Day 1: Monday, July 21, 2014
I’ve come to Israel again during war. But this time my primary objective is to be with my daughter, Elana, mother of nine children. Her two eldest serve in the IDF: one in an infantry unit operating now on the “front lines” in Gaza, and the other serving on an air force base in Israel itself, working on defense systems.
For years I engaged in countless rallies in support of Israel, calling out: “Blessed are the people of Israel, who have as its army the Israel Defense Forces, the most moral army on the face of the earth.” But now it’s different. I no longer view the army just from a political standpoint; I view it also from a familial standpoint. I am not just an activist concerned about the Jewish people; I am also a father, concerned about his daughter, concerned about his grandchildren defending Israel.
I decided to come on the spur of the moment, considering the anxiety of not going more problematic than recent medical concerns that would have otherwise kept me home. Right now I need to be with my daughter and son-in-law, with my grandchildren, with all of Israel.
I was met at the airport by my dear friend Yossi Shonfeld. One of the most successful businessmen in Israel, Yossi and his heart of gold give and give to all kinds of people in all kinds of ways.
On our way to Elana’s home in Efrat, we stopped at Mt. Herzl to attend the funeral of Ethiopian immigrant Moshe Melako. I did not know Moshe. My sense is that many of the perhaps one thousand people attending didn’t know him either. But knowing him was not the point: he is our brother, our son. He died defending all of Israel, defending Jews throughout the world. He died in the struggle of the free world against terrorism.
As a cohen – a Jewish priest – I’m not permitted close to graves. So I stood in the distance, taking in the black-and-white mix in attendance. I thought of Graenem Berger, the great pioneer of the Ethiopian Jewry movement whose voice was among the first to demand the exodus of Ethiopian Jews to Israel. I always felt that the absorption of Ethiopian Jews into Israel would have finally succeeded when Ethiopian black Jews would freely marry Ashkenazi white Jews, when young Ethiopian women and men join the IDF, ready to defend the Jewish state. In doing just that, Moshe had paid the ultimate price. As has been noted: if there is nothing in life you are ready to die for, then you are not living.
The sobs were palpable as the coffin was carried in. Sofa Landver, Minister of Immigrant Absorption, was the first speaker: “What can one say about a son who will never return home; about a son who will never rise in the morning; about a son who will never again hug his parents?” Moshe’s sister called out to God, “Please, please, let not one more soldier fall.” The sobbing reached a crescendo as Moshe’s father read the kaddish, the memorial prayer, crying out: “May the great peace from above be upon us.” By funeral’s end, Moshe’s mother had fallen to the ground, wailing uncontrollably.
Standing near his grave, members of Moshe’s unit held his shirt, upon which they’d written: TODAH GIBOR YISRAEL (Thank you, hero of Israel). Each man then removed from his uniform the Golani pin he proudly wore, pinning it in turn to Moshe’s shirt.
When we arrived in Efrat that evening we heard over the news how, despite the plea of Moshe’s sister, seven more soldiers had been killed. At this our hearts dropped in prayer for my eldest grandson serving in the infantry in Gaza. Upon hearing the families of the seven had already been notified, we next heard our own sigh of relief. But there would be little relief for those seven families, their lives forever shattered by their loss. Included amongst those families was the soldier Yuval Heiman, who lived just a few blocks from my daughter in Efrat.
A third grandson, entering his senior year of high school, has excelled as an outstanding basketball player. But now, he has changed course as he does early preparations to enter into the army. His hope is to serve in an elite infantry unit. These days, he sits for hours intently watching the 24-hour news about the war in Gaza. I consider his age, his environment, and think of his counterparts in America: great kids, spending their summer as all should – enjoying camp, socializing, playing ball – far from the challenges Israeli teens face. Here in Israel, children become adults quickly, the language of war and defense becoming their second nature. I wonder how they are dealing with the pressures of the present war.
That’s exactly why I’ve come. Not to crowd or be a burden on Elana and the family; rather to be there, to just be there for her and Michael and the children, giving support, perhaps – often – saying nothing. Over the years I’ve learned that just presence can be better than words.
And praying. Praying for the eldest’s safety, for the safety of all of our soldiers.
Day 2: Tuesday, July 22, 2014
Operation Protective Edge has taken its toll. Soldiers have fallen, many have been injured. Rockets are still launched into Israel. Despite all this pressure, the promise of Israel and the beauty of its people shine through.
On Monday night, over 400 Jews from France arrived in Israel on aliya. Many of the émigrés have chosen to live in Ashkelon and Ashdod, cities in the south especially vulnerable to attack from Hamas. When asked by reporters about safety, the French émigrés responded, “Israel is much safer than Paris. Here we have a Jewish army protecting us.”
Israel TV and radio reported the Haifa soccer team’s entreaty asking people to attend the funeral of Sean Carmeli – a Chayal Boded, a lone soldier without family in Israel – who hailed from America and had a special love for Maccabi Haifa. Although the funeral started at close to 11pm, police estimated that 20,000 people showed up. Sean had no personal family in Israel: his family was all of Israel.
This morning, with my daughter Elana, I attended the funeral of Yuval Heyman, who lived in Efrat. It was a heart-wrenching ceremony.
As it turns out, Yuval’s great-grandfather was killed in Israel’s War of Independence in 1948, leaving his son (Yuval’s grandfather) a two-year-old orphan. In tears, Yuval’s grandfather painted a picture of his father greeting Yuval, asking: “Lama miharta lavo – Why have you come so quickly?”
It’s not uncommon in Israel for one family’s losses to span the generations. I recall the funeral of Dagan Wartman, who fell in a previous Gaza war (2009). As Dagan’s casket was carried in, his grandmother fell on the coffin, crying out, “Dagan, give regards to Uncle Eliyahu, who fell in Israel’s War of Independence.”
Yuval’s mother gave a eulogy of tearful hope. Please, please, she said to the throngs in attendance, when you make a shiva visit, don’t stand in the doorway. Come in, let’s embrace and hug, hold each other in the bad times – and one day celebrate fully in the good times.
Elana and I visited my father, who is now ninety-five-and-a half years old. When we grow older, much older, half birthdays are as important as whole ones. I spoke with my father about Yuval’s funeral, as well as Moshe Melako’s funeral the day before. When I shared with him Moshe’s background, coming as he did from a family of Ethiopian émigrés, my father became emotional. He explained: “I’m a long-time religious Zionist. I’ve realized the dream of a strong Israel, but have too often seen the truth of the rabbinic maxim, ‘Zion is acquired through suffering.’”
On our journey back to Efrat, Elana told me many of her friends had been inviting her younger ones to sleepovers. It dawned on her that perhaps they aimed to make this period a bit easier for her, knowing that Elana had not heard from her eldest in Gaza for several days.
There is extraordinary camaraderie and deep friendship amongst Elana’s friends. Each watches out for the other. With sons and daughters in the army, or soon to be in the army, they are in constant communication: visiting each other, giving comfort and support to one another.
The mothers of the military unit Elana’s eldest is in have formed an alliance over the Internet. Though they come from different backgrounds, they are drawn together in concern about the welfare and safety of their sons.
As the day ended, the FAA announced that it was suspending all flights to and from Israel for 36 hours. Such is the depth of the depravity of Hamas. Like the Russian rebels in Ukraine who downed a Malaysian airliner, Hamas would have no compunction doing the same. Targeting airliners makes clear that Hamas is not only the enemy of the Jewish people, but of all people.
The FAA ban is unwarranted. If Israel says Ben Gurion airport is safe, you can depend on it. Israel knows much more about safety considerations here than the FAA. Prohibiting planes from landing here grants a victory to Hamas.
We now know that Hamas has dug an extensive series of tunnels via which they send terrorists into Israel to plunder and kill. The openings of these tunnels are not easy to find; many of them are under mosques and schools. With God’s help we will prevail – but at what price?
It seems that the war will continue for many more days, and the people here are preparing for a long haul.
May all of our soldiers return home safely.
Day 3: Wednesday, July 23, 2014
This morning, Elana and I attended the funeral of Max Steinberg, a Chayal Boded – a lone soldier from America. According to YNET, 30,000 people were there. Far from being a lonely soldier, Max had become the soldier of all Israel.
Moments before the funeral started, an announcement: If a siren is heard, everyone is asked to lie on the ground for ten minutes, at which time we’ll continue the service. Standing shoulder to shoulder, I wondered how we could follow this order. Then I thought of the rabbinic legend that Israel stood shoulder to shoulder in the Temple, and yet there was room for all to bow down before God. Such is the power of pure unity.
Some of the eulogies will forever remain with me. In attending their son’s funeral, Max’s parents had come to Israel for the first time. Right there, as his son was laid in the earth, Max’s father said, It was Max’s choice to join the IDF. If you ask me if I regret his decision to be part of the IDF, my answer is no. One of Max’s brothers quoted the singer Bob Marley, whom Max admired: “Live for yourself, and you will live in vain. Live for others, and you will live again.” A close Israeli friend recalled how he and Max would say goodbye to each other. The Israeli would say, “I love you, bro,” and Max would reply, “Ani ohev otcha achi.” Another friend recalled that Max was inspired by American lone soldier Michael Levin, who was killed in the Lebanon War of 2006. “I’d like to be like him,” Max would say “… but live.”
From the cemetery I was joined by Martin Taub and his son Barak, members of the Bayit community, visiting wounded Israeli soldiers at Hadassah hospital. The soldiers there are considered to be lightly injured, although it seemed to me their injuries would be considered more serious by American standards. Here we were, total strangers – and yet, the soldiers, each of them, seemed genuinely moved that we had come. Our words were simple: “I’m a rabbi from America. I have come to express my solidarity with you. And in the name of my community, bless you with a full healing of the body and soul, and share with you two simple words: thank you.” We embraced soldiers, we embraced parents. In some ways, it’s tougher for the parents than for their sons.
Word had gone out that few people were visiting the family of Moshe Melako – the Ethiopian Jew who had fallen a few days earlier – during the shiva. So next we went to Neve Yaakov, to visit the family mourning in a synagogue. As it turned out, several hundred people had also heard the call. Moshe’s mother seemed in shock; his father sat with his head down. I offered words, inadequate phrases of comfort, and left my contact information with Moshe’s brother. By then the family was surrounded. The real challenge will come after shiva, when far fewer will remain.
As the day ended, former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg arrived in Israel on an ELAL airliner – in defiance of the FAA’s ban on US airlines landing at Ben Gurion Airport. It was Bloomberg’s way of saying, If Israel says it’s safe to land, Israel knows best.
Yes, these are tough times. But it’s precisely now that government officials – including members of congress and governors and mayors – and average citizens should be running to Israel. Being here is a statement of commitment, loyalty, and belief in the Jewish state. And once here, much can be done.
And this is the time for Jews and people of good conscience to gather in the hundreds of thousands in front of the White House to insist that our government support Israel to the hilt; and to tell our brothers and sisters in Israel, You are not alone, we stand with you – Am Yisrael Chai.
“Live for yourself, and you will live in vain. Live for others, and you will live again.”