A Last-Minute Trip to Israel and the Short Film that Offers Viewers ‘A Proxy Experience’ Post-Oct. 7

It’s not every day that a young Jewish professional visits Israel amid a multi-front war and creates a short film to help his community better connect with the current mood of the Jewish state
April 10, 2024

In the six months that have passed since Oct. 7, countless organized trips and missions to Israel have connected Jews, as well as non-Jews, with the country. What has been rarer is for young Jewish professionals from around the world to carve out time to visit Israel on their own.

In December, Jonathan York, a 32-year-old Los Angeles resident and real estate attorney who currently runs a private investment firm, felt compelled to buy a plane ticket and, only a few days later, travel to Israel. Like other Jews, he wanted to process post-Oct. 7 Israel for himself, and to share his experiences with friends and family back home. 

York is a savant: a Stanford Law graduate, who served as commencement speaker for his Stanford undergraduate ceremony and has worked at two multinational law firms as well as for the U.S. State Department and X/Twitter. But he is also wildly artistic and in the local Jewish community, known for his annual Sukkot installations, which for the last five years he has created at his home and, more recently, in public spaces. 

York, an Iranian-American Jew, has also participated in the Jewish Federation’s New Leaders Project (NLP), on the Stanford Hillel Board of Directors, and as a Maher Fellow for 30 Years After. He is most energized when he uses his creativity “as a means of Jewish communal gathering and reflection,” he told the Journal. 

When York arrived in Israel on Dec. 20, he had not considered making a film. Eventually, however, after capturing 18 hours of video on his phone, and recording another six-and-a-half hours of his own reflections on camera, he heeded the suggestion of a friend and “chipped away” at the 24-and-a-half hours to make a 30-minute film called “Al Tira: Diary From a Nation at War” (“Al Tira” means “Do Not Fear” in Hebrew). York will present the film’s Los Angeles premiere at Sephardic Temple on April 16 at 7:30 p.m.

York is covering the costs of the screening and venue, so that “100% of the ticket proceeds go towards causes that are highlighted in the film,” he said. He also plans to direct additional funds he raises through this film to those causes.

For three weeks, York traveled around Israel largely by himself, visiting “Hostage Square” in Tel Aviv, Sheba Tel-Hashomer Medical Center, and the headquarters of ZAKA, Israel’s search-and-rescue organization. Unlike most visitors, York was also able to access sites such as the ruins of Kibbutz Kfar Aza and Kibbutz Be’eri, admitting that “this all had to be arranged and coordinated with the IDF — I reached out to everyone I ever met basically to make this happen,” as well as the site of the NOVA Festival in Re’im. Though the film tackles difficult subjects, it does not contain graphic content.

It’s not every day that a young Jewish professional visits Israel amid a multi-front war and creates a short film to help his community better connect with the current mood of the Jewish state. I asked York a few questions about what motivated him to spend three weeks capturing the pulse of Israel, as well as what he took away from his visit. 

Jewish Journal: Do you remember the exact moment you learned the initial news on Oct. 7th? 

Jonathan York: I have a subscription to Channel 12, the main broadcast channel in Israel, at home. I had the news on for two weeks straight, including in bed, in the shower, and in the car. I never turned it off. The irony is that I became fluent in Hebrew largely by listening to the nightly broadcast on Channel 12 for the last nine years or so.

When I went to bed on Oct. 7, the death toll was at 250. By the time we woke up in L.A. the next day, the death toll was at 1,200+. It broke me. That morning, I hung an Israeli flag on my sukkah, which was on display in front of Sephardic Temple. A couple of days later, the sukkah was vandalized.

JJ: Like many young Jewish professionals, you have an active work and social life here in L.A. Why did you decide to visit Israel in December?

JY: The truth is I wanted to go from the first day the news broke. My heart was pulling me there, and I felt weirdly distant from a place and people I also felt so close to. One Erev Shabbat in mid-December, I broke down at a news report about one of the hostage families. A few days later, I was on an El Al plane.

JJ: Were there one or two visits, sights or experiences that truly stood out for you?

JY:  This trip was full of experiences I never anticipated, in dizzying proximity. I was at a fundraiser on New Year’s Eve in Jaffa. At midnight, just a few seconds after the countdown, Hamas fired a massive barrage of hundreds of rockets at Tel Aviv and many locations in Israel. We still had champagne glasses in hand as we ran to the bunker underground.

Twelve hours later, I attended the funeral of a soldier, Constantin Sushko, whom I read about in the newspaper. It was bothering me that I would hear every day the names of soldiers who made the ultimate sacrifice and I didn’t know anything about them. So that day, I decided I would go to the funeral of this soldier and learn about him from the people who knew him best, in the most tragic way possible.

JJ: Please tell readers more about the film. 

JY: This film is my most personal artwork yet. And it’s not an accident that I subtitled it “Diary.” It is exactly that — my diary from this place I love, at this particularly fraught moment. I wanted it to be a proxy experience for those who can’t go to Israel now or choose not to. It is a very raw and unfiltered look at life in Israel post Oct. 7 — about the thoughts, feelings and conversations of Israelis about the future, the events of that day, and their very identities. The film is structured as a series of vignettes, and the emotional arc of the movie mirrors the arc of my time in the country — lots of ups and downs, sometimes with little notice.

JJ: Is there anything else you want readers to know? 

JY: At many points, I asked myself, “Why am I making this film?” And I realized there were three audiences. I made it first and foremost for myself, to process and understand everything I experienced. I made it for friends, family and strangers with whom I wanted to share the stories, and who I thought might learn something from. And I made it for my future children, who will undoubtedly read about Oct. 7 in their history books and wonder what their dad was doing and thinking and saying during this pivotal moment in Jewish history.

To RSVP to future screenings of “Do Not Fear” or for more information about the film and to watch the trailer, visit altirafilm.com

Tabby Refael is an award-winning writer, speaker and weekly columnist for The Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles. Follow her on X and Instagram @TabbyRefael

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