Every Israeli is a Wounded Soldier

I have just returned from a synagogue mission to Israel. As I see it, every Israeli is a wounded soldier. Some wounds are visible, lost limbs or crutches, but most are not, lurking just beneath the surface and deep in the heart. No one appears to remain unscathed by the heinous atrocities of October 7th, nor by its cruel, lingering aftermath.

I have had the good fortune to visit Israel many times over the years, either to tour or for family/friends’ “smachot,” weddings and Bar Mitzvahs. My two daughters celebrated their B’not Mitzvah in Israel. I understood that this would be a very different trip. The world is different – my head and heart are different too. I was feeling excited, hopeful and apprehensive. As we all know, there never seems to be a good time to visit Israel given the constant threat of being surrounded by enemies. But now is a time of active war and I must confess, I am not the bravest soul. I was proud of myself for pulling up my big-girl panties and going. I felt a compunction to be there, even for a short visit.

Our group departed late Sunday night with 10 duffel bags of supplies. It was my synagogue, Temple Israel of White Plains, and Congregation Beth Shalom of Teaneck, N.J. We were masterfully led by our Rabbis, Annie Tucker and Joel Pitkowsky, respectively. It would be a jam-packed itinerary filled with many important stops thoughtfully planned by Keshet tours and expertly led by Geoff, our guide. Our first stop after landing was Kikar Hachatufim (Hostage Square). It was quite emotional for us as we walked around viewing the many displays and participated in a Masorti prayer circle singing “Lu Yehi” (may it be) on the plaza next to the piano with the large yellow letters spelling out: “You are not alone.” There, a man takes videos of people singing and sends them to the family of one of the hostages.

The following day we started off with a tour of the spanking new, state of the art Magen David Adom blood and milk bank fortified underground to withstand any forms of attack. Such an impressive facility! After, we visited Sheba Hospital where we heard accounts of two of the wounded. One was from a beautiful woman who was trapped with her husband and 1 1/2 year old daughter in their safe room. The terrorists started to set fire to the house forcing the family to flee through smoke and fire, suffering severe burns while fearing they’d be shot outside. Miraculously, they survived. The other was by a young man from Great Neck, N.Y. who had enlisted in the IDF. While on duty in Gaza, one of his fellow soldiers was shot and when he went to rescue him, only to realize he was dead, he was shot in both of his legs. Later that evening, we heard a painful accounting from a resident of Native HaAsara, a moshav down south, that suffered tremendous losses. We listened as our speaker went house by house naming each of the people who had been killed. One such story was of a father who jumped on a grenade to save his children. After the explosion, the terrorists helped themselves to food and drink from the refrigerator as the children looked on helplessly.

Day three would be the hardest yet. We visited the moshav of the previous night’s speaker. Our presenter told us that when he was alerted to the threats on the moshav, his wife pleaded with him to stay with her and their young child. He had to make the awful decision to stay with his family or, as a first responder, to answer the call. He told us he gave his wife a pistol and went to his post. What kinds of impossible choices had to be made on that day?

Our next stop would be, for me, one of the most difficult. We visited Kfar Aza, a kibbutz that was very hard hit, suffering many losses and still missing 5 hostages. The gentle, articulate young man who escorted us told the story that his daughter was at a sleepover with cousins on the kibbutz the morning of the attack. He could not get to her and had to wait many excruciating long hours until thankfully she and the other people, twelve in all, were freed. We staggered through the kibbutz passing house after house that had been decimated, many with the family name plaques still dangling tentatively to the broken remains of the structures. He showed us the promise of trees beginning to blossom with fruits and then, in sharp contrast, we went to the area where the young people lived. Most of the houses were boarded up but one remained open with the request from the grieving mother for visitors to see and to know the unthinkable, in Sivani’s house (z”l). The ceiling was riddled with bullet holes. There were holes in the refrigerator, washing machine and walls. The young woman and her boyfriend who were brutally murdered still had their shoes on a shelf, their spices on the rack. You cannot un-see such things. Our host told us how he and others felt so betrayed by many of the Gazans who had worked on the kibbutz and had given over strategic information which helped the terrorists plan and execute their attack. Yet, despite all of this, he shared his optimistic dream for the kibbutz to be rebuilt and for him and his family to return in time.

We went to the site of the Nova Festival. There is a large montage of faces of the beautiful, young lives snuffed out so cruelly and senselessly. Across the way near Reim a tree has been planted in each victim’s memory. 364 precious people. I was particularly struck by a memorial constructed out of small tin candles shaped into a Magen David star. The word “Yizkor” is spelled out in candles, as well. We are called upon by this commandment to remember, or rather never to forget…yet again. We stopped down the road at the site of the piles and piles of burnt out cars as far as the eye could see, from which bodies were retrieved. Another image one can never un-see. Again, I was struck by the dichotomy between this evidence of sweeping mass killing and each of the poignant individual stories of victims we had been hearing. It was a very overwhelming day.

We headed to Jerusalem, a welcome respite. Our group traveled to Har Hertzl National Military Cemetery to visit the graves of many historic dignitaries and leaders. But the fresh graves of recently buried soldiers were the hardest to see. There were the mementos left, pictures, flowers, bottles of a favorite beer, notes that will never be read, a wedding invitation that cannot be attended. How uplifting it was to arrive later at the Kotel where a ceremony was taking place to install new officers and, of course, to say our prayers and leave our notes.

Our mission concluded with a farewell dinner and reflections from our trip. This was an unforgettable experience with many tears shed, and as difficult as it was, I felt privileged to have gone with this special group of people. I was delighted and relieved to head off to spend Shabbat with my amazing cousins in Tel Aviv. It had been 7 years since my last trip and there were new little family members I hadn’t met. I was treated like royalty and it felt like I was home and no time had lapsed. We went to breakfast by the sea, shopped at the Carmel Market and Nachalat Binyamin and enjoyed a delicious Shabbat dinner with all my family. Who could imagine this was wartime with so much “normalcy?” I met up with American friends who had recently made Aliyah. I see how life can be so sweet and good in Israel. The next day there was a BBQ and I got to see Zev, the patriarch of the family, and enjoy a scotch with him.

I must tell you about Zev and his wife, Rifka, in their mid-90’s. They were proud founders of Kibbutz Magen in 1949, just kilometers away from Gaza. Their kibbutz remained intact on October 7th thanks to a small, mighty and heroic group on security detail that thwarted the terrorists from entering their kibbutz. Zev and Rifka had to be evacuated from Magen and sadly, Rifka passed away a few weeks ago. She was a very humble, kind woman who graciously opened her home to us on our numerous visits. At her funeral, her son elegantly eulogized Rifka (z”l) stating that she came to Israel as a refugee from Eastern Europe only to die as a refugee in her own country. Rifka was buried on her kibbutz. Zev plans to return to the kibbutz which is slowly reopening. This is the sort of resilience Israelis display time and time again.

Before my flight home, my cousins took me to two demonstrations. One was at Hostage Square which was a quiet, sober event. The other, just across the street, was a much louder, raucous anti-government/anti-Bibi protest which had stopped for a few months after the war began but has been resurrected. I met a few of my cousins’ friends and one lady thanked me for coming to Israel. She then pointedly challenged me: “So you came, now what will you do with this?” I will do what we are all trying to do – to support Israel any way we can, by donating, volunteering, marching, attending rallies, making sure the best politicians are in place, educating our children and by speaking out. If you can go to Israel, GO. I promise you will not be disappointed and that you will be moved beyond measure.

I was in Israel with my young daughter shortly after Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination in 1995. We had gone for a cousin’s Bar Mitzvah. At that time there was a pall over the country, a quiet somberness much like now. Israel is at a hinge point. Every person we spoke with has a strong opinion on what should be done but no one has a crystal ball. Israelis remain a proud, strong, smart, loving, opinionated people. The people we met who must repeatedly retell their devastating stories have me marveling, from where do they draw their strength, their grace? I remain convinced that there must be a unique X-factor, perhaps a special chromosome, that makes Israelis so resilient. I also understand that “ein brerah” (there is no other option). May the memories of all those souls lost be for a blessing. I pray for the continued hizzuk, strength, for our Israeli friends and family as they continue to “soldier on.” Am Israel Chai.

About the Author
I am a first grade teacher at a Modern Orthodox Day School in Westchester. I have been a long-standing member of a conservative synagogue in Westchester and am a newly minted Rebbetzin for a conservative synagogue in NYC.
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