Unity from tragedy
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Unity from tragedy

Local group goes to Israel to show support, share grief and love

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It was not a normal trip to Israel, this hastily organized, 80-person two-bus weeklong journey.

The travelers, mainly from Bergen County and almost exclusively from the New York metropolitan area, overwhelmingly veterans of many voyages to the Jewish state, did not go as tourists. Their goal, instead, was to provide comfort and support to Israelis, who are battered both by the rockets Hamas fires at them and by the disdain much of the rest of the world showers on them.

Rabbi Shmuel Goldin of Congregation Ahavath Torah in Englewood led the trip. “Our congregation has gone in the past, under pretty much the same circumstances – the intifada, the Gulf War, Operation Cast Lead,” Rabbi Goldin said. “I will never forget being handed gas masks as we walked off the plane during the Gulf War. My image of that trip was walking through Yad VaShem holding a gas mask.”

Still, he said, the feeling this time was different. “The vulnerability seemed even greater.”

The logistics for the trip were not easy, but everything came together far more smoothly than seemed likely at first. It was open to everyone and publicized on local social media. Despite the organizers’ fear that not enough people would be willing or able to go, or would not be able to rearrange their own lives so quickly, a surprising number said yes, and then followed through. Despite the United States’ few-day ban on flights to and from Israel, which happened just as the trip was being arranged, El Al came through with seats. Rabbi Goldin partnered with Emunah of America in Israel to make the arrangements. On Sunday, July 27, most of the travelers set off; most returned the next Sunday, August 3.

“What we did on the trip – and it was not just me, it was the whole group – was entirely hands-on,” Rabbi Goldin said. “We went to visit soldiers in the hospital, we paid shiva visits to families that had lost soldiers, we worked with children in shelters, we brought letters to soldiers.”

When the groups made shiva visits – usually only half the group went to any one shiva, in order not to overwhelm the family and friends – they were sensitive to the mourners’ needs. Rabbi Goldin would go in first, tell the family about the group, its purpose and its size, and ask if it would be acceptable to bring it in. The answer always was yes, he said.

Those visits were emotionally wrenching. Other parts of the trip exercised other emotional muscles.

“We did stuff that was a little reckless,” Rabbi Goldin said. His group was able to get to the front, “and it was a little bit like a Monty Python routine. You have soldiers sitting around at the front, and you have two buses with Americans in shorts and Teva sandals.” But this was not war tourism, which would have been distancing and vulgar; it was providing emotional support for which the soldiers, who – like the other Israelis the group met – were extremely grateful.

“We brought them letters from home that kids had written,” Rabbi Goldin said, recalling the image – which has gone viral on the Internet – of a tank festooned with similar missives. The group saw that tank. “My wife and I picked up one of the letters from the pile we were bringing, and we saw that a little kid had addressed one to ‘Dear Random Soldier.’ Isn’t that just precious?”

The soldiers were very visibly touched by those letters; the reason that is true is sad. Sounding a note that resounded constantly in conversations with other travelers on this trip, “Israel is really empty now,” Rabbi Goldin said. “Everyone is canceling their trips. We had the only two buses at Ben Gurion Airport when we landed.”

The Israelis feel the lack of visitors keenly; it comes across not only as an economic loss – which certainly it is – but also as a kind of abandonment.

The group was able to get to the front twice; during one of those visits they were able to meet with officers. “You begin to understand things that you just can’t comprehend from here,” Rabbi Goldin said, once he was back in New Jersey.

Among those things was the constant appeal for supplies. “We often hear about things that soldiers need – socks or underwear” – and they do need those things – “but when we got there, we found out that what they really need even more is headlamps for their helmets and scopes for their rifles. They need bulletproof vests.” (The headlamps are so they can see into the tunnels.) “I remember getting all these requests to give to the army, and I thought, ‘This is a shonda. Can’t the Israeli army take care of itself?’

“But when you get there, you understand it. Israel has a standing army that they can provide for, but in a crisis like this, when thousands of miluim” – reservists – “are called into duty, there isn’t enough.” The country can’t afford to create and maintain the stockpile of equipment it would need to equip everyone properly in every emergency.

Although Ahavath Torah had raised nearly $160,000 for the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey’s drive to aid the Israel Defense Forces through an appeal from the bimah on Shabbat – “and that was at a time when half the community was away,” Rabbi Goldin said – the American visitors were ready to give even more. Once the group heard first-hand about some of the soldiers’ needs, “someone said to me, ‘We are here. We are ready to give. Have an appeal on the bus.'” He did. “That day we collected $13,000 on one bus and $9,000 on the other.” By the end, the group had raised close to $40,000.

The money goes straight to IDF officers, who can buy supplies for their units at wholesale prices. (Rabbi Goldin is continuing to collect money to help meet soldiers’ needs; for information, call Ahavath Torah at 201-568-1315.)

Trip participants also made sure to shop in Israel as much as possible; the stores were empty and the storekeepers needed the boost.

This trip was so much tougher than earlier ones had been, Rabbi Goldin said, but “you have to understand the unbelievable hand of God in the turn of events.

“I am not saying that this is the reason why it happened, but the kidnapping and murder of the three boys caused Israel to begin to explore what was happening with Hamas. It created the backlash that catalyzed the war.”

It was that chain of events that caused the tunnels to be discovered. “There is pretty firm intelligence that Hamas was planning an erev Rosh Hashanah attack,” Rabbi Goldin said. “An existential threat to Israel was averted.”

There is another threat, which, he said, has not been reported widely. A tunnel connected the casbah – the Arab market – in Hebron to a playground in the Jewish section. “We asked to see it, and they showed it to us,” he said. “During renovations on the playground, workers noticed that when they stuck a pick into some grouting, it went straight through. It was hollow.

“According to the guy who was showing it to us, the plan was to load the tunnel with explosives and just blow the whole thing up. This is not an isolated thing.”

And not only is the idea of tunnels that begin not in Gaza but in Israel itself a new threat, so too are the reports that there has been digging up in the north as well, where Hezbollah begins its tunnels in Lebanon.

But there is something else going on as well, something good. Sounding another frequently repeated theme, Rabbi Goldin said that “there is a sense of unity in Israel that I haven’t felt in years.”

That sense of every Jew’s connection to each other is reinforced in Israel, where nine degrees of separation are about seven too many.

Rabbi Neil Winkler of Young Israel of Fort Lee plans to make aliyah later this year; he and his wife, Andrea, were in Israel this summer and joined the Englewood group for a day. “We were going to an Army base, and someone comes running out and says, ‘Rabbi Winkler! Rabbi Winkler! You have to come now!’ So he does, and he meets a soldier who is the young child of a family in his community that he had been very close to.”

The family made aliyah when the son was young, but “Rabbi Winkler had been at his bris. The soldier looks at him, and says to him, ‘My parents told me that now that I am an adult, I really have to meet you.'” So he did.

Three lone soldiers – IDF troops who do not have close family in Israel – come from families that belong to Ahavath Torah. Rabbi Goldin and another congregant on the trip, Esther Lerer of Englewood, were able to visit one of them in a park, where he had been sent for a short rest and relaxation stay.

“It’s like visiting day at camp,” Rabbi Goldin said. “It’s so surreal.”

Ms. Lerer described the visit in detail. Rabbi Goldin had been able to get permission to try to see one of the young men; she went with him because “I don’t know what possessed me, but I said, ‘Rabbi I want to volunteer myself, on behalf of those mothers, to give that feminine approach.’ I knew those boys; my children grew up with them. ‘The rabbi said, ‘I cannot take personal responsibility for you or anyone else in the group for this trip,’ but I said ‘I want to go.'” They had been in a meeting with the deputy mayor of Beersheva, “but during the presentation, the rabbi came up to me, and said, ‘Esther, it’s now or never. So I walked out with him.'”

They were able to get a taxi that took them to the park, close to the front, and they were able to phone the two lone soldiers, who both are paratroopers; by the time they got there, one of the young men already had been shipped out, but the second still was there.

“When we got there, the military police had strict orders not to let anyone in, but I was very stubborn,” Ms. Lerer said. “I sat there talking to these guards, and I explained that I don’t have a child there, but these are children in my community, and I just didn’t move.’

“There was a little umbrella that gave us a little bit of shade, and I had no hat, but we just sat there patiently waiting. Twice, the rabbi said to me, ‘Esther, I think we should go,’ but I don’t know if it was a mother’s heart or just foolishness, but I said, ‘I just have a feeling. Let’s give it a little longer.’

“And I was right.”

Eventually, after talking to more and more people higher and higher up the chain of command, she won. “They opened up the barricade, and we rode through. I’m just exploding with excitement.” She and Rabbi Goldin met with the young man from Englewood, who was thrilled to see them. “The first thing he said was, ‘I don’t have a kippah on my head,’ so the rabbi took off his own kippah and said, ‘Jonathan, can I give this to you?’

“If there is a God above, as we know there is, God just somehow let us be there with Jonathan and speak to James. It was miraculous. He had renewed strength from knowing that we were there.”

“He was visibly moved to know that people came to see him,” Rabbi Goldin said.

Ms. Lerer said that she had planned a trip to Israel this summer, an add-on to a vacation in Provence, but she had canceled it. “I thought it was irresponsible to go.” But that decision did not feel right, so when she heard about the Ahavath Torah trip, “I wished in my heart that I could go, but my head still told me it was irresponsible.” She worried about the dangers; as the mother of four and a grandmother, she felt she could not take the risk.

But then her heart won. “My husband was fully supportive, and he even suggested that I take our 24-year-old daughter. So I approached her about it – and she said that she was going to approach me about going.

“So that showed me that it was not an irresponsible thing. I was not putting either of us in harm’s way.”

There were many extraordinary parts to the trip – seeing an Iron Dome installation, meeting with officials – but “the more amazing thing was the support we were able to give.

“We made shiva visits to families of fallen soldiers, and hospital and rehab center visits to soldiers who were injured. What I found over and over again is that when they realized who we were – that we were Americans who chose to travel during a time when Israel literally was under attack, that we had no family connections but chose to put ourselves in that situation, to put ourselves on a plane to visit a shiva house – they couldn’t believe it.” But, she said, in fact it was a family connection. All Jews are each other’s family.

Israelis have the idea, fostered by the media they see, that American Jews do not support Israel, she said. Therefore, they are both astonished and moved to learn that it is not true.

She went to shiva for Dmitri Levitas, a 26-year-old company commander whose family made aliyah from Russia more than 20 years ago. “His mother hugged me, and said, ‘I cannot thank you enough for coming and helping me understand how much this means to the world, and for calling him a gibor – a hero.’

“Here we were, trying to help her, and here she was, telling us that we were making a difference.”

Ms. Lerer also talked about the shiva for Moshe Davino, a 20-year-old staff sergeant in the combat engineering corps. “It was a Sephardic family. The mother was a kindergarten teacher, and her son was an expert in defusing electronics. He had a weekend off coming, he was engaged to a lovely fiancée, and he came home for Shabbes. At the end of Shabbes, he said that he was going back. His family asked why, and he said, ‘My place is there.’ They had exposed a tunnel, and he had to be there to make sure they were doing it carefully. A sniper pulled out his rifle and killed him.”

She was struck, amid the pain, by the feeling of achdut – of oneness. She came to Israel because she felt it so strongly, she said, and once she arrived, she felt surrounded and buoyed by it.

Ami Rosen of Englewood said that his presence on the Ahavath Torah trip was spurred directly by an email from his father, who died about 10 months ago.

“I was looking through some emails from him – he lived in Israel – and I saw one that said that when someone is sick, you go visit them. When your country is sick, you go visit your country. How could I not go? My country is sick. I need to go.”

He made hospital and shiva visits, and went to the front lines to deliver letters from children. “Originally, I went for myself, to get a connection, but in the end you see it all for them, to give them strength,” he said.

“The thing that hit me the hardest is that I have two children, 11 and 8 years old. We went down to Ashkelon, where they are bearing the brunt of the rocket attacks, to a shelter where there are kids, 3 to 14. They’re basically in a bomb shelter all day. They have a playground set up outside and then an indoor bomb shelter, with toys and activities. These kids are traumatized. They’re scared.

“Just knowing that my own kids are here, living a free life, having fun at camp…

“I met two boys, Ron and Noam, and we played soccer together, and we smiled, and we laughed, and I showed them pictures of my kids on my iPAd. They wanted to know what kind of car I have, and what I know about soccer.” But then, he said, he was able to leave, but they couldn’t.

Mr. Rosen also underscored the feeling of gratitude Israelis have toward the Americans who visit them now.

He and a friend left the main group in a hospital to see if they could have any smaller-scale discussions with patients. “We went to the intensive care floor, and there was a boy there who grew up in Baltimore and made aliyah about a year ago. He was in Gaza, in a building, when a bomb went off in front. He was trapped in the building, on the second floor. His lungs were being filled with chemicals, so he jumped out of the window. A helicopter came and rescued him.

“His father and younger brother were there. They’re Americans; when they saw us come in, they gave us a hug. The father was so amazed that we came, just for three days.

“The overwhelming sense of the trip was the unity of the nation; how everybody just came together, and you saw the best in everyone.

“Everyone’s face had the same expression when you told them why we were there,” he said. “Shock, amazement, pride, happiness, gratitude.”

“As soon as the three boys were kidnapped, I let my wife know that if there was going to be a mission, I was going to be on it,” Andrew Harary of Englewood said. “I felt paralyzed. I was on my phone all day, 24/7, checking out every article, every bit of news. My life was stuck. I wasn’t getting any work done, so I thought that I might as well go to Israel and show my support.

“I was in Israel for four days” – not everyone was able to stay for the tour’s full seven – “and during those days I cried more than I had in my entire life. I have been to more shiva houses and more funerals than I had in my life.

“Every one of those boys died giving up his life for our country, for our religion, for every Jew across the world. And over here, we are living our lives. We don’t have bombs falling on us, anyone dying to the left and the right of us.

“All those kids whose houses I went to – I know them by name. I know what they looked like. I know what their mothers called them. I know what their girlfriends called them. I know their favorite pastimes. I know that they were my brothers.”

Israel is unified now, he agrees. “It is now stronger than it ever has been. I have spoken to the left, the right, and the middle; male and female; charedi or no religion at all, black, white, purple, green. It doesn’t make a difference. Everyone is unified. The unity is so thick in Israel now that you could cut it with a knife.”

When Mr. Harary arrived in Israel, his cousin showed him an Iron Dome installation. When he said that it was amazing, his cousin said he could show him something even more astonishing. “He puts out his hand, shows me his tightly clenched fist, and I say, ‘That means we’re strong.’ And he says, ‘We are strong, but no, that’s not what it means. It’s that we’re unified. We are one.’

“Israelis’ strength, the way they get through all these murders and deaths and the daily barrage of rockets – they get through it because they love each other, and they are a very tight unit right now.”

He, too, was struck by how little Israelis believe that American Jews care about them. He took care to meet as many people as possible, and to tell them that no, the American Jewish community cares about them deeply, and that he was there propelled by that care and love. “There would be a disbelief that would come over them. It would take a minute or two to cut through it. Once they saw that we meant it, tears would stream from their eyes.”

Mr. Harary and another traveler, Scott Hershman, went to shiva for Barkai Shor, a 21-year-old sergeant in an infantry brigade. Mr. Shor’s family are “very dati, very hardcore Israeli, salt of the earth people, gutsy, who have been in Israel for four generations at least.

“Everyone was sitting in circles, crying, talking about Barkai. We were strangers, and we stuck out like sore thumbs, the only people who looked like we didn’t belong. We thought that we’d just go over to the family, pay our respects, and leave, but we walked over to a group of friends and said, ‘We came from America to be part of this. We didn’t know Barkai, but please tell us about him.

“At first they didn’t believe why we were there, but once they did, they started telling us about him, what a selfless person he was, about his volunteer work. And soon a story they told us started getting attention, and then our circle started growing and growing and growing until family members were in our circle.” Eventually, the two men were taken to meet Mr. Shor’s parents. “His father said that Barkai was an amazing person, who at some point was going to be a tremendous leader in our nation – but we lost him.

“We said we will make sure that his memory will be taken back to the United States, and his father turned to us and said we appreciate that, Barkai’s memory is very important to us, but that is not enough. We need to have action. That is the real way his memory will be preserved and his legacy fulfilled.”

Mr. Harary thinks that one way to preserve Mr. Shor’s memory is to learn mishnayot in his memory. To join in that effort online, google “lzechernishmas” and “Barkai Shor.”

But, he added, “It’s not just Barkai. It’s the other 65 soldiers who perished, and the five others who died in terrorist attacks. It would be an amazing idea to figure out how to combine our achdut – our unity – and to bring our communities closer together. We would take all of these kids, and a community in the United States or in the world Jewish community who is looking to make a difference to a family in Israel who was affected by loss could adopt the memory of a soldier.”

Barry Barden of Englewood is haunted by some of what he saw. “The first day, we visited the soldiers at a hospital, and we saw a guy lying on the bed with an amputated leg,” he said. “A young guy, with his whole life ahead of him.”

He was struck by how in S’derot, a town that has been under siege from rocket fire for years, “life goes on. We had lunch at an open-air falafel stand.”

He also talked about meeting some miluim – reservists – on the front line. “They were young guys,” he said. “One had four children, and his wife was expecting. His grandfather had written the index for the Soncino Talmud.” Another reservist was an engineering student, who had been headed back to graduate school when he was called up, and yet another was born in Kazakhstan and lived in Nazareth.

Mr. Barden said that the Israelis he talked to were concerned about how negatively they sensed Americans were viewing them. “They seem to be guided by the impressions they get on CNN,” which they see as anti-Israel, he said.

Rabbi Ari Zahtz, the assistant rabbi at Congregation Bnai Yeshurun in Teaneck, came with a group of about 15 people from his shul.

They were there, he said, because “it felt like we are sitting on the sidelines while they are fighting for our country. We want to show that Israel isn’t just a place where you go for vacation, or for a bar mitzvah. It is our home. We go because we want to help, no matter how minimal that help might be, just to show that we are together with them – to give them a hug, if nothing else.”

Although he had hoped that the group’s visit would lift soldiers’ spirits at least a bit, he was not prepared for “how much it meant to the soldiers that we came,” he said.

“We met with a group of tank units stationed right outside of Gaza. We told them that we came just to say thank you, and that we wanted them to know that we are thinking about you, that back home people also are thinking of you, praying for you, worrying about you, watching the news constantly.”

The soldiers assumed that the visitors had planned a vacation trip to Israel long in advance, and the stop near Gaza was just added to the itinerary, Rabbi Zahtz said. “When I said no, we are coming just to see you, they were surprised, and some of their eyes welled up with tears.

“They are tough guys – they are soldiers – but still their eyes welled. I think that those who did not have any connections outside Israel were really surprised to find out that we really care.

“To see that there are so many people from abroad who worry about them, pray for them – they told me that it gave them a lot of strength.”

Overall, although the newly returned travelers exposed themselves to a huge amount of war-caused raw grief, in which to some extent they shared, neither grief nor war is what they talk about most. Instead, “what you sense when you are there is not war but relationships and love,” Rabbi Goldin said. “That is what is so different.”

And it is important always to remember that every dead soldier was precious, he added.

“Each one of these fallen kids, every single one of them, was a gem.”

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