Everyone who has ever visited has a million “only in Israel” experiences. They are usually some combination of bumping into someone not seen in years, a mistranslation that leads to a comical outcome, or some deeply held local cultural custom or norm that can only be appreciated by an Israeli — and that befuddles or completely offends the foreigner.
Being in Israel during wartime has opened up wholly new and different “only in Israel” stories.
For one, although I have visited Israel over the years when it has come under attack, this is the first time I have ever been there during a full-fledged war. As deeply sad and painful as it is, it is also incredibly moving to see families and communities come together to help and support each other during this time of immense tragedy.
I will share a few stories from my time in Israel that you probably won’t read about in the news:
The war broke out during the early morning of Simchat Torah/Saturday/Shabbat. By mid-morning, our cousins, our kids’ friends, and our friends’ kids, were called up for army service. Throughout the day, we heard rumors of infiltrations, murders, and kidnappings. And what we thought we knew – as horrible as it was – was only the tip of the iceberg of the bloodbath that had actually taken place. It was the first time in my life when the truth was far far worse than the rumors we heard all day.
And then came Sunday. We knew we could not return to the United States as planned. And through our sadness, anger, and horror, we joined the Israeli masses, ready and eager to pitch in wherever we possibly could.
We stopped by a local makolet (neighborhood market) to replenish food and household supplies. True to their name, rooted in the Hebrew word “ha-kol” (everything), makolets carry all kinds of merchandise. Except that, like so many other businesses, this one found itself both extremely busy and extremely short-staffed. One older woman worked a cash register with an ever-growing line, some 20 people deep. We saw a teenage girl volunteer to bag groceries. Soon, a number of other people – of all ages – offered to step in as well. The same happened at the local chain supermarket. With only a very limited available workforce, within 48 hours, dozens of high school kids were stocking shelves, while members of the local communities staffed the cheese and deli counters, as well as cash registers.
On that day, and in the days that followed, WhatsApp chats were filled with all kinds of requests for goods and services, for soldiers called up and families in need. Every time a message was received asking for food or towels or toothpaste, the teens in the family home where we were staying jumped into action. This included taking our credit cards to buy out the stores, joining other volunteers to sort out clothing for people who had to be evacuated from the south, and staying up for hours baking cookies for soldiers. By the end of our visit, some soldiers were offering us their packaged snacks, because there was so much food to go around.
Unlike in the United States, where we have seen price gouging out the wazoo during times of crisis, in Israel, even the smallest of businesses have opened their doors and their coffers to support soldiers, evacuated families, and those who are in mourning, at the businesses’ own expense. That is what I witnessed when a good friend opened her coffee shop at odd hours of the day and night to provide soldiers with a safe, clean, quiet space to sit and socialize, while fortifying and comforting them with delicious coffee and baked goods.
For these and so many more reasons, I don’t like to say that I “got stuck” in Israel — in truth, it was a privilege to be there, to witness and play a small part in the extraordinary acts of chesed, kindness, taking place all around.
I have now finally returned to the United States. Even though we were gone for just a few weeks, it feels like many lifetimes have passed. People have stopped by our house to welcome us back. We have been overwhelmed with so many offers and acts of kindness. Everyone wants to know what it feels like to be back. I still have a hard time saying “I’m home.”
Because my body is in the West, but my heart remains in the East.
I was born and raised in Toronto, Canada, and at this point, I have spent roughly half of my life living in American suburbs just outside of Washington, DC. I have traveled across North America and around the world, and visited new and exciting places. And yet, the place where I have always felt that I belonged, the place where I feel safest as a Jewish person – even during these horrific and dangerous times – is in Israel.
Israel is far from a perfect society. I often say that while it can be hard to be in Israel, it’s also hard not to be in Israel. If there is one thing I can say for certain, now more than ever, when it comes to Israel, there is no place I would rather be.