Robert Harris
A Rabbi and Professor at Jewish Theological Seminary

לבנות ולהבנות בה:  The Jewish Studies Scholars Solidarity Trip

Our group meeting with our IDF escort in Kfar Azza

Early this month twenty of my fellow Jewish Studies professors and I traveled to Israel on a mission to express our solidarity with colleagues in Israeli universities and other institutions of higher learning.  Acting on an initial call by Professor Steven Fine at Yeshiva University (along with other YU colleagues), which he issued shortly after the Simhat Torah attack on Israel, professors at Hebrew Union College, the Jewish Theological Seminary (my home institution) and other universities quickly joined and made our plans to travel.  As Steve put it to me, “We just have to go to Israel, and bring as many colleagues as we can.”  Simply put, albeit a bit more complicated to put together in such a short period of time.  But we succeeded, and hopefully we brought a little ray of sunshine to our Israeli friends; we certainly took more than a little ray away with us.

While each participant on the trip made individual plans to arrive in Israel and depart after our trip, we planned an intensive itinerary for the first week of the new year, from Monday evening to Friday morning.  This would give us three full days together.  Each day brought its own memorable experience, and while writing about this trip reminds me of the old adage, “writing about music is like dancing about architecture,” I will endeavor to call attention to a few of the highlights.

Tuesday, January 2 found us heading south from our base in Jerusalem, and we made stops at two regional schools, Achva College, just east of Ashkelon in the Western Negev, and Sapir College, in war-torn Sederot:  the town was attacked on October 7th and, along with kibbutzim and towns all across the western Negev and “Otef Azza” (as Israelis call the area bordering on the Gaza Strip) had been regularly shelled by Hamas over these past many years.   We were most impressed with the professors we met, and the academic programs taking place at those two institutions.  In particular, we learned how — despite being on the front lines of a brutal war — both schools continue to plan programs that are meant to bring Jews and Bedouins together on the campus (as Jews and Arabs together populate all of the institutions of higher learning in Israel) for purposes both of study and of fellowship.

Afterwards we continued on to Kfar Azza, which was brutally attacked and absolutely devastated in the Hamas attack of October 7, and visited there under military escort. Walking through one street of completely destroyed homes, each of which represented many murdered souls, we arrived at the western edge of the town, and faced a battle scene in Gaza, at a distance of but a few football fields. We stood in solemn silence, each of us collecting his or her own thoughts.  At one point, I heard the unmistakable sound of artillery fire, and remembered that one of my nephews was serving in an artillery unit on the Gaza front. I hazarded sending him a WhatsApp message, and he responded right away. “Uncle Rob! Our unit is just south of you, come and bring your group and we will lift your spirits!” While for obvious reasons, we could not bring our group to him, I was once again stunned by the generosity of the Israelis we met everywhere we traveled, who were more concerned with our well-being, coming from a country where antisemitism has reared its ugly head, than in worrying about their own fate. And here we thought we were traveling to Israel to show our support to Israel!

On the second day of our trip we met with colleagues at Bar Ilan and Tel Aviv Universities.  Also here we experienced the deep generosity of our Israeli hosts.  At one point, one Israeli colleague expressed thanks to our group for visiting, and employed the metaphor of “filling up their mikvaot”; I found myself responding in kind on behalf of the group, and explained that while they felt sustained by our support, that we, too, felt our “mikvaot being filled” by their kindness and generosity.

In fact, if you had asked any of us the purpose of our trip, before our arrival in Israel, we would likely have given you, as a primary answer, that we were coming to Israel at a time of horrific circumstances to show our support of and identification with the Jewish State.  In short, we were coming to give.  But what we discovered, time and again during our trip, was that the Israeli colleagues with whom we had scheduled meetings, thought that we were coming to receive their support (!), in light of the rise in anti-Jewish hatred and hate-filled acts of demonstration against the State of Israel, particularly on American university campuses.

After our campus visit in Tel Aviv, we spent the rest of the afternoon at Kikar Ha-hatufim, literally “Hostages Square,” where Israelis come to express their identification with those kidnapped and still held in tortuous captivity (as of this writing, it has lasted more than 100 days).  The readers of this essay will surely have seen photos of the long, empty “Shabbat table,” set to keep the hostages in mind and to await their hoped-for return.  Those and other “displays” provided contexts for expressing our identification with precious souls unjustly held in hellish circumstances.  One struck me as particularly moving, and which I had not seen before:  it was a poster like the ones ripped down in cities and campuses across the U.S. by hate-filled people.  However, in the place where a photo of one of the hostages would typically be found, there was a mirror, and so encountering it one faces the reality that that any one of us, too, could have been kidnapped and face the same dire circumstances as those still in captivity.  I stopped there and contemplated it for a good long time.

Our last day began with short visits to the Jerusalem campuses of each of the prominent Jewish academic institutions in the United States; I visited Machon Schechter, near the Israel Museum, with a few of my colleagues, and others went to the HUC campus or met with YU colleagues.  However, most of the day was spent primarily at the National Library in Jerusalem, a stunning new building housing one of the world’s great collections of Judaica, among other treasures.  But the most significant thing we did was not the tour per se, but learning how Library archivists are already busy at work collecting “artifacts” (virtual and actual) that speak to the horrors of October 7th.  We could see the already unbearably high cost of the attack and its aftermath in the Library’s display of photographs of every precious life lost, both among the murdered as well as the soldiers who have fallen in the fighting.  As you know, nearly 1500 Israeli lives have been lost, and the library presents all visitors a large screen with pictures and virtual yahrtzeit candles.  It is beyond heartbreaking.  We concluded our day with a visit to the Antiquities Authority — not to learn, as you might expect, about the presence of ancient Israel in the Land, but to meet with archaeologists who sadly have had to apply their skills at examining ancient bones to help the Israeli government identify the remains of those whose lives were destroyed in the attacks of October 7th, and whose bodies were frequently obliterated by terrorists who abused and burned them almost beyond recognition.  However, the Antiquities scholars have been able to help bring closure to dozens of bereft families.

A secondary purpose of our trip, particularly among the professors on the steering committee who represented the three flagship institutions of American Jewish religious life (YU, HUC and JTS) was to demonstrate that, whatever differences we may express with respect to our approach to Judaism, absolutely nothing divided us in our support of Israel at any time, but particularly at such a time as this.  It was important for us to show the world that no internal discord about Judaism and Jewish life would mar our readiness to show solidarity with the State of Israel.  Moreover, it is our intention that our work in creating this important connection between Israel and the North American Diaspora will be seen. in time to be only a beginning:  we are already at work planning a conference in New York for later in the Spring, at which we hope to host some of the Israeli colleagues who received us in January.

We were urged by our Israeli hosts to continue to bear witness to what we have seen, and all of us on the trip pledged to fulfill this plea to our utmost.  It is my fervent hope that this trip, and future exchanges between Israel and the Jewish communities abroad will be further truth of the old Zionist song, that through the renewal of the Jewish presence in the Land of Israel and, in particular, the creation of the State of Israel, all of world Jewry will be strengthened, לבנות ולהבנות בה, may we merit both to help build the Land and be rebuilt by it.

About the Author
Robert A. Harris is Professor of Bible at The Jewish Theological Seminary, teaching courses in biblical literature and commentary, particularly medieval Jewish biblical exegesis, and is Chair of the Bible Department. Dr. Harris has written several books, and has published many studies in the history of medieval Biblical exegesis in both American and Israeli journals. He also lectures on biblical narrative and Jewish liturgy in congregations and adult education institutes around the country. Dr. Harris has lectured as a visiting professor at universities in Europe and Israel, and has served as a rabbi in several congregations in the United States and Israel.
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