At Home, Running for Cover

Masei By :  Matthew Berkowitz Former Director of Israel Programs, JTS Posted On Jul 25, 2014 / 5774 | Conservative Judaism Israel

Reflections from Israel on the Rabbinical Assembly–Masorti Solidarity Mission to the South, 2014

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 (z”l), Gilad Sha’ar (z”l), and Eyal Yifrach (z”l) were kidnapped, there was a sense of foreboding 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. On July 22, I had the privilege and honor of participating in a trip to the south as part of a solidarity mission organized by the Rabbinical Assembly and the Masorti Movement, chaired by Rabbi Gordon Tucker and Rabbi Aaron Melman. More than 17 colleagues from North America joined about 10 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 Dani, my assistant at The Schocken Institute for Jewish Research. Dani shared the devastating news that the son of an administrative assistant at the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies was killed in Gaza yesterday, and that the funeral was set for 11:00 a.m. this morning at Har Herzl. Yuval Heyman (z”l) is one of the 27 treasures who have been lost on the Israeli side of this devastating conflict. His mother, Zohara, is a kind, gentle soul. With 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, and the unimaginable loss of a child that has become stark reality for them.

Our bus arrived in Ashkelon at Kehilat Netzach Yisrael, where we were welcomed by our 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 that is in place to ensure 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 and see a summer camp program for young children in action. Summer is a time for children to be out in the open, feeling the summer breeze on their faces—but not now for these children. Pent up in an underground shelter, these children and their counselors struggled to maintain a sense of normalcy. Why run a camp in a shelter? Because young children cannot be expected to run for cover within 15 seconds, which is how long it takes for a Qassam rocket launched in Gaza to rain down on Ashkelon. It is far better that these kids be safe and sheltered constantly during their time at camp. The truly inspirational sight in this darkness was watching JTS rabbinical student Amichai Lau-Lavie tell 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 15 minutes, we went back into the sanctuary of the synagogue, then a siren sounded warning us of an impending strike on Ashkelon. We all raced into another sheltered room to await the thud of the rocket landing and the “all clear” to continue our lives.

From Ashkelon, we traveled closer to the border with Gaza, entering what has been ground zero for Qassam launchings: Sderot. We proceeded through the town to the command center of Sderot, passing bus stops along the way that are all fortified with concrete shelters. Once we arrived at the center, we were greeted by the assistant to the mayor, who told us about Sderot’s recent history under siege. Over the past five years, Sderot has grown from a population of 17,000 to 24,000. The miracle of the town is the ability of its leadership and inhabitants to not only maintain a sense of normalcy, but to have actually invested in and developed its infrastructure. However, worse than the fear of rockets landing in Sderot is the profound concern about Hamas tunnels leading into neighborhoods. It is through this maze-like network that Hamas hopes to kidnap and murder Israeli army personnel and civilians. The existential fear was palpable—but, in spite of it all, residents of Sderot persevere. The most powerful moment for us there was a journey to a hesder yeshiva (where 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 and surveillance drones buzzed overhead as all of us wondered what could be next. One of the corners of the roof showcased a menorah made of Qassam rocket shards.

We continued on to Beersheba. Twice, air-raid sirens sounded as we were traveling; both times, the bus stopped and we all dropped to the floor, covering our heads in the event the windows shattered. Thankfully, all was safe within minutes. Our host in Beersheba was our colleague Rabbi Mauricio Balter, rabbi of Kehilat Eshel Avraham. Mauricio greeted us warmly and led us into a meeting with Beersheba’s Deputy Mayor Tal El-Al, who 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 a visit with Rabbi Jonathan Sadoff in Omer, about 20 minutes from Beersheba.

Over the past month, arguably the most difficult period since my family made aliyah six years ago, I have wrestled with the question of how to 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, either in the Diaspora or Israel, can take for granted. For 2,000 years, Jews 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, witness our girls identifying the flora and fauna of the Land of Israel with smiles and excitement, see our son playing basketball with his buddies at school, be part of the Jewish calendar and Jewish time in such profound and meaningful ways, and deepen the roots of JTS rabbinical and cantorial students in 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. ‘Am Yisra’el Chai—the people of Israel lives. May the coming days and weeks bring peace to Israel and to all.