I am sitting on a patch of grass in central Pennsylvania, a mile and a half up a dirt road, in a camp nestled on a lake, surrounded by forests. But I feel like I am in Israel. Distance, geography and proximity no longer seem to matter. A slice of Israeli life has transplanted itself to these woods, to this grass, to these trees and we mourn together, Israelis and Americans, staff members and campers, parents and children, side by side, collectively sharing our pain and our tears. As a Diaspora Jew in mourning I feel a complicated mix of emotions as I find myself in this environment; not quite an insider, but feeling so much on the inside; not quite an outsider, but in many ways feeling like I don’t belong.
As we do every summer, we are gathered for two months of living, learning and teaching together. We share art projects and tennis matches. We learn classic Jewish texts and through hikes, games, overnights in the woods we teach our kids about the history of Israel and its contemporary culture. We sing, we laugh, we play together. And, as we are doing now, we also cry, mourn and grieve together. Israeli natives and immigrants are intricately bound together for a summer of experiences with their American friends and colleagues. For this short period of time we eat the same foods, our children learn the same songs, we pray in the same places. Announcements are in Hebrew, and our days are structured according to central themes related to Zionist thought and Israeli culture. Despite our vastly different personal narratives and the diversity of our normal daily routines, for these moments, as we create our own mini-Israel in Pennsylvania, everything is shared.
There are children and adolescents here who live in the neighborhoods where Gil-ad, Eyal, and Naftali lived, who go to the same schools, who tremp at the same junctions and for whom the reality of this communal loss is a deeply personal one. They are crying side by side with their peers, many of whom never heard of “tremping” before this and who do not quite understand the implications and magnitude of this deep tragedy. Yet, they hold hands, link arms and cry together as they share in the pain that is at once intensely personal and yet also communally shared. My daughter, born and raised in New York City, with grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins living in Israel, is in a bunk with five Israelis and ten Americans. This morning at breakfast, she told me how they sat up late last night on the porch of their bunk sharing their thoughts, feelings and experiences with one another, grappling with questions of war, theology, and the efficacy of their prayers. Processing the collective grief, she remarked “I am so intensely sad, but I am so grateful that I am in camp and I can cry with all of my Israeli friends, together as a community.”
Within this larger community, there are pockets, networks and sub-communities that have formed, allowing for individuals to draw strength from those closest to them.
The senior staff members and administrators are supporting one another here in the United States while their spouses and children mourn without them in Israel.
The educators and psychologists are working together on age appropriate ways to address the tragedy with eight hundred campers, balancing the needs of each individual child with the collective consciousness of the camp.
The Israeli staff members, dozens of whom are between the ages of eighteen and twenty-four, were gathered together as an independent community as they were told of the tragic news. They broke down, they cried, they held each other up. They then took their strength and like a stream of water bursting forth brought it to the different communities in camp that need them most.
Last night, they organized an erev shira, a night of song, where we sat outside on the grass singing and crying together. Amidst burning torches and flickering flames spelling out Am Yisrael Chai and Gil-ad, Eyal, and Naftali, I looked out at the group and marveled at the scene. A young American college student about to spend her gap year abroad in Israel, sat strumming her guitar next to an older Kibbutznik, playing his harmonica, leading the group in song. An American-born photographer now living in the Gush played his guitar alongside three Israeli boys, about to enlist in the army. A New York mother of four offered comfort and wiped away the tears that were streaming down the face of a good friend, thinking of her own boys back home. An Israeli couple, currently on shlichut as emissaries in New York played the violin and flute, while their American students linked arms and sang along. The environment was somewhat surreal. It felt more like I was sitting on a yishuv in the Golan than on a grassy hill in Pennsylvania.
Over the past three weeks we have learned and experienced so much about the power of creating communities. Virtual communities across oceans and borders have come together in ways that have been transformative to us a people. Real communities have mobilized with acts of tefillah and chesed that have inspired and strengthened individuals to an extent we may never even fully know. And here I find myself in a community of people that have transformed a physical space, infusing it with a sense of depth and authenticity that enables outsiders to feel like they can grieve and cry from within.
That sense has permeated our daily routine. The kids feel it. They know it. For a moment they can understand what it must be like to live a very different reality. It informs their values and alters their behavior. Today, as I was processing the events with a group of fourteen year old girls, with whom I learn every day, one girl commented on the bracelet that she wore on her right arm that was distributed to everyone on the first day of camp. “I know I should probably take it off,” she remarked, “since it says v’shavu banim l’gvulam [‘the children shall return to their own borders’] and we can no longer bring them back. I feel guilty leaving it on, but I don’t want to take it off because it reminds me of who we are, how we care for one another and what we are capable of accomplishing.”