Chaim Steinmetz

Israel Diary

On July 14th, I went to Israel on mini- solidarity mission with Rabbi Reuben Poupko, to visit several communities and show our support. I wrote about my reasons for going here. Over the past few days, I have been sending short notes to my congregation. I am adding them here for those not on the synagogue e-mail list.

Day 1: The Toll of Terror

The one thing I saw today is the toll terror takes. After getting off the plane, I met Stuart Steinberg and we went to visit Ashkelon. Stewie  just wanted to shop in Ashkelon to give the locals business – he had seen on TV shopkeepers talking about their businesses suffering from the effects of the rocket attacks, and wanted to help support them. Sadly, when we got there, after a series of rocket attacks on the city, most of the stores had already closed, and the city was eerily quiet. The rockets are frightening. While driving to Ashkelon, a siren went off and we had to scramble to stop the car and run for cover; a few seconds later the loud booms of iron dome taking down missiles could be heard. It comes as no surprise to me that all of the noise, and the atmosphere of worry effects everyone, including small children and even cows. Yes, even cows are spooked by rocket attacks. We learned this when we went further south to Kibbutz Saad. We went to visit a newlywed couple, Naomi (Niederhoffer) and Gedalya Frankel. Naomi had grown up in our shul and made Aliyah a few years ago, and just got married last month. Their Kibbutz, sits about two miles from Gaza; in fact a series of TV satellite trucks were parked outside the kibbutz, with reporters sending footage to Sky, Al Jazeera and Chinese TV (one of the Israeli crew for Chinese TV is a distant cousin of a member of our shul…but that’s another story!). In the Kibbutz we learned that most families had decided to vacation up north, to avoid the bombing; and that after a few rockets had fallen nearby, the cows had stopped giving the same amount of milk. We met a group of soldiers in the ambulance corps, who were staying in an empty room on the Kibbutz; sadly, these same soldiers would be called a few minutes later to the scene of the first Israeli death from these rocket attacks. I will hopefully share pictures tomorrow, from most of these places. But I want to add one short thought. While lying face down on the ground during one of the sirens we heard today, I couldn’t help but think how proud I am of this country, which has achieved so much despite all the hatred that surrounds it.

Day 2: More than Hope

There are no tourists and no summer camps. But there are challenges.

This evening, as a CIJA delegate to the World Jewish Congress Mission, I heard about challenges. A commander from the Home Front Command told us about the logistical obstacles in insuring that everyone gets to a shelter in time; Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman spoke of how difficult it is to get other countries to understand that Israel is under attack from a dictatorial and fanatical regime that is intent on destroying Israel. And then there’s the lack of tourists. Hotel lobbies are empty. My friend Lorne said his travel agency normally counted on next week to be their busiest week of the year; now it will be the quietest. And in Beersheva, all of the regular day camps are shut, by order of Home Front Command, in order to ensure that children don’t congregate together and exposed to rockets as a group. Parents are stuck home with their kids, unable to send them to camp. This situation is frankly not normal; how could it be with danger constantly overhead, waiting for the handful of names drawn in this tragic lottery of death. Yet people find a way to make things more normal. At a visit to makeshift trauma center, Tirzah, the director, told us about different techniques they use to help kids get over the trauma of rocket attacks. They teach the children to imitate the siren sound when it goes on, to get a sense of control over the uncertainty. And a genre of “rocket” humor has popped up, with jokes about how the rockets travel all the way to Tel Aviv and even they can’t find a parking spot. Somehow, with humor and determination, people are finding how to make the intolerable tolerable. Yes, despite it all, there’s still hope here. We had the privilege of visiting an Iron Dome unit. (We brought them 40 pizzas for lunch, which made us pretty popular for a few minutes.) These young soldiers in their teens and twenties are in charge of protecting Israel from Hamas’ rocket attacks. And they are doing a really good job of it, having shot down 225 rockets that presented a threat to population, with a remarkable 95+% rate of success. Actually, there’s even more than hope here; there are man made miracles. When we met with Beersheva mayor Ruvik Danilovitch, the talk wasn’t about whether Israel would get past this crisis; the only question was how to create festivals that will raise people’s spirits after the war is finished.  Arie Levy, the Federation CJA’s director in Beersheva, did a masterful job of helping organize our day, and spent the morning with us. He showed us young entrepeneurs, exciting new housing developments, and all of the plans for the future of Beersheva. And then it hit me. In the middle of the desert, a former camel trading post had transformed herself into a bustling metropolis, with budding hi-tech industries and a cutting edge university. And even with rockets overhead, this city was planning more, planning a bigger future. That’s not just hope; that’s a miracle.

Day 3: It All Changed in a Minute

I had a lot to write about an eventful day of visits, and then everything changed. I was talking to friend whose son is in a paratrooper unit at the border with Gaza. The son called us during our conversation, and said “Abba, I need to call you now because I probably won’t get to speak to you before the Shabbat”. So with tears in his eyes, my friend gave his son the traditional Friday night blessing. After he hung up, my friend said this means that something is happening. And now something is happening. Just a few minutes ago Israeli troops, after waiting for ten days, went into Gaza to put an end to Hamas’s attacks; attacks made by rockets and by tunnels, attacks made after an Egyptian brokered ceasefire was rejected by Hamas. And now, despite the hopes and prayers of so many Israelis, the soldiers of the IDF, most of whom are in their teens and twenties, are on their way into the hell of war. The mood is somber; each soldier is somebody’s son and grandson and brother, young boys who deserve to have long and happy lives. Yes, as the leaders of Hamas like to point out, the Israelis love life. They would rather find a 100 different ways to avoid this conflict, but now have no choice. They have to protect this country, from Sderot to Metullah. One cannot live permanently under an Iron Dome. So when my friend gave his son the Friday night blessing, he started to have tears in his eyes, the tears of a loving father; and now, as I leave to go home, I have tears in my eyes too. And I too want to bless our soldiers with the very same ancient blessing: “May the Lord bless and protect you; may the Lord’s face shine upon you; may he be gracious to you, show you his favor, and give you his peace.” When I give my children their blessings tomorrow night, I’ll be thinking of all of our boys out in Gaza too, and blessing all of them at the very same time.


About the Author
Chaim Steinmetz is senior rabbi at Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun in New York City. Rabbi Steinmetz has been a congregational Rabbi for over 20 years, and has previously served pulpits in Montreal, Quebec and Mount Vernon, New York.