I was eager to book my flight from New York to Tel Aviv. Miriam and I hadn’t seen our son Elijah since he left in mid-August to study in seminary in Jerusalem’s Old City. WhatsApp video is no substitute for being physically present with a loved one. The war had preempted other planned trips to the Holy Land. So when he said he really wanted to see us soon, I jumped at the chance to make a brief visit, despite my disappointment that I would be traveling solo as my wife, Miriam, and Elijah’s siblings, Judah and Zoe, would be unable to make the trek with me.
I had been in a fog for the first few days after the Simchat Torah massacre. Every computer screen I viewed contained painful reminders of events taking place in Israel. Miriam and I were (and continue to be) flooded with information surrounding the horrific events in our ancestral homeland, whether in the form of emails, social media, television, news sites or conversations with friends or family. This all-consuming flow of information and dialogue made me think I understood the general sentiment and emotional state of Jews living in Israel.
How wrong I was.
This all-consuming flow of information and dialogue made me think I understood the general sentiment and emotional state of Jews living in Israel. How wrong I was.
Within moments of stepping off the plane, I had the overwhelming sense that I had touched ground in a country suffering agony that I could not fathom while overseas. As I walked down the plaza leading into passport control, I saw a photo of every kidnapped individual tenderly displayed with the now-familiar words, “Bring them Home.” Tears welled inside me.
I cruised through passport control, a symptom of the lack of visitors to Israel and flight cancelations by almost every major airline other than El Al, and made my way to my hotel in Jerusalem, which was also housing displaced families from places such as Sderot and Be’eri. After depositing my luggage, I visited an elderly relative nearby who insisted I be sure to pray for the welfare of our people. Then I left for the heart of Jerusalem.
There the communal sorrow of the Jewish people rang out again and again. Block after block after block, I came across photos of Hersh Goldberg-Polin, the young man whose bris I attended roughly two decades ago, when Miriam and I lived in Berkeley, and who is now in the hands of Hamas. I wept.
I made my way into the Old City and down to the Kotel in a daze, too heartbroken to notice the path I was traversing before I arrived at the Wailing Wall.
My children sometimes joke about how seldom they have seen me cry. It is very possible that the last time was roughly 20 months ago, when I stood before the Kotel and shed tears of joy that my children were standing at my side in anticipation of celebrating Pesach and Judah’s bar mitzvah. Now standing in the same spot, I broke down again. Whereas my tears had previously sprung from gratitude and gladness, they were now expressions of grief and beseeching of God. It dawned on me that this is why it is called the Wailing Wall.
Whereas my tears had previously sprung from gratitude and gladness, they were now expressions of grief and beseeching of God. It dawned on me that this is why it is called the Wailing Wall.
As I was sobbing, Elijah called to tell me that his class had ended and he was free to meet. I was jolted back to reality. I’d just been thinking about Hersh, kidnapped from a music festival, and about his parents, my former Berkeley friends Jon and Rachel, who are spending every waking minute of their day seeking their son’s return from captivity. Now my son was calling to meet me.
I walked the steps back to the Jewish Quarter and found him. As I held my eldest son in my arms, tears flowed once again. Thank you, Hashem, I thought, for giving me this gift.
Over Shabbat in Efrat, at the home of my brother and sister-in-law, Jeremy and Aviva, I wondered whether my overwhelming sorrow was me projecting my own sentiment onto the situation.
Perhaps I was reading too much into the fact that Elijah’s seminary had placed the names of his fellow students called into the battle at the seats in which they would otherwise be sitting.
And maybe I was reading too much in noticing that packages for tissues — tissues! — contain a statement in Hebrew: “Together we will overcome.” I wonder how many grieving families have found comfort in the message on this packaging.
I prayed at five different synagogues during the course of my brief stay. Every synagogue recited special psalms and prayers for kidnapped Israelis and the soldiers. Are others as deeply affected by this?
Seated at the Shabbat table on Friday night with my six nieces and nephews gathered around me, the tear duct dam broke yet again. I asked aloud if it was appropriate to share how I was feeling — ambivalent that young children were seeing such an outpouring of grief by an adult. I told them that I felt I had landed in a traumatized country experiencing unfathomable pain, and that there was little I could do to prepare for the horrible, heartrending reality I was experiencing.
As the crying continued, my nieces and nephews were nonplussed. Aviva calmly responded: “It is okay. This was us several weeks ago.” After the kids had gone to bed and Elijah left for his room, Aviva cried with me.
Of course, all overseas Jews are touched by the Simchat Torah massacre in very intimate and highly personal ways. And yet nothing compares to being with our brethren in person and in Israel. Someone remarked to me that she noticed the stereotypically gruff Israeli traveler has been replaced with an Israeli mindset that is more subdued, less loud. There’s a sense that no Israeli knows the personal hell the other might be experiencing and, as a result, Israelis are treating each other with kindness.
I write this for several reasons. First, I do not want to forget what I experienced and I am therefore memorializing it.
Second, I want my children to know that our fate is bound in the fate of the Jewish people and we have a duty to care for and protect each other at all times and under all circumstances.
Finally, a beauty in this breakdown should be that it reminds diaspora and Israeli Jewry to more forcefully unite as a people. Many of us have noticed that, in the wake of this war, protests against the government and fundamental concerns around the separation of judicial and legislative powers have largely ceased. Leaders of elite military units are, in general, no longer refusing to serve in reserve units. This most vicious and heinous attack — which a frightening number of people worldwide refuse to accept even occurred — has reminded us of our shared destiny as a people.
For Jews living in the diaspora, visit Israel now if you can.
Do not come as a traditional tourist. That is not what Israel principally needs right now.
Visit Israel because the country needs your physical, emotional and spiritual help.
Visit friends and relatives. Hug them tight. Play with their children. Cry with them. Demonstrate that you are neither emotionally nor physically distant. If the possibility exists, encourage them to take a “health day”: Go on a hike, enjoy a good meal, read a book or watch a movie.
When my Sabbath-observant brother, Jeremy, drove his car for a 4 a.m. – 6 a.m. communal patrol on Shabbat morning, I might have pushed myself just a little bit to stay awake so that I could welcome him home and tell him I loved him. I know that just the fact of my presence meant a lot to him and the rest of my Israeli family. I received more hugs from my nieces and nephews than I ever could have anticipated. And do not judge if some of those unsolicited hugs were in response to the copious amounts of pizza and ice cream they consumed when Elijah and I took several of them out for dinner and dessert after the conclusion of Shabbat.
For those that do not have immediate family members or friends living in Israel, book a flight and volunteer. It was an unexpected delight to run into my friend Jamie Garelick on Friday morning at Café Aroma in Katamon. She had traveled from Los Angeles the day before to help pick vegetables in the fields. Such volunteerism is no small thing and is desperately needed. My younger nieces and nephews are doing so as well, since the men and women who hold these jobs have been sent to war and produce is going to waste.
If working a field is not for you, then there exists a myriad of other volunteer opportunities. Schools, for example, are not only suffering from lack of administrative support but lack of janitorial personnel. Yes. Even cleaning toilets can become a holy pursuit. No job is too small when you are helping to alleviate the unimaginable pain experienced by your brothers and sisters.
Since the start of the war, the Jewish community has responded fantastically in providing numerous supplies for both soldiers and Israeli citizens.
It is now time for us to show our love and physically be present for each other. Not as tourists but as relatives, friends, and Jews.
Chartered planes no longer need to be filled with supplies. Rather, they need to be filled by us.
And bring them all home now.
Jonathan Stern is President of Beth Jacob Congregation.