, so they can tell their communities of the psychological and emotional trauma of the country, Rabbi Weil said.

The rabbis also can tell the stories of ordinary people, such as Miriam Peretz, whose eldest son was killed in the 2006 war in Lebanon. The government would not allow her other sons on the front lines unless she agreed. After her sons argued that they had a responsibility to Israel, she signed off, in tears, Rabbi Weil said.

Her second son also was killed Lebanon and her husband died soon after. It was from a heart attack, but she said it was because his heart had been broken. During this summer’s conflict, Mrs. Peretz went from shiva house to shiva house, comforting other mothers who recently had to bury their sons.

“She’s been in their shoes, not once but twice,” Rabbi Weil said. “She’s setting up support groups for these people who’ve lost children. These people are giants – emotional giants, moral giants, spiritual giants.”

The rabbis have a responsibility to tell a different side of Israel’s story, a side often left out of media reports during times of crises, Rabbi Weil said. “It’s about farming, it’s about medicine, it’s about spirituality. And that’s not the story the media tells because that’s not sexy. The media wants to talk about fighting. And that’s the story our rabbis have to come back and tell. That’s the story of these people.”

Rabbi David-Seth Kirshner of Temple Emanu-El of Closter was supposed to lead a different type of mission to Israel this summer, but the Conservative synagogue’s leadership decided it was too dangerous to take families, especially on a first-time visit. Instead, Rabbi Kirshner led an emergency mission from August 25 to 27, co-sponsored by Emanu-El, the Jewish Federations of North America’s Rabbinic Cabinet, and the New York Board of Rabbis, of which Rabbi Kirshner is president. In total, 44 people joined the trip, including more than 25 from the synagogue, as well as U.S. Rep. Peter King of New York – who supported funding for Israel’s Iron Dome anti-rocket system – and New York’s former Governor David Paterson.

The group brought 22 giant duffel bags full of toys, socks, shirts, 1,000 hats, “and just a lot of love,” Rabbi Kirshner said. The group also brought $10,000 worth of Sony and Apple equipment for recovering soldiers.

Emanu-El member Steve Rogers had committed to raising $18,000 for Israel, and said that if he reached his goal he’d shave his head. Rabbi Kirshner added to the wager and agreed to shave his beard if they doubled the amount. The shul raised over $50,000, and “I’m beardless now and he’s hairless but all for a good cause,” Rabbi Kirshner said.

Andrea Wolfer, Emanu-El’s vice president, had been to Israel more than a dozen times before, but this trip was different. Not only was the usually bustling Ben Gurion Airport quiet, this was also the first time she walked off the plane and saw a sign pointing to a bomb shelter. “It just felt like a different Israel,” she said.

While visiting a rehabilitation center outside of Tel Avi, Ms. Wolfer was confronted with soldiers who were young enough to be her own children, and their determination moved the group to tears.

“They were heroes,” she said. “They went right to our hearts and anything we could do to make them feel better we wanted to do, but what actually happened was that they lifted our spirits and we left with a sense of hope.”

After a visit with Racheli Fraenkel, mother of Naftali Fraenkel, one of the three yeshiva boys who went missing in June and was later found dead, Bruce Egert of Tenafly left feeling that the grieving mother was “a profile in courage.”

“It was a combination of Israeli spirit and how her religion was able to carry her through these terrible days of losing a son right when he was ready to burst out in life,” said Mr. Egert, another of Rabbi Kirshner’s congregants.

During a meeting with U.S. Ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro on the strength of the U.S.-Israel relationship, Mr. Egert asked the ambassador about media reports on the rift between President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu. According to Mr. Egert, the ambassador assured him that everything he told the group about strong U.S. support for Israel is the administration’s policy.

In Tel Aviv, the group met with wounded soldiers, intending to bring them a little cheer, but the American visitors found it was the soldiers who instead inspired them.

“They’re just kids and each of them was pretty busted up, but all they really wanted to do was get back to life and to action,” Mr. Egert said. “They were very proud to serve and they wanted to continue.”

In Ashkelon, after meeting with a group of recent high school graduates about their plans to serve their country, the group found itself running to cover when the red alert sounded. “It was very sobering that a group of 50 Jews had to go running for cover in Israel, and it brought home what it was like to live under terror,” said Mr. Egert, who had also been a witness to the September 11 attacks in New York.

“It’s all personal,” Ms. Wolfer said. “The rocket that was sent into Ashkelon could have killed me, could have killed the man next to me, the young girl who was trying to help me. And it was surreal.”

“If you find out your loved one’s in the hospital, you feel a sense of fulfillment when you stand by their side,” Rabbi Kirshner said. “You are part of the healing process. The question, as asked on the trip, is if this is for the visitor or the visited and the answer is both. We need to be involved in any and all ways to support Israel and we can’t just be fair-weather friends when it comes to Israel.”

The American Jewish community is not always unified; arguments between the movements over kashrut, religious practices, and even Israel are common. When Israel is in conflict, though, the divisions fall away. Rabbi Kirshner’s group was perhaps the least homogenous of the missions, and even they were all in agreement on the reasons for being there.

“We went with a Republican and a Democrat, there were some rabbis who were Orthodox, some were Reform, some were Conservative,” Rabbi Kirshner said. “There were Jews of all stripes but there was never a moment of divide religiously or politically. The entire three and a half days were built on common denominators.”

“There was a sense across the board that the Jewish leaders need to model being in Israel when things are difficult,” Rabbi Baum said. Israel and its people are in need of support, he added, and he would like to see more American Jews change their travel plans to visit Israel. Trips to Florida can wait; “Israel needs it from an emotional perspective and economically.”

The Jewish community speaks with its wallets, Rabbi Frishman said, pointing to how the community banded together to aid in emergency campaigns. The wartime visit left Rabbi Frishman optimistic for Israel’s future.

“I think there’s complete interdenominational support for Israel’s response to Hamas, but then I think there’s tremendous disagreement about other issues that this conflict won’t change – for example civil rights in Israel and West Bank settlements,” she said. “Even though I think this is a very difficult time, there is always opportunity.”

When the ceasefire went into effect on August 26, many Israelis were pessimistic about whether it would hold – Hamas already had broken several ceasefires. Many in Israel felt relief that quiet would finally return to their lives, but there is also disappointment, especially in the south, that Israel did not finish the job. But removing Hamas carries other considerations as well, and Prime Minister Netanyahu also has information to which the public is not privy, Rabbi Weil said.

“If you take out Hamas, is it worth the loss of life? Are you just opening the door for Al Qaeda or some of the Sunni groups to take over? We don’t have the right to knock the prime minister,” he said.

Mr. Egert lamented that Hamas has embedded itself among Gaza’s population, and seeing evidence of the tunnels Hamas has dug underneath Gaza further drove home for him how much the terror group has taken Gaza hostage.

“It’s not like a tunnel for a rodent – you could drive a car through it,” Mr. Egert said. “The amount of building supplies and concrete that went into it could have built many more hospitals.”

Gaza has the potential to become the Singapore of the Middle East, some have said, and with the right support, Mr. Egert hopes this is true.

“I hope the world would come to its aid and it can become a place where normal people can live and thrive,” he said. “That’s in everyone’s interests, including Israel’s.”

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