Chancellor Schwartz Shares Her Thoughts on Israel

Each morning during our Shaharit morning prayers, we read Psalm 30, which includes the verse:  

הָפַ֣כְתָּ מִסְפְּדִי֮ לְמָח֢וֹל לִ֥֫י פִּתַּ֥חְתָּ שַׂקִּ֑י וַֽתְּאַזְּרֵ֥נִי שִׂמְחָֽה׃  

“You turned my mourning into dancing, you changed my sackcloth into robes of joy.”   

These words kept reverberating in my head as we learned of the unfolding massacre and kidnapping of countless Israelis by Hamas on the holiday of Shemini Atzeret / Simhat Torah. For at that moment, the precise opposite was unfolding in real time – revelers dancing through the night at a music festival celebrating “friends, love and infinite freedom” became the site of terror, death, and unbounded grief; while in other communities, the joy of Simhat Torah evaporated into sackcloth.   

And here we were, thousands of miles away, worrying about loved ones, friends, colleagues, and Israel’s future. I looked at the special pile of items I was joyfully adding to in daily anticipation of my upcoming trip to Israel, excited to represent JTS at the official opening of the National Library of Israel (NLI), where I would also be visiting my children and grandchildren who made aliyah a mere seven weeks ago. They were anticipating their first Simhat Torah in Israel, when they were awakened by a siren, then rockets, as they hurried to their safe room. Today, my eight-year-old granddaughter completed a special school assignment: “Draw how you are feeling.” What did she share? A self-portrait: a tear-faced girl surrounded by a rocket, a tank, and a blaring siren; above her head the word עצוב “sad.”   

Hamas murdered or captured Jews from across the spectrum: political views, religious views, left or right leaning, gender, age—none of it mattered.   

Horrific moments like these have been all too frequent in the Jewish experience over the millennia. They take on an added layer of tragedy when the Jewish targets are living in the land of Israel. A Midrash from the Mekhilta DeRabbi Yishmael speaks of God’s promise of kindness: לאוהבי ולשומרי מצותי “To those I love and those who keep my mitzvot” (Exodus 20:6). 

Several interpretations are offered of what kind of people merit this special kindness. According to Rabbi Natan, this refers to all who live as Jews in the Land of Israel. Rabbi Natan explains (I am paraphrasing his views in light of the current situation):  

Ask a Jew in the Land of Israel why she may be murdered tomorrow, and she will tell you, “For no more than living here as a Jew.” Ask a Jew why he may die in an explosion, and he will tell you, “For nothing more than educating my children in our sacred texts.” Ask Jews why they may be kidnapped and taken hostage, and they will tell you, “For nothing more than rejoicing on a Jewish festival.” In other words, those who merited this kindness to the thousandth generation, according to Rabbi Natan, were Jews who were otherwise “unremarkable,”: and who did “unremarkable” things, except for the fact that they chose to do those “unremarkable” things—to live as Jews—in the land of Israel.    

As it was in the second century—when Emperor Hadrian severely persecuted Jews who sought to live as Jews in the land of Israel—so it is today. From the Holy One we learn that Jews living in the land of Israel—not only our loved ones, friends, teachers, and those who agree with our religious views or politics—need a special measure of love and kindness. I also think of the warm embrace I want to share with our JTS alumni living in Israel right now.

And now they all need this love more than ever. 

How might we show that love and kindness?   

  • Pray for the return of hostages, the safety of the Israel Defense Forces, the healing of those wounded in body and soul, and the comfort of those grieving loved ones.  
  • Show your support of JTS alumni living and working in Israel.
  • Pay special attention to the needs of those closest to us—students, family, alumni, and Masorti communities.  
  • Express our closeness and concern to those in our orbits, especially JTS students studying in Israel this year, so they know they are not alone.
  • Pray for the welfare of Israel and for the nearly superhuman strength and wisdom that this terrible hour necessitates in its leaders.   
  • Give tzedakah: UJA Federation of NY Israel Emergency Fund and Magen David Adom.
  • And above all, resist succumbing to despair; continue to hold fast to the belief that a better future is possible, even if we do not yet see the path.    

I won’t be traveling to Israel this week. Understandably, the NLI is postponing its opening events, and I won’t get to hug my children and grandchildren. May we and the inhabitants of the State of Israel live to see the day when mourning will again turn into dancing, sackcloth into robes of joy.