R. Elie Kaunfer: Showing We Care

Rabbi Elie Kaunfer
Tuesday, November 28, 2023

I spent four days last week in Israel. It was the shortest trip to Israel I have ever taken, and the first time I have come and gone without staying for Shabbat. It was also perhaps the most important trip I have taken here, for one simple reason: I was able to be with people I care about in a time of crisis. I needed them to know that I cared enough to come now, in this time of war, to sit and hear their stories and share their pain.

I sat with people who work for Hadar. Hadar has 12 employees in Israel, and I was able to get together with all of them, except one: Yair Asch-Resnick, who is serving in the army. The stories I heard were both typical and unique. One colleague has 3 children and a husband in the army now. One has a child who can’t sleep at night unless her parents are in her bed. One has so many friends and relatives in the army – and had been to so many funerals – it was hard to keep track. All of them asked me how it is in New York, do I feel antisemitism? All of them were so grateful for a visit.

I sat with members of my family. One cousin brought her phone to the dinner table, unable to stop checking the news, even as we ate. Checking, and checking again. Except when she took a break to hug and kiss her 13-year-old son, who let her. My aunt is a social worker in the school system; she suggested we all go around and say how we were feeling. She started: Anxious, upset, angry, sad. There were many fewer smiles than normal.

I sat with people from Sderot, the town in the south where 35,000 people used to live; about 5,000 live there now. Together with a group from SAR, the high school my eldest daughter attends, I heard about two teachers in a hotel near the Dead Sea, now housing many of families from Sderot. They teach children, in a windowless hotel ballroom, from 9:30am-12:30pm, because that is all the children can handle. It is not a regular curriculum; it is processing the trauma, plus playing games. Many parents wait right outside the room, worrying about their children, unable to let them be alone. (Pictured below: makeshift classrooms in one of the Dead Sea Hotels)

We heard the Sderot municipal security coordinator tell us his story. He only had one man on duty on October 7, and he felt completely helpless, telling his worker to seek shelter, because there was nothing else he could do. He showed us painful and terrifying footage from his security cameras, pausing every few seconds to explain the scene. Two trucks of Hamas terrorists rounding the traffic circle; a car with a family of four going the other direction; the parents stop the car, jump out and grab their kids. The mother goes with one child in one direction, the father and his 4-year old daughter run the other way; they run into the terrorists. He is shot, she wanders off. The father is picked up by an off-duty police officer; they go to the police station (next video), but the terrorists have taken over the police station. They are both shot and killed there. “I have shown this video more than 100 times, and I can’t get through it,” says the security coordinator. “Go home and tell the world what happened here. That is why I keep playing the videos.”

I sat with students at Hadar. They tell me that studying in our Yeshiva is the highlight of their week. Some drive in from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, to be with others and study Torah. “It is the anchor of my week – it is something I can rely on,” one student told me over coffee. (Pictured below: two students at Hadar in Jerusalem)

Later, I went to Tel Aviv and sat with alumni from our programs, near the tables dedicated to the hostages on Kaplan Street. A man sits in front of a huge poster of pictures of the hostages in a makeshift tent, reciting Psalms.

I have one major take-away from this trip: Be in touch with people you know in Israel. They are suffering, and they are anxious that we have forgotten about them. I was privileged to be here in person, but even a simple WhatsApp, or email, or phone call, goes a long way. I myself forgot this over the past few weeks. I had been in touch in the very beginning, but not in an ongoing way. This trip showed me that is not enough. We have entered a long period of darkness, and our friends, relatives and people need to know we still care about them. So let’s keep reminding ourselves that it helps and it matters to be in touch, to show we care.