Steven Moskowitz

Be Proud To Be Jews

Rabbi Moskowitz delivers get well cards to Baruch Cohen

I returned from Israel a few days ago. I was there on another mission to learn more about the situation and express our solidarity. I will never tire of going to Israel, regardless of the situation. Although beleaguered, Israel will always remain beloved. Although disillusioned with Israel’s political leaders, I will never turn away. I continue to gain inspiration from ordinary Israelis. Let me share three of their stories as we mark six months since October 7th.

Immediately after arriving we traveled to Jerusalem and Israel’s military cemetery, Har Herzl. Given that Jerusalem sits on a mountain the cemetery is not like Arlington’s expansive green lawns with rows and rows of white grave markers.  Instead Har Herzl is terraced. Each terrace is filled with the graves of those who were killed in each of Israel’s particular conflicts. Here is the 1967 Six Day War and there the 1948 War of Independence. We stopped in the section with the graves of those killed in the 1973 Yom Kippur War. We wanted to gain a frame of reference for what we would see next.

We then made our way to the new section with the graves of those killed on October 7th and the war that continues to this day. One section is already filled. Another is also nearly filled. I was struck by the ages inscribed on the graves. Born in 2000. Fell in 2023. Nearly everyone buried here is so young. Look at Israel’s youth. Is this the tragic cost of being a Jew?

We then saw a young man sitting on a plastic chair by a grave, rolling a cigarette.  We ventured toward him. His friend Amichai was wounded on October 7th and died of his wounds several days later. He was 23 years old. Shlomo struggled to talk about his friend. He told us how Amichai always saw the best in others. He was the one everyone could count on which is why he fought so bravely on that terrible day.  Despite being injured, Amichai remained in the battle until he was struck above his eye.

Amichai and Shlomo were long time friends, serving together in the Golani brigade.  They traveled together—to Georgia, the country not the state, he made sure we understood. They liked to hang out and smoke together. Shlomo wanted to speak about his friend, but it was clearly painful. It was in some ways easier for him to describe the details of the battle than what he missed most about his Amichai. “He was a great guy,” he said.

In the distance we heard the chanting of El Maleh Rachamim, “Compassionate God, eternal Spirit of the universe, grant perfect rest in Your sheltering presence…may he rest in peace. And let us say, Amen.” Family members and friends had gathered to mark a yahrtzeit and to remember another soldier killed, this one in the second Lebanon War. Do the years that have passed since 2006 allow them to remember with less trauma? I don’t imagine the pain grows more faint. Then again that war is over. Those battles are no more. They are now of the history books. And yet there is talk about another war with Hezbollah.

My teacher, Yehuda Kurtzer, observed that it is as if the entire Jewish people is in aninut, the period of time between death and burial when the tradition reasons mourners can barely function and so they have only one obligation, to bury their dead. We are still burying our dead. We do not know how this will end or when it will end. There will be more wars and more terraces and too many young people buried in these hills. The mountain’s terraced landscape hides the magnitude of the pain.

The next day we travelled south to Re’im and the site of the Nova festival where some 200 concert goers were murdered, and others taken hostage. Makeshift memorials dot the landscape. There are individual remembrances and large memorials. One is a field of pictures. Each person’s picture is planted on a stake in the ground, surrounded by dry grass and metal flowers. These do not seem to offer even the faintest sense of closure. Everyone is so young.

We learned more about the festival and how its location is only revealed hours before. That is part of its allure. It is an all-day dance party with well known DJ’s such as Man with No Name, at least if you are a follower of Psytrance—psychedelic trance. The early morning hours were supposed to be the highlight of the festival. I want to better understand the music and its appeal. At a roadside bomb shelter where many concert goers lost their lives, we find more memorials to friends. It is now filled with the remains of yahrtzeit candles. Bumper stickers with the names of friends and quotes about what they most loved are slapped on the newly painted shelter. One sticker offers a QR code that sends me to twenty-four-year-old Naor’s playlist called, “Last Dance.”

I spend the bus ride to Tel Aviv looking into Psytrance. Only one festival is held outside of Brazil each year and this past fall that location was Israel. The music seems to have started in Goa India. Israelis want to embrace the world. If only the world would embrace them in return. We met a survivor from the festival who somehow managed to help save twelve others. “It’s all about peace and love,” Noam tells us. He is learning how to tell his October 7th story. Noam keeps saying, “It’s about peace and love” in what now seems like a pleading tone that becomes haunting in its repetition.

I listen to the playlist. It seems to be one track that is over an hour long. There is a rhythmic beat that makes me want to dance. (I admit. That’s not so difficult to make happen.) And then it hits me, and I realize the music’s attraction. They just wanted to dance. Of course they wanted to dance. That’s what we always want to do.  Dance. Dance the hora. Dance Psytrance. That’s what we have always done. Even when others don’t want us to, even where we perhaps should not—in Gaza’s shadow, we dance. There is defiance in our steps.

On the last day we visited Beit Levenstein, the rehabilitation hospital which now cares for many injured soldiers.  We delivered a check from our congregations and get-well cards from our Religious School students.  There we met Baruch.  He lost his leg on October 7th and sat in a wheelchair.  Even though he is retired from the military and 72 years old, he served as the head of Kibbutz Magen’s security team.  As the attack began, he had a sense that this was much larger than a few terrorists infiltrating across the border.  He instructed his team to get all of their equipment and positioned them strategically.  Because of his bravery and foresight, his kibbutz only lost one member, his friend Avi who was a fellow security team member.

He described in vivid detail the scene from that day, including where he was shot, how his heart stopped beating several times and how his friend died by his side in the medivac helicopter.  His family was mistakenly informed that he had died, and his son was called to Hadassah hospital to identify his father.  “This is not my father.  This is Avi,” he said.  Baruch has one more surgery to repair his good leg so that he can walk with the prosthetic.  He spoke of the hours of therapy he must do, both physical and psychological.  He smiled often.  His head remains unbowed.

Even though not religious and a proud secular kibbutznik, when a rabbi offered to bless him, he said no.  “My name is Baruch Cohen.  I am a cohen, a priest.  I have to bless you.”  And so, he Googled the priestly blessing for that first occasion.  Now he regularly offers blessings to others.  He carries a satchel with the blessing’s words inscribed on paper.   When my brother Rabbi Michael Moskowitz requested, he bless our group he gladly obliged.  He donned a kippah and said, “I have to place my hands on someone.”  I was nearest him, so I wrapped my arms around his broad shoulders, and he placed his hands on my head and said, “Yivarechecha Adonai v’yishmarecha.  May the Lord bless you and guard you…”

That blessing could very well last a lifetime.  V’yishmarecha.  Guard you.

He said to the group, “Be proud to be a Jew.”  He continued, “I have heard that some Jews are afraid.  They take down their mezuzahs and hide their stars of David.  Put those mezuzahs back up.  Be proud to be a Jew.”  Although still confined to a wheelchair, he stands taller than we often do.  Ordinary Israelis are indeed extraordinary.

Take a measure of Baruch’s courage and strength.  Hold on to his smile.  Let the music fill your hearts again.  Command your legs to dance.  We must never stop affirming life.  If Baruch can, then we most certainly can.  L’chaim!  Be proud to be a Jew.  Am Yisrael chai!

I will return soon, my beloved Israel.

About the Author
Rabbi Steven Moskowitz is the rabbi of Congregation L'Dor V'Dor, a community serving Long Island's North Shore. He began his rabbinical career in 1991 at the 92nd Street Y in New York. He travels every summer to Jerusalem to learn at the Shalom Hartman Institute where he is a Senior Rabbinic Fellow. Rabbi Moskowitz is married to Rabbi Susie Moskowitz and is the father of Shira and Ari.
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