Thursday, July 31, 2014

OU Solidarity Mission - Epilogue and Afterthoughts

As I mentioned in my earlier essay, I had fully intended to write a full travelogue of my very recent and wonderful experience, the OU Solidarity Mission to Israel. I found, however, that (a) it was difficult for me to write during the trip, and (b) several other participants have done a wonderful job summarizing our adventures, including Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb, Rabbi Barry Kornblau and Rabbi Binyomin Ginsburg (reproduced below), not including others that I am unaware of. There is a Facebook page that provides many pictures and perspectives. For me to provide another version of that experience would be redundant, at best.

I did, however, want to add a few thoughts to those already expressed, in the hope that they have some merit.

After saying goodbye to all the new and old friends that joined me on the journey, I stayed in Israel for another few days (still here!) in Yerushalayim, mainly to spend time with my mother and children and extended family who live here, and with some old friends. It strikes me that although I am not more than an hour and a half from Sderot, it seems in many ways like a different world.

I think back to the excitement, passion, sense of meaning and empathy of last Shabbat: of the many soldiers that we visited in the army base camps and in the hospital; of the many families and children that have stoically endured thousands of rockets and the accompanying fear and sometimes great loss; of the wonderful Yeshiva in Sderot, and Rav Shmuel Eliyahu, who do so much to inspire and give strength to that community; of the brave people who came from comfortable North America far away and placed themselves in areas that were prone to attack simply because they wanted to let our brothers and sisters know “We are With You” . . . I think of them all and I look around at the seeming tranquility and humdrum of daily life here – and I am sure all the more so back home in America – and wonder, “Do they appreciate what is going on? Are they aware what sacrifices are being made on their behalf? Is there anything that is different for them at this time of battle, or do they – after saying an extra chapter of Tehillim and checking the news reports – go on with life as normal? If so...Is that perfectly fine?”

Truth be told, things are not just going on as normal. In the primarily Chareidi neighborhoods that I am spending most time in, there is more urgency than normal during the tefillot (prayer services), less of a sense than normal at this time of year that “Bein Hazmanim” (yeshiva vacation time) is about to begin, and a certain sense of unease that is in the air. I am very pleased that while at first I had heard that many yeshivos were planning on having the regular Bein Hazmanim after Tisha B'Av (I even heard it being defended as the necessary rest before the intense Elul zman and yeshiva students, much like soldiers, need time off to recharge and rejuvenate), saner heads have prevailed an announced that for as long as the war continues, the yeshivos need to stay in full learning session. This is the only ethical path; if people are expected to accept that the reason yeshiva students are exempted from army service is because they are doing their share of protecting Israel through their learning, then surely that learning must continue in full force while the war is on. It is that simple.  Kudos to the Belzer Rav, Chief Rabbi Yosef, and the Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah for putting out that message. It is heartening to see that the majority of the Chareidi community is trying, in their way, to be supportive of the war effort.

There are other things that also show it is not quite “business as normal”, even away from the southern communities. There are clearly far less tourists than usual in the summer, which is hurting many businesses. There has been an uptick in terror attempts coming from the Arabs in Yehuda and Shomron; a very major car bomb attack was foiled just as it was about to enter Beitar Ilit, where my two older children live. The streets seem a bit emptier than usual; people do not want to venture away from home and the children when unnecessary. But one good thing seems to have emerged at this time – there seems to be much more unity and shared sense of purpose – more powerful than at any time in recent memory.

Across the political spectrum, almost from far right to far left; crossing over the religious divide, from fervently Religious Zionist to fully Chareidi; Ashkenazic, Sephardic, wealthy and poor; all seem to agree that the IDF is fighting a necessary and virtuous battle, and must continue until the tunnel and rocket threats are eliminated. Especially given the way that Israel is being excoriated and slandered in the world press, by western leaders, and by the so-called protectors of human rights and peace (anybody hear from them when it comes to atrocities in Iran, Syria, Iraq etc?) , it is refreshing to see the strength of purpose of the “Amcha” in Israel who know that this is a just battle that Israel must wage and win, whether the world agrees or not.

Unfortunately, this unity is not unanimous. There are those on the far left that continue to pressure PM Netanyahu to accept a cease fire under terms dictated by Hamas, and are overly concerned about the way Israel is being portrayed. There are those Reshaim in the Neturei Karta who predictably appear at pro-Hamas rallies to say that Hamas is justified in fighting the brutal and illegitimate Israeli government. Those loons do not worry me, they are beneath all contempt. I am bothered by some strains within the mainstream Yeshiva world such as “the Great Gaon Rav Yisrael Y Kalmanowitz” who gave an address at a major rally in Bnei Brak this week warning that “The main challenge in our time is to stand firm against efforts to break down the walls between Bnei Torah and the 'mixed multitude' (Eirev Rav). . . we must learn from Aharon HaKohein to pursue peace (only) within the Bnei Torah, through which walls can be built to separate them from outside influences. . . in such a time as war, when there is a natural affinity for closeness, we must strengthen ourselves not to connect with them (the satanic army), not directly or even emotionally. (My translation of an excerpt of an article in HaPeles, 3 Av 5774, page 2). These words speak for themselves. I can only hope that those who follow this path are a small minority.

But one thought naggingly remains. Even with all of the unity that most feel, there is still a huge difference between those who feel unified in spirit with the families of the South and the soldiers, and those who do not suffice with feelings from afar, but determine to get up and do something to help. Between those who applaud and encourage the work an blood sweat and tears of others, and those who feel that that soldier is my brother...that family are my cousins...that mother is my mother, and I MUST do whatever one can to help.

Here in Israel there are the many who load up their cars with food, and drink and candy and books to deliver them to soldiers and communities in the south. Those who, like OU Israel, organize teams of social workers, health professionals, psychologists, Rabbis, and volunteers to go and spend time and help with the very many needs of so many who have been traumatized. Those who offer their homes ans support to those who need to get away from Sderot, Ashkelon, and other communities for a few days, and who go to visit and shop and help support those communities.

For those in Chutz LaAretz, there is much you can do – here are a few:
  • If you can get on a plane and come here, the country needs you and your tourist dollars and support.
  • Write and call your elected officials to support Israel, and particularly funding for the Iron Dome that with G-d's help has been so spectacularly successful – each Iron Dome rocket fired costs $60,000.
  • Donate money to support some wonderful organizations who are on the ground here and know the needs and are doing incredible work, particularly the OU Israel and the Yeshiva in Sderot, which is a tremendous resource for the entire city and the army.
  • Write letters to the editor, attend rallies, go to public meetings, and find ways to show your support.

In closing, I am so grateful to the Orthodox Union, and to my shul, the Young Israel of Forest Hills for allowing me to be in Israel at this time. As I have said to many, it was not so much that I wanted to come, it is that I couldn't not come. I felt that I had to be here with my people at this time. I am so full of thanks for the wonderful experience that I was privileged to have, and want to particularly thank Rabbi Avi Berman, director of OU Israel, for all that he so expertly, and modestly, accomplishes. At the time of this writing it is but a few days before Tisha B'Av. I deeply hope that the Ahavas Chinam (selfless love) that is being exhibited by the overwhelming majority of Klal Yisrael only grow and spread, and that the time will soon come that no nation will raise sword against each other, and the land will be filled with the spirit of Hashem.

Rabbi Binyomin Ginsburg's article that will be printed in HaModia

You would think everyone would be scared. You would think the mothers would scurry through the streets with their children close by, their backs hunched against the near-constant sound of exploding missiles. You would think that people rarely smile, that they go about their business grimly, knowing full well that not more than two miles away reside roughly 1.5 million people who want them dead.
The normal, purposeful, yet overwhelmingly calm atmosphere in Sderot is completely illogical, yet totally understandable in light of the residents’ unwavering belief in Hashem, in His protection, and in His unwavering promise that their lives belong to Him and He will take care of them.
My Shabbos in Sderot, Parashas Ma’asei, was undoubtedly the most unforgettable, inspirational two days I have ever spent. I ate food that was, for the most part, yeshivah food, I slept on a bed no wider than a chair and thinner than most pillows, I had no air conditioning in 90° weather, yet I would not trade my Shabbos for the most luxurious hotel in the world.
The phrase “ein domeh shmi’ah l’re’iyah- you can’t compare hearing to seeing” is what I would use to encapsulate the entire experience. Nothing I can say (or write), no matter how prolific my pen or eloquent my words, can possible describe the emotions I saw, the actions I watched, and the truly indescribable kedushah that took place before my eyes. I can only try to represent a fraction of what I experienced through my words.
About fifty people from America had come together to EretzYisrael to spend a Shabbos in Sderot and show our solidarity and unity with our Israeli brethren. The trip was organized through the Orthodox Union and could not have been more astoundingly perfect.
Our first stop in Israel after leaving the airport was not Sderot, but the makeshift army bases that dotted the sweltering desert landscape. These bases served the soldiers who had recently been in Gaza, allowing them to eat, sleep, and regroup on friendly territory before returning to their grim duties. I was astounded to see dozen of cars at each base, with Yidden from every walk of life pouring out to bring the exhausted soldiers something to eat or to warm their hearts.
A piece of cake, some rugelach, a small pan of kugel, or a package of fruit; no one cared who wore a streimel, kippahsrugah, velvet yarmulke, or nothing at all. The achdus was tremendous, showing the soldiers that the entire Eretz Yisraelwas on their side, praying for them, supporting them, doing any little thing they could to help the chayalim.
Once in Sderot, we went as close as possible to the Iron Dome, getting within ten feet of the gigantic missile defense system that protects Israel at $60,000 a shot. Talking to the soldiers and hearing the missiles whistle and explode around me was surreal, made only more dreamlike by the sight of two young girls handing a tray of fresh cookies to a soldier and wishing him a cheerful (albeit shy) “Shabbat Shalom!”
I asked one of the soldiers if he knew any of the thirty-seven soldiers who had been killed, hy”d. He replied that two of them had been from his unit, and that he knew them well. When I pressed him further and asked how their deaths affected him, the soldier’s answer was as shocking as it was illuminating.
Now, I am not going to feel. I can’t afford to feel the pain, to focus on my two friends who are now dead. If I did that, I would not be able to do my job because I would be depressed and crying. There is a time for everything, and mourning their deaths is not what I can do now. Now I have to fight.”
It is initially hard to understand why anyone would live in a city that is under constant attack, much less voluntarily send their sons to a yeshivah in that city, yet these residents’ service to their country and to Yidden everywhere is the stuff of legends.Sderot is one of the closest cities to Gaza and represents thePalestinian’s inability to advance even a centimeter into Israeli territory.
Without Sderot, the Palestinians would be able to slowly take land that is not theirs and eventually take over large swathes of Israel. Sderot residents are physically preserving the boundaries of Israel.
Friday night in the Sderot yeshivah was a penetrating experience. I walked into the yeshivah and barely noticed the lack of hats and jackets, or the color of the kippot. Who cares? What difference did it make when two soldiers joining thetefillos greeted each other with relief, having had no idea if the other was still alive after a week of battle? The ridiculous prejudices and separations of Yidden who dress differently and have different minhagim never seemed more obviously ludicrous than at this Kabbalas Shabbos.
The davening lasted for close to three hours, but we never wanted it to end. In addition the nearly 500 yeshivah students, what seemed like hundreds of the 600 soldiers stationed in a makeshift army base on yeshivah campus in Sderot streamed into the beis medrash during Kabbalas Shabbos. Many of these soldiers had never observed Shabbos, much less davened leilShabbos tefillos in a yeshivah!
When we sang songs with words like “shomrim hafkeid l’ircha”the emotion was palpable. Counter to the criticism that non-frumIDF soldiers have no appreciation for Hashem’s involvement in their battles, these soldiers clearly showed that they knew with 100% certainty that Hashem was behind every bullet and movement. To see dozens of soldiers jumping high, pointing to the heavens and singing with all their might “anachnu ma’aminim b’nei ma’aminim,” there is no doubt that they are ma’aminim baHashem and look to Him for their very lives.
I spoke to many soldiers with no Jewish observance to speak of who said, “We are in Hashem’s hands. Our lives are dependent on Him, and everyone knows that.”
Try to picture that scene, hundreds of yeshivah students locked arm and arm with uniform-clad soldiers, rifles strapped to their backs, dancing and singing to welcome Shabbat Hamalkah. One image remains stamped in my eye. Two young men stood with their arms around each other’s shoulders, their backs to me. One young man was from the yeshivah, wearing a shirt that said on it “Torah magneh u’matzleh—Torah protects and saves,” while the other was a soldier with a rifle on his back.
Both knew what was required of them. Both had a job, a mission, and were dedicated to carrying it out to the utmost to save Klal Yisrael from the hands of our enemies. Torah saves and protects the soldiers who carry out Hashem’s plans.
On Motzaie Shabbos, I saw a soldier polishing his boots and asked him what he was doing. The soldier replied, “I polished my boots before Shabbos to welcome the Shabbos, and now I polish my shoes again to welcome the observance of another mitzvah- serving my country and keeping it safe.”
The understanding that Hashem is the driving force behind them IDF keeps the soldiers going. To them, their actions are no less than a mitzvah and require the same concentration and dedication.
After the Friday night tefillos, we sat down to a seudah with soldiers who had never experienced a Shabbos meal before. One soldier told me that he had been in Gaza all week and had barely slept, but the relaxation and rejuvenation he felt sitting at a Shabbos table was more valuable than a full night’s rest.
After the loudest night I had ever experienced, with bombs constantly going off, I awoke to silence, the result of a 12-hour ceasefire. I had the zechus to enjoy a Shabbos seudah with a wonderful family of eight children. I ate familiar foods and sang familiar songs, yet there was something so unique and strange about this family, enjoying Shabbos in wartime, so close to a violent battlefield.
The eldest son, Aaron (name changed for privacy), was fifteen years old and showed incredible knowledge of Torah and Gemara. When I asked him how the war affected his life, he recounted something that had happened to him this past week.
Aaron planned to spend the day with a friend to enjoy their beinhazemanim vacation. He got a ride to his friend’s home in a different city and had taken a brief stop before continuing the trip. With both Aaron and the driver out of the car, but their possessions still inside, a missile whistled through the air right above the car. Luckily, it had been targeted by the Iron Dome and was blown to bits mid-air. Some of the shrapnel landed on the car, cracking the windshield and piercing Aaron’s siddur, which was lying on the dashboard.
As Aaron related the story to me, there was not a trace of fear or “could-you-imagine-if” in his eyes. Of course they had been out of the car when the missile exploded, and of course they weren’t hurt! The understanding that Hashem protects him at all moments was a reality, an unshakeable truth that would not waver. While there was definitely a hole in his siddur, there was none in his belief.  
Throughout the long Shabbos afternoon, an uplifting SeudatShlishit, and the two hours after tzeis hakochavim beforehavdalah was said, no one ever asked when Shabbos would be over. The kedushah was tangible and Hashem’s closeness and love for every person there, soldier, bochur, with or without kippah, hat, or rifle, was profoundly felt by everyone. Nothing, I mean nothing, can compare with that experience.
Over and over again, we heard from the residents of Sderot how much our visit meant to them. To the Israelis, especially those literally in the line of fire, us Americans are too busy with our malls, SUVs, manicures, and the price of gas to truly be together with them in their battle to save Eretz Yisrael. While this may be far from the truth, the only way to show them our solidarity is to literally pick up and show them.
Everything is so different when you are close, when you can shake someone’s hand and tell them that you support them. There are always a million reasons why you can’t/shouldn’t do something necessary, and the only way to finally get the task done is to grab every opportunity when it comes and use it to the fullest.
If it is at all feasible, buy a ticket, get on a plane, and get out here. More than the amount of chessed you can do by bringing a breath of warmth and caring to a city ripped open by war, your life will be changed and you will never be the same.

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