Day One: Tuesday, Nov. 20
The first indication that things are different emerges as you listen to the radio on the ride from the airport to Yerushalayim. Over and over again, the regular program is interrupted as a calm voice announces: “Tzeva Adom: Red alert – Kiryat Malachi; Red alert – Beer Sheva; Red alert – Ashkelon; Red alert – Ashdod; Red alert – Yerushalayim….”
And you realize what these announcements mean; city after city under attack; families, children scrambling for cover; terror raining down haphazardly from the sky; no guarantees of safety anywhere.
I am here in Israel, as president of the Rabbinical Council of America, together with a delegation of rabbis from across the United States and Canada. At the same time, I am participating in a solidarity mission from my own Englewood community. The goals of our missions are clear. We are here to lend solidarity to the citizens of Israel at this critical time. We are here to experience, if only for a few days, what the lives of our brothers and sisters in southern Israel have been like for much too long. We are here to learn how we can help Israel when we return. Above all, we are here because we do not feel that we can be anywhere else this week.
We dropped everything to come, on a moment’s notice, because when your home is in danger, you don’t run the other way. You come home, even if, for now, it’s just for a visit.
Our first day here was filled with experiences that we never will forget. We visited Kiryat Malachi, the scene of the recent fatal rocket attack. We climbed up to the devastated apartment, recited psalms, and then visited family members of one of the victims as they sat shiva. We traveled to Moshav Shibbolim, a small town in the Negev that none of us had ever heard of, and visited in small groups with families who live under the constant fear of rocket attacks.
During these visits, a red alert was sounded and we all were forced to find cover together with the families. We spent time with children attending programs in a bomb shelter, because it is unsafe for them to go to school. We spoke with Israeli citizens, from government officials to people on the street, sharing our wishes and hearing their stories.
Over and over again, they thanked us for coming. Over and over again, I objected. The thanks, I explained, go in the opposite direction. We are here to thank you for your courage and dedication; for fighting our battles, every day of your lives.
Perhaps I’m dreaming, but you get the sense that globally things may have reached a tipping point. There is a sense of growing consensus, not only in Israel but throughout the world, that the status quo cannot continue. President Obama’s words say it all: “The precipitating event here … that’s causing the current crisis … was an ever-escalating number of missiles; they were landing not just in Israeli territory, but in areas that are populated. And there is no country on earth that would tolerate missiles raining down on its citizens from outside its borders. So we are fully supportive of Israel’s right to defend itself from missiles landing on people’s homes and workplaces and potentially killing civilians. And we will continue to support Israel’s right to defend itself.”
Perhaps the world community finally will give Israel the space to do what it needs to do, which is whatever any other country in the world under the same circumstances would do.
As I write these words, Tuesday evening in Israel, uncertainty hangs in the air. The dilemma haunts each Israeli. Will there be a cease-fire or a ground incursion into Gaza? Should Israel risk the lives of its young soldiers in an enterprise that is certain to carry loss? Can Israel, on the other hand, stop now, without real, tangible, lasting gains?
We will see what tomorrow brings. But for now I know one thing. There is nowhere else that I would rather be; nowhere else that I should be.
Day 2: Wednesday, Nov. 21
On Wednesday a cease-fire between Israel and Hamas is called, and another dimension of our trip opens before us.
Suddenly we are surrounded by intense debate: the deep disappointment of soldiers, who are ready to complete the job they came to do; the frustration of southern Israelis, who desperately want greater security; the complex political concerns of Israel’s leaders; the sighs of relief as parents greet their children returning from the front.
Day 5: Saturday Night, Nov. 24
We have continued our visits with citizens of southern Israel from all walks of life. From hospitalized victims of terror, to soldiers on the front, to children in a huge protected indoor playground in Sderot, the resilience of our people is astounding. On two occasions during our trips south, we are forced, in response to red alerts, to evacuate our minibuses, lie down on the ground, and protect our heads with our hands. This is a small taste of what Israelis must live with constantly.
We leave tonight with a deep sense of unfinished business. But, perhaps, that is exactly the point. Sadly, few in Israel speak today of solutions to the conflict with our enemies. Successful military endeavors can, at best, buy periods of quiet. During those times, Israel must predict and prepare for the next confrontation.
Most importantly, we leave with the feeling that we have done something vital over these past few days. We have given our Israeli brothers and sisters the one gift that only we can give. We have shown them our willingness to cross oceans at a moment’s notice simply to say thank you.
We know that it is far from enough. But for us, if not for them, this gesture has been life-changing.