Like everything else in Israel, silence and noise co-exist and are inextricably linked. Israelis live each day with sadness and joy, silence and noise. I just got back from an 8-day volunteer mission to Israel. We visited the site of the Nova Festival, now a memorial, and it was eerily quiet—a noisy silence, as Ana, a new friend from the trip, so aptly described it. There was the faint background noise of the mourner’s kaddish and soft crying, and then we heard shelling—boom, boom, boom. The soldiers and Israelis paid no attention. “This is us; these are good booms,” our madrich, the group leader, explained. “When it is a rocket from Gaza, you will hear a different noise.”
The quiet at the festival site is in sharp contrast to the images and sounds before the attack when thousands of young people were enjoying themselves, listening to music, dancing, and dreaming of peace. It is in sharp contrast to the horrific scenes of the terrorists brutally attacking the festival goers. Our group listened to Ron Segev describe his escape from the festival, and although he was fortunate enough to escape without physical injury, he explained to us that he has not slept peacefully since the attack; his trauma is written all over his face and can be heard in his voice.
We visited an orange grove to help the 83-year-old owner, who made Aliyah from Yemen 65 years ago; he has no workers now and relies on volunteers. His grandson, Idan, thanked us for helping. Without workers, it was very quiet. Until we started working. The vast majority of our group was from South America—Argentina, Brazil, Mexico, Uruguay, and Chile, and they brought the party. Although I did not understand everything that they said, I reveled in their much needed and noisy spirit. After we were finished, we broke for cookies, juice, and shots of arak. There was loud singing and dancing in the middle of the orange grove, and it was the best kind of noise, filled with joy and life. “Am Yisrael Jai!!” (“Jai” is the Spanish version of “Chai.”)
That afternoon, I saw a different kind of orange and heard a different type of music. I went to Hostages Square, Kikar Hatufonim, for a commemoration of Kfir Bibas’ 1st birthday, “the saddest birthday in the world.” As a mother, as a Jew, as a HUMAN BEING, this was devastating. There was artwork. There was music. There was a beautiful song written, recorded and released for Kfir’s birthday—“They call me Gingi”. The melody was haunting. After everyone released their orange balloons, it was so quiet. It was not a peaceful silence; it was a heartbreaking silence. There is a tunnel created in Hostages Square to raise awareness of the plight of the hostages. Walking through it, there is a sickening silence.
When I visited Hostages Square after Shabbat, 50,000 people were making their way there to rally support for the hostages and their families. Matisyahu sang for the crowd, followed by a speaker who had the crowd loudly echoing his calls, “Achshav, Achshav, Achshav,” Now, Now, Now. Amidst this, there was a moment of silence for the hostages. 50,000 Israelis—quiet.
We visited Kibbutz Mefalsim, where there are usually over 1000 members. 16 people are there now, taking care of the cows and maintaining the kibbutz. Nir, who spoke to us, was one of the kibbutz members who protected Mefalsim on October 7th. His wife and six children are in Netanya now. Families are afraid to come back, but everyone hopes that the community will once again be buzzing with the sound of children. The night before we got there, the quiet was disturbed by a rocket from Gaza which knocked out the electricity.
We listened to Sapir Cohen, a released hostage, describe her captivity. Her boyfriend, Sasha, is still there. Sasha’s mother, Yelena, who was also taken hostage and whose husband was murdered on October 7, sat next to her silently. Yelena’s anguished face and demeanor spoke volumes.
We visited the Shura IDF Base, where bodies of fallen soldiers are identified and prepared for burial. We prepared a barbecue for the soldiers, and Rabbi Bentzi Mann spoke to us. “You are my therapy,” he told us. “When you come and share the pain, you take some of the burden. While we are happy to have a barbecue, we do not need the food. We need your hugs.” Our usually noisy group sat silent as he spoke. A rabbi whose previous reserve duty consisted of koshering kitchens for Passover one day each year, Mann had been on the base since October 8 in one of the most difficult jobs imaginable. He apologized: “You are so happy now preparing a feast for the soldiers. Now, I am going to make you very sad, and then you are going to have to go be happy again.” And we were happy– singing, dancing, and laughing to bring some joy to the soldiers.
The warehouse of Chasdei Naomi was filled with members of our group, Restart Israel, packing boxes of cold weather clothing and items for Holocaust survivors and soldiers. What we lacked in organization, we made up for with enthusiasm. There was a cacophony of volunteers shouting out needed items and orders. There were a lot of cooks in the kitchen. We learned the meaning of the word, “balagan”—chaos. And there was more singing.
We visited Sheba Medical Center at Tel Hashomer hospital and visited soldiers and civilians rehabilitating; many of them lost limbs on October 7 or during the war. There was more singing. A soldier who was visiting a friend thanked me. I thanked him back, and he told me that we are all united and that Israel is strong. My eyes filled with tears, and he grabbed my hand, and said “Do not be sad; be uplifted. We are united, and we are strong.” I started crying.
The quiet and stillness of Mt. Herzl was interrupted by the sound of fresh graves being dug and the voices of newly bereaved parents. Our usually ebullient group was teary and silent as we filled a room to listen to Rabbi Menachem Kalmanson, who along with his brother, Elchanan, and his nephew, Itiel, drove south and saved over a hundred residents of Kibbutz Be’eri, while it was still overrun by terrorists. For 14 hours, they fought to save people. Menachem and his brother were both shot; Menachem survived, but his brother succumbed to his injuries and died. Choking back tears, Menachem explained that he did not regret his choice. Everything they did was for the people of Israel. One of the women he rescued was very pregnant and after being in a safe room for 18 hours without food and water, she could not feel her baby move. A month and a half ago, Menachem got to hold the baby. “I can’t regret what I did when I hold a baby.” Others were inspired to help because of the Kalmansons’ bravery, and hundreds more were rescued as a result. This is one of Elchanan’s legacies.
We then headed to Jerusalem and the Kotel, the Western Wall. After an emotional visit, our group gathered and in view of the Wall, we formed a circle and sang Hatikvah; the words of Israel’s national anthem sung by Jews from all over the world floated above the sounds of nearby prayers.
The visit to Jerusalem was brief, as we had one last barbecue to prepare for the soldiers on a base in Modi’in, not too far from the West Bank. More listening to stories; more singing, dancing, and laughing.
During my week there, I got to speak to many Israelis, many of whom urged me to make Aliyah. However, many could use a brief reprieve from the continuous trauma. One 18-year-old girl told me of her longing for “quiet.” Israelis are incredibly resolute and resilient; I just wish they did not have to be.
These are only a few of the stories I brought back from Israel. From too many places, Israelis are hearing silence. On social media, they are hearing the wrong kind of noise. Israelis are so grateful for visits from Diaspora Jews. They need to know we care. While financial, agricultural, and every other kind of support is critical, our presence, our hugs, and our voices are what they need most right now.
On the plane home, I sat near two young men who are friends. One had finished his reserve duty in Gaza the previous day, and the other had survived the Nova Festival. They had two new Jewish mothers for the 12-hour trip. They slept the sleep of the exhausted, oblivious to the cries of several babies aboard. I thought of Kfir Bibas and the baby held by Menachem Kalmanson, and I realized that the crying was, in fact, “good noise.” Like everything else in Israel, silence is complicated.