At Home, Running for Cover
The past month has been a time of great emotion and tension for those of us living in Israel. From the moment that Naftali Fraenkel, Eyal Yifrach, and Gilad Shaar were kidnapped, there was a sense of forboding that overtook the country. And tragically, it seems there is little hope on the horizon for a conflict that has been forced upon the State of Israel. Today, I had the privilege and honor of participating in a mission to the south as part of a solidarity mission organized by the Rabbinical Assembly and the Masorti Movement, chaired by Rabbis Gordon Tucker and Aaron Melman. Upwards of seventeen colleagues from North America, joined about ten of us in Israel to support communities under constant siege in the south of the country. The day was at once inspirational and sobering.
My morning began with a tragic call from my assistant at the Schocken Institute. The son of an administrative assistant at The Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies was killed in Gaza yesterday. Dani , my assistant, shared the devastating news with me in undertone and added that “the funeral was set for 11am this morning at Har Herzl.” Yuval Heyman z”l – one of the twenty-seven treasures that have been lost in this devastating conflict. His mother Zohara is a kind, gentle soul. Two degrees of separation. The conflict has hit home. Tears welled up in my eyes as I headed south. I could not stop thinking of Zohara and her family – the unimaginable loss of losing a child that has become stark reality for her family.
Our bus arrived in Ashkelon at Kehilat Netzach Yisrael where we were welcomed by colleague Rabbi Gustavo Surazski and Marty Davis, President of the congregation. They movingly shared with us how their lives have been transformed by the barrage of rocket fire from Gaza. Alan Marcus, head of strategic planning for the municipality of Ashkelon detailed the remarkable and sophisticated response system in place – so that all aspects of the municipality are activated to care for those affected by missile fire. We split into two groups to head down to the shelter adjacent to the synagogue – to see a summer camp program for young children in action. Summer – a time for children to be out in the open feeling the summer breeze on their faces. Not these children. Penned up in an underground shelter, these kids and their staff struggled to maintain a sense of normalcy. Why run a camp in a shelter? Young children cannot be expected to run for cover within fifteen seconds. That is how long it takes for a Qassam rocket from the time it is launched in Gaza to the time it rains down on Ashkelon. Far better that these kids be safe and sheltered constantly during their time in camp. The truly inspirational sight in this darkness was watching as JTS rabbinical student Amichai Lau Lavie told the story of Nahshon, the first Israelite to jump into the Reed Sea as it parted. Amichai’s energy and animated style were intoxicating; the kids were in the palm of his hand; transported to another world – a world far away from the grim reality they were facing. After about fifteen minutes, we went back into the sanctuary of the synagogue – when a siren sounded warning us of an impending strike on Ashkelon. We all raced into another sheltered room, awaiting the thud of the rocket landing and the ‘all clear’ to continue our lives.
From Ashkelon we travelled closer to the border with Gaza – entering what has been ground zero for Qassam launchings: Sderot. We proceeded directly to the command center of Sderot, along the way passing bus stops in the town: all fortified with concrete shelters. Once we arrived at the center, we were greeted by the assistant to the mayor who gave us a snapshot of Sderot under siege—which over the past five years has grown from a population of 17,000 to 24,000. The miracle of Sderot is the ability of the leadership and inhabitants to not only maintain normalcy but to have actually invested in and developed the infrastructure of the town. Worse than the fear of rockets landing in Sderot, is the profound concern of Hamas tunnels leading into neighborhoods. It is through this maze like infrastructure that Hamas hopes to kidnap and murder Israeli army personnel and civilians. The existential fear was palpable but in spite of it all they persevere. The most powerful moment for us in Sderot was a journey to a hesder yeshivah (where yeshiva students combine learning with serving in the IDF). We climbed to the roof of their Beit Midrash which afforded an overlook of Gaza. Smoke billowed in the distance; surveillance drones buzzed overhead – as all of us looked in the distance wondering what could be next. One of the corners of the roof showcased a menorah made of Qassam rocket shards.
We continued on to Beersheva. Twice air-raid sirens sounded as we were travelling; both times the bus stopped and we all dropped to the floor of the bus – covering our heads in the event of the windows on the bus shattering. Our host in Beersheva was our colleague Rabbi Mauricio Balter, Rabbi of Kehilat Eshel Avraham. Mauricio greeted us warmly and led us into a meeting with Deputy Mayor of Beersheva Tal El-Al. Like the other speakers encountered over the course of the day, Tal was effusive in expressing his deep appreciation for this RA-Masorti Solidarity Mission. Our presence meant the world to all those we encountered.
Our journey to the south concluded with Rabbi Jonathan Sadoff in Omer – about twenty minutes from Beersheva.
Over the past month, arguably the most difficult period of six years since our Aliyah, I have wrestled. How can we raise three children under such circumstances? And then I think of the gift of Israel – this treasured gift of a homeland that none of us, whether you are in the Diaspora or Israel, can take for granted. For two thousand years, we waited patiently to come home. And thanks to the early Zionists, that remarkable dream was realized. Even with all the challenges, stresses, and difficulties, I would never trade this gift for anything. To hear our children speaking perfectly accented Israeli Hebrew; to witness our girls identifying the flora and fauna of the Land of Israel with smiles and excitement; to see our son Adir play basketball with his buddies at the Hartman School in Jerusalem; to be a part of the Jewish calendar and Jewish time in such profound and meaningful ways; to deepen the roots of JTS rabbinical and cantorial students to Israel . . .we are living a dream here. Israel is far from perfect. But even with all these imperfections, I would not trade it for anything—and especially in such difficult times. As Rabbi Shomo Riskin once said, “Jews need to decide if Israel is Disneyworld or Home. And if it is Home, even when there is trouble at home, you come to visit.” This is my Home – and as one of the municipal officials in Sderot said this morning, “here I was born, here I am living, and here I will live my life to its end.” We are here to stay. And as one of my dear students from Boca Raton, Jonathan Stein z”l, loved to say, “Am Yisrael Chai.” The people of Israel live!
May the coming days and weeks bring peace to Israel.
Rabbi Matthew L. Berkowitz, a Wexner Graduate Fellowship alum (Class 6) is the Director of Israel Programs for The Jewish Theological Seminary of America and co-founder of Kol Ha-Ot, a Jerusalem-based venture devoted to exploring the arts and Jewish learning. Rabbi Berkowitz resides with his wife, Rabbi Miriam Berkowitz, and 3 children in the Arnona neighborhood of Jerusalem. He can be reached at email@example.com.