Thoughts from the Solidarity Mission to Israel
This week I am taking part in a solidarity trip organised by a rabbinical organisation to which I belong. The aim is to show Israeli citizens that we support them from afar as representatives of a total of 35 liberal communities from the USA and Switzerland.
The trip starts in Tel Aviv. The first thing we notice as soon as we enter the hotel are the many children running around and playing football, the young people sitting in a corner and chilling with each other and the adults sitting together in groups, some looking at their mobile phones, others talking on their phones and others cheering. These are Israelis who fled and were evacuated after 7 October and who have temporary accommodation in this and other hotels.
This evening we received an analysis of the current political situation from Knesset member (Avoda) and liberal rabbi Gilad Kariv. He painted a bleak picture that goes far beyond the war against Chamas. Israel is currently fighting a war on several fronts. The obvious fronts are the one in the west against Chamas and the one on the northern border against the Chisbala in Lebanon. Another front is in the eastern West Bank. The mutual violence is increasing day by day, with the settlers playing a vicious role. The fourth front is led by the Houthis from Yemen. Even if the attacks are not directly directed against Israel, such as an attack on American soldiers in Jordan, a cycle can be recognised in which Israel is at the centre and which is driven by Iran. According to Mr Kariv, Israel cannot deal with a four-fold attack alone. Israel urgently needs allies. The first message on the first day was tough and confronting.
This morning we visited the 'Kikar Hachatufim', the place of the hostages. This is where the hostages' relatives gather. They set up a forum on 8 October, one day after the terrible attack, with the aim of supporting each other, talking to those responsible in the government and ensuring that the fate of the hostages is not forgotten (https://stories.bringthemhomenow.net/).
The square features works of art by individuals and the group as a whole. Most impressive is the long set Shabbat table with chairs, white tablecloths, plates and cutlery, representing those who have returned.
and a rough wooden table with boxes as seating for those who are still imprisoned. A piano awaits the 22-year-old scourged Alon Ohel, a gifted pianist. In the square stands a metre-high hourglass dedicated to the members of Kibbutz Be'eri with the inscription: Time is running out. Bnei Akiva has erected a tent where people can sit, meditate or pray. To fund their work, the forum sells T-shirts, caps, dogtags and more with the message: Bring them home!
It was an emotional experience. The pain and helplessness scream out at you. We met Lee Siegel, the brother of hostage Keith. He told us about the morning of 7 October when his brother and sister-in-law Aviva were taken to Gaza. Aviva was released after 51 days, Keith is still being held in Gaza.
After the Kikar Hachatufim, we visited the office of the organisation 'Gisha' (https://gisha.org/en/) in the Florentin district. This is an Israeli non-governmental organisation (NGO) that has been working on the concerns of Gaza residents vis-à-vis the Israeli authorities since 2005, in particular their freedom of movement. Gisha' calls on the state to fulfil its moral and legal obligations towards the Gazans. Geisha' is even taking the state of Israel to court. The employees reported on the current situation in Gaza. The tension in our group rose as they visualised Israel's actions and inaction. The more territory Israel controls in Gaza, the more it bears responsibility for the fate of civilians in the area. Chamas, which stations its bases in populated areas and abuses the inhabitants as human shields, is held responsible for the many Gazans killed.
In the afternoon we visited the Assaf Harofe Hospital. We were shown a special department where post-traumatic stress disorder is examined and treated (https://aviv-clinics.com/about/shai-efrati/). Dr Efrati explained that PTSD is not a psychological disorder, but a physical one. Right now, since 7 October, this disorder is being diagnosed not only in soldiers from combat units, but also in civilians in the western Negev and on the northern border. Just as a wound to the leg can be treated and healed, a wound to the brain, as Dr Efrati defines PTSD, can also be treated. It costs about $10,000 to treat a patient. These costs are only covered by the Ministry of Defence for military personnel.
We continued by bus to Haifa. Here we met Anna Kinslanski, the head of the Israeli Reform Movement (IMPJ, https://reform.org.il/en/). She said that the current situation has put the Reform movement in Israel on the map. The rabbis of the IMPJ organise the weekly Havdalah on the Kikar Hachatufim with hundreds of participants. The liberal rabbis of the communities in the western Negev and on the northern border are travelling through the city and countryside to visit and support their evacuated community members. A precedent was set when a family, a member of the Reform congregation in Modi'in, insisted that their own rabbi, rather than a military rabbi, bury their fallen son. Since then, this rabbi has accompanied dozens of military levayot, including soldiers whose families are not members of a Reform congregation.
Jews and Arabs live side by side in Haifa. This makes the city an exception to other cities with a mixed population. In Lod and Ramle, for example. the two population groups live separately. Nevertheless, social contacts in Haifa are also sparse. This is because the schools are segregated. Today we visited two institutions that want to change this. One of them is Beit Hagefen, the House of the Vine (https://www.beit-hagefen.com/?lang=2).
By organising meetings between Jewish and Arab groups, mutual trust is stimulated and thus the basis for peaceful coexistence in Israel is laid. Due to the war, the work came to a standstill for a while, as both populations assumed that the others had withdrawn. In the courtyard of Beit Hagefen, an artist has depicted their view of Haifa with drawings and texts. One saying particularly touched me: "The mountain doesn't need another mountain, but man needs another man."
In the afternoon, we visited the Leo Baeck Education Centre (http://leobaeckhaifa.org/). In addition to the school for young people aged 4 to 18, the 'Ohel Awraham' community and a sports centre, the Leo Baeck Centre organises dozens of programmes in various locations for what they themselves call a shared life. Coexistence between Arabs and Jews does not go far enough for them. For example, they run a community garden. The work is done by groups of visitors, always a tandem of a Jewish and an Arab group. These can be both young people and adults. Here, too, the picture is the same as at Beit Hagefen. The war has brought many of the programmes to a standstill. Here, too, the question arises as to how long it will take for these programmes to return to their pre-7 October level.
The survivors of the kibbutzim on the border with the Gaza Strip, the residents of Sderot and Ofakim and also the residents of the villages and towns on the northern border were evacuated. Often in hotels, but some kibbutzim also took in members from one of the other kibbutzim. For example, the survivors of Nachal Oz on the border with Gaza were accommodated in Kibbutz Mishmar Ha'emek on the night of 7 to 8 October. The traumatised children and adults, who were taken from the destroyed kibbutz by the IDF with almost nothing but the clothes on their backs, were given a simply furnished room with the most basic utensils on arrival.
In Mishmar Ha'emek we are welcomed by three survivors. They tell us what they have experienced and how they have fared since then. It sounds like a report from another planet. None of us can listen with dry eyes. We see and feel the pain, some of which is still numb.
Around 70 per cent of those admitted come from Nachal Oz. From secondary school onwards, the pupils attend the regional school and learn together with local young people. For the younger children, it was decided not to bring them together with other children in order to provide them with specialised care. 14 residents of Nachal Oz were killed by the terrorists on 7 October and seven were kidnapped (https://www.timesofisrael.com/kibbutz-within-a-kibbutz-nahal-oz-evacuees-find-long-term-haven-at-mishmar-haemek/). Nachal Oz is part of the community of Sha'ar Hanegev - the gateway to the Negev (https://www.sng.org.il/7251/). In this community, unlike most towns and villages in Israel, a liberal rabbi was appointed instead of an orthodox rabbi: Rabbi Jael Vurgan. She offers her services to a dozen kibbutzim and one moshav. Since 7 October, she has been travelling through town and country to visit 'her' evacuees. In the first weeks after the attack, she organised dozens of funerals.
We then travelled to Shoham, a small town near Ben Gurion Airport. Here we were guests of the eight-year-old liberal congregation 'We-Ahawta' (https://shohamreform.org/english/) for two hours. There we were put to work. Part of our group baked cakes for soldiers in the Gaza Strip. The cakes are distributed to a different unit every Friday. The second group kneaded anemones out of clay. The wild anemone has a special meaning. It blooms in the Negev in spring, which gave rise to the expression Darom Adom - red south. Walks and festivals are organised every year (https://www.habsor.co.il/?lang=en). Today, the 'red south' is red because of the blood of the dead and wounded. At the first burials of the murdered, this connection was made by decorating the graves with clay anemones that were fired, painted and glazed. This has continued to develop. In many places, the clay anemones are placed in the ground like 'stumbling blocks'. The victims of the massacre on 7 October must not be forgotten.
On day 5, we drive from Jerusalem to Modi'in, a relatively new town that was established in 1993. Four years later, the liberal community of Yozma (https://yozma.org.il/en/about-yozma-modiin) opened its doors in Modi'in. Since then, Yozma has developed into an unprecedentedly pluralistic community, with a kindergarten and many projects for young and old that reach far beyond the ranks of the community members.
After a brief introduction to the community, one of the two community abbots, David Azulai, speaks to us. It will be an emotional talk. Azulai, who grew up in an ultra-Orthodox family, was ordained Orthodox. Unlike many of his yeshiva colleagues, Azulai did military service in the Supreme Military Rabbinate, the unit responsible for military funerals. Soon, the orthodox path with its associated political positioning in Israel no longer proved to be 'his' path. He trained as a rabbi at the Hebrew Union College in Jerusalem and has been working as a rabbi in Modi'in ever since. He has not conducted any more funerals since he finished his military service around 25 years ago. The day after 7 October, he received a call from a good friend that a family from Zur Hadassa (a village southwest of Jerusalem) had lost their son on 7 October. This family is a member of the liberal community in Zur Hadassa (https://www.kehilatshirchadash.org/) and did not want an Orthodox military rabbi or chasan for their son's levayah. Never before had the family explicitly asked for a liberal rabbi. It was a great surprise that the army rabbinate honoured this request. Despite the war, the grief and the pain, this precedent made the headlines.
At the beginning of November, the same friend called with the terrible news that her daughter Yam Glass s.A. had already been shot dead by the Chamas on 7 October at her military base near Kibbutz Nachal Oz. David Azulai had known Yam since she was born and was now asked by her mother, his friend, to conduct her funeral in Modi'in. After the lecture, we visited the Modi'in military cemetery with Rabbi David Azulai. Until 7 October there were 2 graves in this section, now there are 12. The graves tell the bitter story of the 19 to 20 year old soldiers who were killed before their lives could even really begin. We commemorated Yam and all the fallen soldiers and civilians with a yizkor.