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Transforming Pain into Purpose in Israel

I’ve had the honor of leading many trips to Israel over the years, but my most recent one felt like my first.
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June 19, 2024
Photo courtesy Saul Blinkoff

I’ve had the honor of leading many trips to Israel over the years, but my most recent one felt like my first.

October 7, for better or worse, compelled me to look at the country anew. During my six-day journey of leading a cohort of mostly husbands and fathers through evacuated kibbutzim, meetings with hostages’ families and harvesting crops in Israeli farms desperate for volunteer workers, the line between trip leader and participant was blurred.

Our six days felt akin to the seven days of mourning Jews practice when a loved one dies. But like a shiva, every day of grief has its purpose and every visit, every meeting, every interaction was intentionally cathartic. However, because this is Israel — a country that is no stranger to loss — moments of intense grief are often intertwined by uplifting hope.

Like a shiva, every day of grief has its purpose and every visit, every meeting, every interaction was intentionally cathartic. However, because this is Israel — a country that is no stranger to loss — moments of intense grief are often intertwined by uplifting hope.

At the Shurah military base, which before October 7 served as the IDF Rabbinate’s headquarters, we witnessed a storage locker of death where soldiers’ bodies can be identified and prepared for burial through DNA, fingerprints and dental records. On that tragic day and long afterwards, truckloads of bodies arrived at this site. Now, even though the stench of death has dissipated over time, the haunting feeling of despair still lingers in the air. When we arrived, a van was ready to leave with another murdered soldier who was on his way to his funeral. A member of our trip whose mother recently passed away stepped up to the soldier and said the mourner’s kaddish for his mother and the fallen young soldier whose life was cut short.

We were then ushered to a room where each body was displayed so their family could say their final goodbyes. Even though we were the only ones in this austere place, we could hear the figurative wails of grief from hundreds of wives, mothers, fathers, children and siblings reverberate off the walls.

And yet, just a moment later we were ushered to a room next door filled with over 400 Torah scrolls. We saw dozens of beautiful pages of holy scripture in this room which houses all the Torah scrolls for the IDF. Even if some were previously defiled and desecrated, we knew that here they would be cherished forever.

Photo courtesy Saul Blinkoff

The juxtaposition of the two rooms as we went from darkness to light, mirrored the themes of our trip. It was clear that you can murder and maim us, but our enemies will never kill our spirit, and our dedication to ensuring the Jewish way of life lives on.

Leaving the base, I shared with our group of 25 men that the people brought to this base died for Judaism. But what are we doing to live for Judaism? What does our Jewish identity mean to us? What kind of Jewish home do we want to create?

These are the important thematic questions we’ve asked our participants to contemplate following this trip with Momentum, an organization that brings Jewish parents from around the world to Israel with the goal of connecting them with Israel, Jewish values and their heritage. I have led six trips to Israel for Momentum over the years and guided over 700 men. And yet, this eye-opening experience was unlike any of the prior journeys. Kicking off on Yom Hazikaron, this seminal trip struck a different tone, where commemoration, reflection and cultivating a resilient spirit was paramount.

This resilience is more necessary than ever as our participants return home to the United States, where many in the Jewish diaspora are under attack. At the end of the trip, each of us has a responsibility to go back home and share what we learned.

As fathers, we are obligated to be responsible — responsible for the health and safety of our spouse, our children, our home and our community. This is even more true of Jewish fathers who are burdened with the responsibility of ensuring that our heritage lives on.

So, while they are in Israel, I tell them to savor the foods, take in the sounds around them, meet as many Israelis as they can, and then, once they return home, share it all with everyone they meet. Every Jew is an ambassador of their people, and this trip has equipped our participants to represent the Jewish people honorably in their communities.

Representing the Jewish people is something I’m acutely aware of in every aspect of my life. Even in my career as an animator and producer where I’ve worked with major studios in Hollywood like Disney, Dreamworks and Netflix, I make sure to infuse my Jewish values in everything I do. I will not work on a story unless I think it reflects those values and have even turned down work as a result. While I understand not everyone can make such a sacrifice, this is a moment where Jews should think carefully about where they can make an impact and how they should dedicate their time in meaningful ways.

There are some Jews in the diaspora who don’t understand the urgency of this priority. It is my hope that members of this trip will reach out to these Jews and their words will serve as a wake-up call that we can be asleep at the wheel no longer.

On this trip, we learned collectively how to transform pain into purpose. On Yom Haatzmaut, we saw Israelis do just that as they channeled all the pain they’ve felt since October 7 into a somber celebration of life. We saw grandmothers and grandchildren dancing together and, as the sun set, we gathered around with Jews from a myriad of backgrounds at the Kotel where we prayed to our one and only God. Together, as men, we wept and were vulnerable. I’m confident all of us have emerged from this experience prouder than ever about who we are as men and as a people.

Now, it’s up to us to show up and tell the world about it.


Saul Blinkoff is a Hollywood producer who works for many high-profile clients including Disney, Dreamworks and Netflix. He is also an inspirational speaker where he shares transformative tools to empower others to live their dreams and is the host of the inspirational podcast “Life of Awesome!”

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