I have an admission to make. At first I could not make up my mind. Israel is again under attack; to go or not to go?
I have led or participated in dozens of missions to Israel, during all sorts of circumstances. I have been here during the first and second intifadas, The Persian Gulf War, Operation Cast Lead; Operation Pillar of Fire … This time, however, seemed a bit different; the danger more widespread, the potential vulnerability greater. Would we be able to convince a group to go? Would it be responsible to do so? Would we be welcome or would we be an unnecessary burden?
In the end, sitting on the sidelines was not an option, the pain was too excruciating. So, in consultation with others within my community, I announced a synagogue mission; albeit with limited expectations. Five or six hardy souls, I figured, “macho members” from my community who would be willing to visit soldiers near the front. We would make the trip there for a few days to make us feel better, and perhaps accomplish something small.
I should have known better…
No sooner did we announce and publicize the dates of our trip, we were inundated with phone calls from my community and beyond. We partnered with Emunah of America to assist with our travel arrangements and mission planning, and the calls increased even more. Within one day we had 25 participants; within two days we were up to 35; within three, we had to decide whether to order a second bus; by the time we closed registration (to my disappointment, I had to agree that three buses would be too many to control) we were close to 90 signed up.
I should have known better on another count, as well …
There is no more important or stronger statement that Diaspora Jewry can make at a time like this than to pick up and travel to Israel. The global isolation of Israel becomes personal with each of our cancelled trips; with the resulting empty streets and quiet malls. If Israel’s friends won’t support her when she needs us, who will?
From the moment we boarded the plane, almost every person that we met thanked us; from the stewardess on the El Al plane -who knelt next to my seat for five minutes to tell me that she just had to meet the Rabbi who had organized this mission; to the soldiers in the hospital rooms and the members of their families -who were moved beyond measure by the fact that we had journeyed from America to visit them; to the families sitting Shiva for their sons killed in combat-who graciously received us and allowed us to express our support; to the soldiers near the Gaza front- who were shocked by our arrival and visibly moved by our expressions of gratitude and thanks (taking pictures of us to send to their families as we took pictures of them); to the children in the shelters- who, we were told, smiled for the first time in weeks as a result of our visit; to the driver of one of our buses- who was simply moved to tears by the fact we came; the list goes on and on. They thanked us, even though we kept objecting, insisting that we, all Jews across the globe, and the entire free world are in their debt-not the other way around.
But even more, the true impact of this journey hit home when we realized how warped our sense of Israeli reality is when we view it from afar. It’s not just that life here goes on, it’s deeper than that; it is a different life. It’s a life where the war is a constant drumbeat in the background; where the day’s schedule is punctuated by Shiva calls; where everyone is related to someone, or a number of someones, fighting in Gaza at any given moment; where a red alert can sound at any time; where you continue to live your daily life with these realities accompanying you as you go. There is no question of victory or defeat-it’s not really that kind of war. You accept that the soldiers must do their job and you hope that it will be done with minimum cost and maximum benefit. You certainly don’t pay much attention to the global pundits. You know what has to be done and you are united as a nation in the commitment to do it.
And even more, when you are here, you finally know what you can and must do. Simply put, the IDF can use our help. I know this sounds strange. I have often heard this stated in the past, and, to tell the truth, it never made real sense. Can’t the Israeli government, I wondered, properly provide for all its soldiers?
When you are here at a time like this you realize that the burden is enormous. Israel’s army is, after all, a citizen army. The government of this young nation simply cannot cope with the overwhelming requirements of the massive call-ups necessary in a situation like today’s. And it’s not just socks and underwear. It’s headlamps for searching through tunnels, scopes for rifles, silicone knee pads, bulletproof vests and more.
Suddenly, witnessing the scenes around you, you realize that, absent your assistance, some Israeli soldiers will simply go without. And when that realization hits home, when you fully comprehend that one of these smiling, spirited, dedicated young men standing before you, may enter Gaza without a piece of equipment that you could have provided, your visceral reaction is immediate and powerful. That explains why, in unplanned, impromptu appeals on our buses, tens of thousands of dollars were raised in an instant; funds immediately sent to specific army units for specific provisions and equipment; funds that may help save precious lives or even just make the difficult job a bit easier. When you are here, it makes perfect sense.
I wonder now how I could have questioned at all. When your home is in danger, you come home. It’s where you need to be; to feel, to witness, to understand, and, above all, in your own small way, to help.
A version of this post appeared in the Jerusalem Post on August 10, 2014.