72 Hours in Israel

Tuesday, December 19, 2023

Last week, I had the privilege of spending 72 hours on the ground in Israel. I spent my time in three ways: 1. visiting with members of our Israel staff and with alumni of our various programs; 2. teaching classes both for alumni and for the broader public; and 3. Visiting Kibbutz Be'eri.

1. To echo something you have already heard from Rav Aviva and Rav Elie in their reflections after their trips, I was really struck by how grateful our community in Israel was for my visit. Needless to say, many Israelis still feel utterly bereft, confused, anxious, and indignant, and the support of the American Jewish community and its leaders means a great deal to them. I heard from several alumni who wrote to tell me how much they appreciated Hadar’s leadership’s visits, even if they were not able to join us in person for a conversation or a class.

A theme that kept recurring in my conversations with Israelis was a strong sense of loneliness and the feeling that international criticism and protests fail to acknowledge their real needs for safety and security. They feel abandoned by much of the world and asked if I could offer any insight. There is obviously much to say, but the extent to which these questions are on the minds and hearts of Israelis is both extremely striking and very painful.

There is also so much raw grief in the air. For example, the first person I met with, an alumna of our year-program in New York, had just lost a very close friend in Gaza, an Israeli soldier, the day before. The grief and the horror she felt were palpable.

2. I was privileged to teach two classes while I was there. On the first night, I taught a class for alumni about the approach of the Sefat Emet, R. Yehudah Leib Alter of Ger, to Hannukah, and the idea that lighting Hanukkah candles is a symbolic act in which we commit to being God’s candles (see Proverbs 20:27) and lighting up the dark places of the world. We discussed how God’s comparison of Abraham’s offspring to stars in the sky can be interpreted not just quantitatively but also qualitatively: we are not the sun and thus cannot dispel all darkness but we are stars, and we can bring light and hope amidst darkness and despair.

On the second night, I gave a public shiur in English on Psalm 121, one of the two psalms most closely associated with times of crisis (going back at least as far as the Mishnah, and likely further).

Again and again people expressed gratitude for Hadar. As one student put it to me, “I have so much to do right now as a nurse, but Hadar grounds me. I don’t have the time but I go consistently anyway, because it anchors me.”

3. I spent my last day in Israel at Kibbutz Be'eri. At a recent talk I gave in Palo Alto, I met Professor Yuli Tamir, former Israeli Minister of Education and currently president of Beit Berl College. I traveled from Jerusalem with one of her staff members, and a member of the Beit Beri faculty, who lives in Beeri, met us there and showed us around. Needless to say, it was devastating to witness the sheer wreckage that Hamas had left behind and it was excruciating to listen to people there talk about their friends and relatives who had been so brutally murdered on October 7. The entire community of Be'eri is currently living together in a hotel in Tel Aviv, but 50 or so residents commute each day– to clean, to make plans for a museum that they are eager to set up, and I think just to be home, even though home is nothing like it once was.

There is an interesting debate unfolding between residents of Be'eri. Some want to come back in small groups as soon as conceivably possible; understandably, they want to go home. But others insist that until Hamas is much more significantly incapacitated it would not be responsible to return.

It was poignant to hear members of the kibbutz say with great pride that they have always been an entirely and proudly self-sustaining community but that they will need significant assistance from American Jews when the time comes to rebuild.

A few things have stayed with me in the few days since I returned. First and foremost, Israelis want to hear from us. If you have friends or family in Israel, please let them know that you are thinking of them, that you care about them, and that you stand with them. Second, please remember that even beyond the war, and beyond the urgent task of returning the hostages home, a long, slow, and extremely expensive process of rebuilding awaits the people of Israel, and that they will need our ongoing support, both emotional and financial.