Life in a war zone: A chance for empathy and compassion

I arrived in Israel on June 30.  Just a week later, life was turned upside down as we searched for answers and for hope.

After concluding a week of vacation in Beer Sheva, Mitzpe Ramon, the Dead Sea and Jerusalem, I joined a mission with 19 rabbis sponsored by the AIPAC Educational Foundation. The mission began at night in the Yemin Moshe neighborhood of Jerusalem with author Yossi Klein Halevi. As we sat down to dinner, the sirens went off in Tel Aviv. 

We had anticipated this wonderful trip for weeks — a unique opportunity for progressive rabbis to further our relationship with Israeli-Arabs, to explore some of the most challenging and vital issues that Israel faces today. In the weeks before the mission, the inspiring and ambitious itinerary morphed in the face of the kidnapping of the three teenage boys, the excruciating day on which their bodies were discovered, the horrific realization that a Palestinian teenager had been burned alive by a Jew. Then the sirens began, first in the south, then in Tel Aviv and in Jerusalem.

Last night, as we stood in the bomb shelter in our hotel, we were in a state of shock. As we emerged, we now felt in our own bodies what Halevi affirmed for us at dinner earlier that evening: Israel is at war. Our mission is no longer possible in its original incarnation. We now stand in solidarity with each other. What do we carry with us now? Where is our hope?

Some of you have heard me speak about Rabbi Tamar Elad Applebaum, the inspiring leader of Tzion, a new spiritual community in Jerusalem. I carry with me what she said to me on the morning of July 7, echoed by Halevi’s words last night:  We must not let this moment pass. Israelis move from one crisis to the next: from the kidnapping, to the loss of the three teens, to the horror that a Jew could burn a teenager alive and now to this quickly escalating war. We cannot lose sight of the moment in which our hearts were cracked open by the murder of these teens on both sides of the conflict. Applebaum reminds us that this is an opportunity for empathy and compassion.

Last week, many of my colleagues attended the funeral of the three Israeli teenagers. Many of my colleagues also went to Shuafat, the Jerusalem neighborhood, to visit the mourning mother of the slain Palestinian teen Muhammad Abu Khdeir.

This is what can come from this cracking open of the heart. For it means that we can see the humanity of each other, we can comfort each other in our pain and loss, and we can reckon with each of our communities in which the lives of teenagers could be taken so brutally. 

There is no place I would rather be right now with our Jewish family and with Israelis now in crisis.  I, along with Bay Area rabbinic colleagues Menachem Creditor of Netivot Shalom in Berkeley, and Jonathan and Beth Singer of Congregation Emanu-El of San Francisco, bring comfort from our synagogue families. And may we all have a place in bringing peace. 

Rabbi Susan Leider served as assistant rabbi and then associate rabbi at Temple Beth Am in Los Angeles; she is now serving as senior rabbi at Congregation Kol Shofar in Tiburon.