A Journey of Solidarity – Part 3

(Part 1)

(Part 2)

Day 4

The West Bank

The next morning we departed for Gush Etzion, a cluster of Israeli communities located in the Judaean Mountains, directly south of Jerusalem and Bethlehem in the West Bank. Just the day before there was a terrorist attack, there so we went with a bit of fear and trepidation.

Once there, we heard from injured heroes from Oct. 7. One of the trip participants asked, “Do you wonder where G-d was during the attacks?” His response was, “You’re asking that question 3,000 years too late. We don’t know why things happen the way they do. One thing I can tell you is that Hashem was with me every step of the way in battle.” He then proceeded to tell us stories of amazing Divine providence that protected him.

Following the presentations, we were organized into small groups, each assigned a child guide and a set of boxes. These packages were intended for the wives of men called into reserved duty. The boxes were labeled “Eshet Chayil,” a phrase often translated as “woman of valor,” but in this context, its literal meaning resonated profoundly, “wife of a soldier.” The contents of these packages, including pampering soaps, salts, chocolates and more aimed to convey our gratitude.

As these packages were presented to the women, many were moved to tears by the heartfelt gesture. In acknowledging their role on the home front, we sought to express our deep appreciation for the sacrifices these women make as their loved ones serve to protect and defend.

We then had the privilege of hearing from two soldiers. A room, once used as a cafeteria, had been transformed into a barracks for reserve soldiers, now filled with rows of cots and lockers. Meeting these soldiers face-to-face offered us a glimpse into their daily lives.

They shared a profoundly impactful statement with us. Their reserve unit, a diverse assembly of individuals from various walks of life—Jews and non-Jews, liberals and conservatives, religious and secular—offered a compelling perspective. Merely weeks ago, these individuals might have found no common ground. The prevailing disunity during discussions on judicial reform would have categorized them as adversaries. However, a transformative shift occurred; they now viewed each other as brothers, bound by an unexpected camaraderie.

Their close quarters and prolonged contact facilitated conversations on deep topics, including those that seem so divisive. To their surprise, they discovered a shared ground that transcended their apparent differences. An astounding 85% of their viewpoints aligned, and the remaining 15% became subjects on which they could peacefully agree to disagree. In a world where politicians seek to create divisions, framing it as “us vs them” and encouraging conflict, the reality is quite different.

The truth is, most of us fall in the middle. And as Jews, we’ve disagreed for most of our history (two Jews, three opinions!) At the same time, we can maintain respect and love for each other, recognizing that our differences contribute to the rich tapestry of perspectives rather than tearing us apart. It was worth traveling across the world just to hear this message.

To show our appreciation, to the reservists we brought Shabbat meals donated by a Denver family. They were beyond thankful for the gesture. It was a small yet meaningful way for us to express our support and gratitude for the sacrifices they make while stationed in the West Bank.

After a brief lunch stop, we hurried back to the hotel to prepare for Shabbat. The Friday night atmosphere at the Western Wall was filled with uplifting singing and dancing that momentarily transported us from the reality of the war. Despite the challenging times, Jews from diverse backgrounds joined together in prayer, creating an atmosphere of unity.

From there, we headed to Aish for dinner, where we had the opportunity to hear several inspiring speakers. Among the guests, all of whom spoke and introduced themselves, were many family members of participants, adding a warm familial touch to the evening.

One noteworthy guest was Yakov, the grandson of Denver’s Rhoda Reiss, who is stationed on the northern border. He wasn’t in Israel on Oct. 7; he was on vacation in the Dominican Republic when he received the call. Without hesitation, he dropped everything and boarded the first available flight to Israel.

Yakov was in an elite unit in the IDF and was now being called into reserve duty. Yakov’s courage and dedication were awe-inspiring as he shared stories of many of his fallen brothers in arms and some of the difficulties they endure.

Yakov reminded us that while the news often focuses on Gaza, the war also unfolds on the northern border.

Day 5

Shabbat Shalom

At this point it feels like we’ve been in Israel for already a month and at the same time everything seems to have flown by so quickly. For the first time since we touched down in Tel Aviv we had a calm quiet day. I chose to wake up early and walk to see some family in a Jerusalem neighborhood not far from the hotel and shared Shabbat lunch with my family, including my grandmother I had barely had a chance to talk with while in Israel.

Our group was honored to have a private audience with Rabbi Berel Wein, the distinguished rabbi, prolific author, eloquent lecturer and renowned historian. One of the participants asked about the state of American Jewry today. Rabbi Wein responded with a joke about an accountant who wanted to steal from his company but instead of taking the cash he ran away with all the accounts payable. Many Americans, he explained, are first realizing that there are liabilities to being Jewish.

The problem is that they see the liabilities but they lack the assets, so it is very confusing. Their books are out of balance. The way I understand his statements is that many Jews are paying the price for being Jewish but don’t enjoy any of the benefits.

Jewish immigrants from Europe arrived in America with a fervent desire to provide their children with everything they themselves didn’t have. They succeeded in blessing their children with education and material abundance. However, they didn’t pass on what they did have — the rich spiritual and cultural heritage.

Shabbat concluded with a musical Havdalah as other hotel guests, including families displaced from the south, joined in singing and dancing.

On Saturday night, some participants went to visit injured soldiers in the hospital. When they asked what they could get or do for them, the only thing that was requested was tztitit. I turned to my cousin Alex, who has been arranging for the tying of hundreds of thousands of pairs of tzitzit. He supplied us with a dozen or so pairs that we brought back to the hospital the next day.

Day 6

Our final day was a solemn one, commencing at Har Herzl, Israel’s military cemetery, where over 25,000 fallen soldiers have been laid to rest.

We learned about a poignant tradition — the annual ceremony held on the anniversary of a soldier’s death. During our visit, we attended the ceremony for a soldier who lost his life in the Yom Kippur War. The IDF undertakes the sacred responsibility of ensuring that no soldier is ever forgotten.

As we walked through the memorial hall, the impact of the sacrifice became tangible. Each soldier was commemorated with a dedicated brick bearing his or her name and the date of death. The sight of numerous new bricks engraved with the date 7.10.2023 was haunting.

The brick roof that adorns the memorial hall is constructed with bricks stacked one atop the other, symbolizing the unity of the Jewish people and the importance of connecting with and relying on each other.

Crafted from the same material as IDF tanks, they echo a profound desire for the realization of the prophecy of digging our weapons into the ground and turning them into instruments of peace.

During our participation in a Sheloshim memorial service for a fallen soldier, we observed the preparations for another funeral. It had just started to drizzle and a soldier walking alongside us casually remarked, “This always happens.” Intrigued, I inquired what she meant. She said that over the past few weeks whenever there was a funeral, it rained. It’s like the heavens themselves are crying with us.

As much as we wanted to stay for the funeral we were already late for a meeting at the Knesset with Speaker Amir Ohana. Later that evening on the way to the airport, I learned that the fallen soldier whose funeral we missed was my childhood friend’s nephew, as well as the cousin of my dear friend and colleague, Rabbi Yonatan Nuszen. I felt terrible being so close and not participating in the funeral or shiva.

At the Knesset we heard a briefing on the current situation from the Speaker who also expressed his gratitude to us for coming during this difficult time. He explained how they have been offering foreign dignitaries from all over the world the opportunity to come and see firsthand the destruction and barbarism and smell the smell of death that is still present weeks later from the October 7 massacre but most countries have not taken him up on the offer.

We departed from the Knesset and returned to Aish for the conclusion of our program. There, we had the opportunity to meet Yael, the aunt of the teenager Ofir Engel, who was abducted on October 7 and is currently still held hostage in Gaza. Yael shared a poignant account of her family’s experience on that fateful day when they learned of Ofir’s kidnapping.

Accompanied by her daughter, Yael expressed gratitude that her daughter couldn’t understand English, shielding her from the distressing details. She revealed that her daughter refused to be separated, fearing the possibility of being kidnapped herself “I’m afraid they are going to kidnap me from my bed, and don’t tell me that it’s all okay and they aren’t going to, because you see it happened to Ofir.” The gravity of the situation and its impact on the family is palpable in Yael’s words. This presentation was followed by a farewell banquet where we were all encouraged to step outside of our comfort zone and do something uncomfortable just as all the heroes we heard from throughout the trip stood up and did what was needed regardless of how it made them feel.

After dinner, the group headed for the airport. I took a detour to Peach Tikva, armed with treats from the renowned marzipan bakery in the shuk, along with chocolates, to visit Omer—an injured soldier who served as an Israeli emissary in Denver in 2019. He was, in fact, back in Colorado training to work in the Breckenridge ski area for the upcoming season when he received the call on October 7. Without hesitation, he boarded the first available plane back to Israel to rejoin his reserve unit.

When I arrived at his room he was no where to be found. I asked a nurse who informed me that he escaped. She clarified that he was just hanging out outside. I finally found the smiling happy Omer. You wouldn’t know that that Omer had just sustained injuries from an RPG (rocket-propelled grenade).

I spent an hour or two with Omer and some of his friends who were also recuperating in the hospital. It turned out to be the most enjoyable time I had experienced in days, if not weeks. The group welcomed me as if I were a long-lost friend, even though, aside from Omer, I had just met everyone that moment. Listening to them joke around and retell their stories from battle was truly something special.

Among his friends present, one of them humorously pointed to his injured arm, jokingly claiming that he took his friend’s bullet. He gestured toward his friend sitting there, and explained that he was shot but the bullet grazed his friend and hit him instead.

Out of the 20 men in Omer’s unit, six were injured and required evacuation. Fortunately, there were no casualties. Two out of the five released soldiers had already bravely returned to the frontlines in Gaza.

Once again, I was deeply moved by Omer’s resilience and gratitude. Despite enduring significant challenges, he expressed heartfelt appreciation for my visit from America. He shared his appreciation with all of our instagram followers back home in Denver for our support, love and prayers.

I returned to the airport with a heavy heart, reluctant to leave my homeland and my people during their moment of distress. Yet, I knew I had responsibilities awaiting me back in Denver coupled with the assurance that I would return soon.

At the airport, I reunited with friends from the trip and met others on similar missions to aid the people of Israel. Sharing stories with individuals who had been on our inbound flight, we exchanged experiences that we knew others wouldn’t fully comprehend without having lived through them.

One of my favorite Rak Ba’Aretz (Only in Israel Moments) occurred at the airport. Thirsty, I went to the store to buy a drink. I grabbed a Coke from the refrigerator and proceeded to pay. Upon reaching the cashier’s desk, I noticed a sign indicating they were closed and would reopen at 5 am. It was close to 2 am, yet nothing was closed or put away—refrigerators open, magazines and snacks laid out. I placed the drink back in the refrigerator, deciding to wait until I was on the plane for my Coke.

It was a quintessential Israeli moment, reflecting a profound trust in their people. They never considered the possibility of theft, with no inclination to lock anything up. Why would I think my brother or sister would steal from me? I even imagined the cash register might be open (although I didn’t check).

This incident reminded me of something Jeremy, the survivor from Kibbutz Alumim, shared on day 3. When asked about concerns regarding looting during the evacuation of communities in the south, he humorously responded, “Looting? This is the one place on earth that when you ask for socks, you get more pairs than you can ever wear.” He referred to the unyielding Israeli spirit that prompts people to show up with ten times what is requested, whether it’s food, toys, or clothing, showcasing a deep love and unity. It was that spirit of unity that drew me to Israel, and it’s what I deeply miss and am committed to bringing back to the States.

About the Author
Rabbi Menachem Lehrfield lives in Denver, Colorado with his wife, Sarah, and their five energetic children. He serves as the Director of the Jewish Outreach Initiative (JOI), a transformative program reshaping the Jewish landscape in Denver. JOI is dedicated to providing authentic Jewish experiences and learning opportunities for individuals from diverse backgrounds in a meaningful and engaging way. Additionally, Rabbi Lehrfield is the Co-director of SITE (the School of Integrative Torah Education), a Hebrew school alternative where Judaism is brought to life in a fun, camp-like atmosphere. He hosts the "Zero Percent” and "Dear Rabbi”podcasts and cohosts the "reConnect" podcast, further broadening his influence and connection with a global audience. Known for his warmth and genuine love for every Jew, Rabbi Lehrfield's approachable demeanor enables him to connect with people across all age groups and backgrounds. As a dynamic and engaging educator, he employs analogies and humor to make complex, profound ideas accessible and relatable to all, from novices to experts. Rabbi Lehrfield earned his M.Ed from Loyola University in Chicago and received two rabbinic ordinations; one from Yeshivas Beis Yisroel in Jerusalem, and another from Rabbi Zalman Nechemia Goldberg, the Chief Justice of the Jerusalem High Court. Beyond his professional pursuits, Rabbi Lehrfield is passionate about photography, baking, rock climbing, and snowboarding. These diverse interests allow him to engage with a broad spectrum of individuals and communities, furthering his mission to make Judaism relevant and meaningful for all Jews. You can follow Rabbi Lehrfield's activities and insights at @JOIdenver on Instagram and Facebook.
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