Here’s Why I Came to Israel for 56 Hours

I cried tears of joy as my El Al flight touched down at Ben Gurion airport a few weeks ago. It was my first time in Israel in 26 years, and I was coming for a little over two days for a loved one’s wedding. The 26-year hiatus from Israel was certainly not by choice, but for circumstances well beyond my control.

I get many different reactions and questions when I tell people that my husband and I are the parents of 4 boys, 2 of them with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). Then there are even more questions when I tell them that we also both work full time and most of our extended family lives out of state. “What is that like?” they ask. “Hard” is the easiest and most obvious response. However, there are many answers that I would prefer to give including this one: having 2 autistic children means that we can’t take family trips to Israel, not for vacations or bar mitzvahs or more recently, volunteering in the aftermath of October 7th.

A wedding is a perfect reason to take a trip to the Holy Land. When my husband and I were recently invited to one at the beginning of June, I was ready to RSVP “no.” But thanks to some creative planning, the loving support of my husband, and the help of my personal Israel travel guide son, Matan, I somehow planned a 2 ½ day trip, just enough time to spend a Shabbat in Jerusalem, have a day in Tel Aviv to see Hostage Square, celebrate a bride and groom, and return home in time for work Tuesday.

The changes in Israel since I was there last in 1998 are unbelievable. There are now ATMs, new trains, highways, sky scrapers just to name a few. But even more profound are the changes I saw in the Israelis as they wrestle with mourning the hostages and coping with the war while they go about their daily lives. Signs and posters for the hostages plaster the lamp posts and walls everywhere. Graffiti with the now famous refrains of “Bring Them Home Now,” “We Will Triumph,” and “We Will Dance Again” can be seen spray painted on bus stops, sidewalks, and buildings. And the overall atmosphere just feels sadder. At the Kotel, for example, I heard more crying among the prayers than I remember. Store owners and restaurant owners thanked us over and over for coming to Israel at this time. And my conversations with my friends were serious, as we discussed the recent hostage deal from Biden and antisemitism on college campuses.

And yet, at the same time, people are having fun and going about their daily lives. Motzei Shabbat, for example, we caught the end of the weekly protests in Tel Aviv and saw many protesters flood the bars and restaurants with their flags and signs once the march had ended. Early in the morning, the Tel Aviv beaches are filled with swimmers, joggers and sunbathers. But it was Hostage Square, set up right outside of the Tel Aviv Art Museum, that I experienced the perfect metaphor for loss and mourning juxtaposed against the celebration of Am Yisrael.

 Like many of us here in the United States, I have seen pictures of Hostage Square, watched countless videos and live news feeds. But nothing can prepare you for being there in person. Omer Neutra, one of the American hostages, is from Plainview, NY, a member of our synagogue, Midway Jewish Center, and a family friend dating back 20 years from when the boys were in preschool at Shalom Day Care Center. His handsome, smiling face on a very faded “Bring Omer Home Now” poster greeted us at the entryway. There is a clock counting the days, hours, minutes and seconds of captivity, a memorial to the Nova music festival, a permanent Shabbat table created by a local artist, yellow ribbons and more. There is also a piano called “Melodies of Hope” that was donated in honor of a 23 year-old Israeli pianist Alon Ohel and is available for all visitors to play. Matan sat down on the bench and played a Schumann piece (albeit a bit rustily) which added to the emotion of the morning. It is so sad in Hostages Square, but there is also a strong sense of love and support as well. Yet, at the same time, Hostages Square is also a space outside of the popular Tel Aviv Museum of Art where people may casually pass through the square as they make their way to the art exhibits or cafes inside. And when we stepped away from this sacred place, I reentered the hubbub of Tel Aviv life. People continue to dine in outdoor cafes and laugh with friends. Shoppers bargain with shop owners in Shuk HaCarmel and beach lovers play pickup volleyball or windsurf in the Mediterranean Sea. The stark contrast between the tragedy of October 7th, the seemingly neverending hostage crisis, and the liveliness of Tel Aviv, an impressive city with incredible nightlife, bars, restaurants, art and high tech, is baffling as an outsider looking in.

The chatunah (wedding) of our friend Rachel Doretsky to her heart’s desire, Yonatan Diller, on the edge of the Mediterranean Sea, next to the ancient city ruins in Caesarea was the ultimate example of the popular slogan, “We Will Dance Again.” The happiness of the glowing bride and beaming groom, surrounded by family and friends who traveled from near and far to celebrate the couple’s new literal and metaphorical home in Israel, was breathtaking. Quite a few of the young guests had recently made aliyah just like the bride, Rachel, which is a brave and holy act in itself. But it was the young men dressed in the traditional wedding attire of white shirts and navy blue pants, mostly Yonatan’s brothers and army buddies, who moved me beyond words. Some of these friends arrived in uniform, carrying their Uzis, and they talked about requesting a short leave from their army bases and military duty in Gaza in order to come to the wedding. One friend even joked that he was going to be still drunk when he had to return to his army base in the wee hours of the morning. And when they danced to traditional Jewish wedding music and then, later in the evening, to new patriotic pop songs written in the aftermath of October 7th, like Eyal Golan’s “Am Yisrael Chai,” they did so with such jubilation that it felt like Israel had actually triumphed over evil. They are young. They are joyful. They are resilient. And they are all just so beautiful. That evening, Rachel and Yonatan’s love and commitment to each other helped Am Yisrael heal a little bit, one smile, embrace and dance at a time. 

So yes, it is possible to go to Israel for 2.5 days if you sleep on the flight, ignore any signs of jetlag and take advantage of every moment. I hope it isn’t another 26 years before I can return to Israel. May there be peace soon and our hostages returned safely to their families where they belong. Am Yisrael Chai.

About the Author
Erika Marcus is a high school special education teacher specializing in social studies and ELA. She lives with her family in Plainview, New York and is an active member of Midway Jewish Center. Erika is in constant search of a great book or an invitation to play mahjong, canasta and pickleball.
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