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What I saw in Israel during war

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Chaim GoldbergTHERE are many good reasons for a Jew to spend time in the Land of Israel, some of them religiously oriented, some social, others historical. There is an entirely independent reason, however, what I would call being together with Am Yisrael, living in sync with the nation of Israel.

While I had experienced this element of Israel in previous stints there, this summer it acquired a whole new meaning. Allow me to share some of these moments in which I experienced Am Yisrael.

Landing in Israel only to begin hearing rumors a mere 36 hours later of a potential kidnapping right near my accommodations, that is to begin living with Am Yisrael. On the way back from the funeral of my teacher’s father, to hear with certainty that yes, in fact, there had been a kidnapping and no, the report of a successful rescue was not true, that is to be with Am Yisrael.

It is later to learn that the grandson of my teacher’s father suffered a double loss that Friday; he was also a classmate of the kidnapped boys. It is to find out further still that two friends of mine were classmates and good friends of Gilad and Naftali, and two former counselors’ of mine were these boys’ counselors as well. It is to be told by a friend that just this past year he was a roommate of Eyal.

It was to be provoked into thinking, “How are all these people, so intimately connected to happenings in this land, coping with this horrifying news?” That was being with Am Yisrael.

To be with Am Yisrael was to be present for the anguished recital of Psalms after the mincha afternoon prayers that Friday, led by my yeshiva’s dean in a palpably tortured and fiery tone. It was to be at a prayer gathering at my yeshiva, the largest one in the area of the kidnapping, which attracted nearly a thousand pleading souls just hours after the service was announced.

It was to go to Mekor Chaim, the high school of the kidnapped boys, for the morning prayers a few days after the kidnapping. It was to see how some of the boys’ friends took the opportunity after the conclusion of the services to recite extra Psalms while other friends took the opportunity to sing songs hopeful for their return.

To be with Am Yisrael is to realize my brother and I offered a ride to some teens that fateful Thursday at the exact spot the three boys were later kidnapped. It was to stop by that spot a few days later, only to be greeted by the sight of an immense poster covering the length of the bus stop adorned with three simple yet powerful words: Am Yisrael Chai. It was to speak with a good friend of mine only to learn that he stood waiting there for a tremp, or ride, just an hour prior to the kidnapping.

It was at the end of the summer to encounter a different friend who said that his brother hitchhiked from across the street at 10:20 P.M., at what must have been just minutes after the kidnapping.

It is to look at myself and my friends and realize that each of us had stood in that exact spot and the corresponding bus stop across the street hundreds of times. It could have been me. It could have been you. It could have been any Jew.

TO be with Am Yisrael was to see stickers with the faces of Eyal, Gilad and Naftali or the hashtag BringBackOurBoys popping up on cars across the country. It was to see similar billboards randomly going up, or to see those posters taking the place of ads on buses of the national bus company, Egged.

To be with Am Yisrael was to be at the wedding of Denverite Miriam Clayman and Ben Yablon, which was a picturesque demonstration of how Am Yisrael moves forward. It was seeing how beautifully they navigated the balance of being joyfully exuberant for their simcha, yet deeply mindful of the kidnapped boys, creating a proper context within which to say Psalms for them.

It was praying outside the wedding hall later that evening, at the conclusion of which Rabbi Tully Bryks, one of Miriam’s teachers, perceptively suggested we go back to the dance floor before saying Psalms, insightfully remarking, “Dancing with and delighting the bride and groom is our way of saying Psalms tonight.”

To be with Am Yisrael was to hear the heart-wrenching news of their murder from someone whose brother works for the Israeli intelligence services. It was to be in Nof Ayalon, Naftali’s hometown, for his funeral, together with thousands of other mourners. It was to encounter people there I had not seen in over a year, yet to proceed — each of us — with the clear, mutual understanding that this was not a time for greetings. Hugs, though, yes. It was to hear the mournful, yet heartening eulogies of the grieving parents, addressing him achingly and adoringly by his family nickname, “Naftali-li sheli.”

TO be with Am Yisrael was to receive a call from one of my closest friends only to hear the news he and the rest of his unit were being sent to the Gaza border. It was then to call the other close friends I have in that unit and speak to them one last time while they waited on the border. It was to hear the news that the IDF had in fact began a ground operation and simultaneously process the fact that my friends could very well be on the other side of that border.

To be with Am Yisrael was to hear that on the second day of battle there was a large number of casualties, all from Golani, my friends’ brigade. It was to be tormented in wait for the IDF to release the names of those killed, something which did not happen for nearly two full days, due to the suspected abduction of one of the soldiers killed. It was to breathe a sigh of relief every time I saw that my friends were not on the list, only to be horrified by the fact that my relief was the source of someone else’s friend’s painful loss.

To be with Am Yisrael was to spend Shabbos with former Denverites Nate and Amy Davidovich, whose son’s best friend was killed in the army a few years back. It was to meet their neighbor whose Bnei Akiva counselor was killed in Gaza just that week. It was to hear their other neighbor, whose daughter was about to be engaged to that same young man, spontaneously speak outside after shul about the effect of the loss on her daughter and their family.

It was to go the next day to the shiva, house of mourning, of this soldier, to see his father so utterly broken, on this, the last day of shiva. And it was to see his mother somehow so strong in her loss, taking solace in the value of her son’s sacrifice, and urging me to live up to the values for which he had died.

To be with Am Yisrael was to be greeted upon my return to Jerusalem from the South by heartwarming signs and encouraging banners across bridges and high-rise buildings, on highways and traffic lights. Signs such as (translated), “We are hugging Golani,” “Staying Strong on the Homefront, Winning on the Front,” “We love Israel; We Count on Tzahal (IDF).”

To be with Am Yisrael was to be asked directions by an Israeli soldier, and after thankfully being able to help him out, having a brief conversation. It was to find out that he was coming from the funeral of friend of his just killed and on the way to a different friend’s house for the night before heading back to the Gaza border the next morning. It was to take leave thanking him for his service and for having strengthened me, only to have him respond, “Thank you — you’ve strengthened me.” It is to realize we are all one big family, here to strengthen each other.

To be with Am Yisrael was to come across a beautiful scene of activism by Israel’s youth near Jerusalem’s Central Bus Station, which, though resembling a messy protest from afar, was the furthest thing from that. It was to see these youth enter the crosswalks—but only on a green light, so as not to disturb traffic—waving Israeli flags and holding banners which proclaimed, “Encouraging Tzahal! Honk if you support Tzahal!” It was to hear the ensuing cacophony of honks, but, more inspirationally, to hear the stirring expression of unity which emerged from amidst that cacophony. And all peacefully, without disrupting any travel whatsoever.

To be with Am Yisrael was to attend a week-long convention of Torah study in Gush Etzion attended by thousands of people from across the country.

It was to hear nearly all the lecturers preface their class by dedicating it to the soldiers who were fighting in Gaza and in memory of those already fallen. It was to be there after the first class each day when there was a collective recital of Psalms.

To be with Am Yisrael was to be in yeshiva for Shabbos the day Hadar Goldin was kidnapped. It was to hear a friend of Hadar’s lead the recitation of Psalms that Friday afternoon, in a voice simultaneously utterly full of distress, agony, begging and even anger. It was to be stopped in my tracks, nearly unable to open my mouth, as I began to grasp how horrifyingly this tragedy impacted Hadar’s family and friends. It was to hear my Israeli friends who had graduated from the army grapple with how to continue their lives most meaningfully on the homefront while their friends and comrades remained on the front lines.

And all of this is besides what I spent the majority of my summer doing, which was perhaps the most significant way in which I was with Am Yisrael: Staffing Yeshiva University’s Counterpoint program, which sets up and runs camps for hundreds of socioeconomically disadvantaged immigrants in Israeli development towns. To meet, interact and eventually become friends with teenagers of Ethiopian, Moroccan and Russian heritage in Kiryat Malachi and Dimona was to be with Am Yisrael.

It was to work to give the Kiryat Malachi kids a happy experience even before the current war, knowing how much they were psychologically affected from the previous round of rockets just two years ago.

To be with Am Yisrael was to be in Kiryat Malachi when the first siren there went off this summer. It was to be directly affected by the war, as the IDF Homefront Command ordered ours and all other area camps shut down just a day later. It was to persevere and proceed to run a camp with all the regularly scheduled programming in Dimona the next two weeks.

It was to hear a siren Shabbos morning, only to find out after Shabbos that the boom I heard in the shelter had in fact killed a Bedouin not too far away.

To be with Am Yisrael was to venture by the spot where Eyal, Naftali and Gilad were kidnapped once again on my way to the Kotel on Tisha b’Av and to see that the previous banner had been replaced with one double in size, this one containing three distinct parts: On one side is an artistic rendering of their names, in the middle is “Rachel weeps over her children”— a reference to the haunting verse from Jeremiah 30:13 which takes on extra meaning since Naftali’s mother is Rachel—and on the other side is the ever-strengthening “Am Yisrael Chai.”

It was also to see that a soaring stone memorial had been set up at the spot. It was to take a large stone from nearby, gently place it on top of the memorial, thereby adding another layer to our nation’s memory of the three boys.

To be with Am Yisrael was to drive by the new neighborhood being built up in their memory, Givat Oz v’GEoN, a word meaning warrior while concomitantly serving as an acronym for Gilad, Eyal, and Naftali.

It was then to arrive at the Kotel on Tisha b’Av, the day on which we mourn the destruction of the Temple, of which the Kotel is our only remnant. It was to join with a group of people there singing songs of mourning, yearning and hope, a group which soon spontaneously expanded into nearly a thousand people.

To be with Am Yisrael was to be blessed with the opportunity to talk the next day, on my to the airport and in the airport, to those friends of mine who had just been released from duty in Gaza, who just got their phones back for the first time in nearly a month, ever so grateful for their safe return.

Though I still lack a proper definition for the idea of what it means to be with Am Yisrael, perhaps these anecdotes convey a better understanding—albeit a very long one— than any definition ever could. As I reflect on the summer, I realize how privileged I was to be there at such a momentous time for the nation.

I know that I, as well as every other American I spoke to about this, continuously asked the question, “What would be if I were not in Israel right now?” As we each individually wrestle with future life decisions and vacation options, perhaps it behooves us to ask, “What could be, if only I were in Israel right now?”

Copyright © 2014 by the Intermountain Jewish News

Last Updated ( Friday, 15 August 2014 05:01 )  

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