Elizabeth Soclof

Just Three Words

Kfar Aza on December 27, 2023. (courtesy)

It is very rare that I am at a loss for words. As a courtroom lawyer, I rely on my ability to find words for a living. And yet, I have been struggling to find adequate words to share about the Israel Mission that I just returned from.

The only other time in my life where I experienced a similar phenomenon was upon my return from the trip to Poland that I went on when I was 18 years old. In the weeks following that trip, I told my family and friends that I would be ready to tell them all about my trip “soon” – after I had time to process what I had seen and heard for myself. But that time never came and I don’t think it ever will. How can one ever feel “ready” to speak about such things? The same is just as true, if not more true, with regard to the everlasting impact that the Israel Mission with Chabad Young Professionals of the Upper East Side has had on me. However, after this trip one thing is more clear than ever: it is of the utmost importance that we share, even if we do not feel ready.  So, while I do not have the words, I will try.

The eerie parallels between a Holocaust education Poland trip and our Israel Mission do not end with the profound effect that they each had on me. At various points during the week, many of us on the trip who had previously been on a Poland trip couldn’t help but notice that the atrocities we were bearing witness to from the October 7th massacre could really only be compared to the kind of horrors you see and hear about while visiting Holocaust concentration camps and the once-thriving Jewish towns of Europe. I remarked, more than once, that certain parts of our trip felt just like being in Poland, only here you could still smell the death.

As the granddaughter of two Holocaust survivors, in my worst nightmares I could not fathom that in their lifetimes (or optimistically, in my own) comparisons to the atrocities of the Holocaust and the Nazis would be warranted. I was always defensive when I heard people flippantly refer to someone as a Nazi or compare something to the Holocaust. Unfortunately, that is the painful reality of what happened in Israel on October 7th.

Standing in the cement bomb shelter on the side of a road in Southern Israel where over 25 people were murdered simply for the crime of being born Jewish felt uncomfortably similar to standing in the gas chambers of Poland’s concentration camps. In each place, our group sang and cried and mourned the lives barbarically taken in that place.

Hearing the stories of families who were tortured to death while we stood in the skeletal remains of their burnt homes and devastated communities in Kibbutz Be’eri and Kfar Aza reminded me of standing in the Warsaw Ghetto where so many Jews once lived and thrived before being slaughtered for no reason other than the fact that they were Jews.

It goes without saying that there are also endless differences between the Holocaust and October 7th. Some of the obvious ones being the magnitude and scale, the length of time that it occurred for, how soon after the brutality we were able to bear witness, and our ability to respond. One of the most significant differences struck me while we were standing in Kfar Aza, a once idyllic and peaceful town, now a collection of rubble and ashes and dust. Yossi Landau from Zaka was describing some of the most gut-wrenching scenes that he and his team encountered in the aftermath of October 7th and how they reacted in those moments. The fact that the horrors of October 7th happened in our homeland means that the holy victims were treated with the utmost respect that they deserved and in accordance with Jewish law and tradition. It means that it was our own people on the scene in the immediate aftermath of that day. It is why a group of young professionals from New York City were able to visit these places – to bear witness and pay our respects – so soon after it actually happened. And it is also why we – anyone that can – must do so.

The other major difference between a Poland trip and this Israel Mission that struck me is the tremendous and somewhat shocking amount of strength and positivity that is on display in Israel right now. When you visit Poland on a Holocaust education trip, there is really only heaviness and darkness. It is scene after scene and story after story of death and destruction. Of course, the Jewish people rose from the ashes and triumphed over that evil. My own existence is a testament to that. But you don’t actually see or feel that light while in Poland. For that, you end your Poland trip at the Kotel in Israel (or if not, I would imagine you at least speak about Israel).

In contrast, right now in Israel, it is all happening simultaneously. At the same time and in the same place. There is sadness and heaviness and hope and light all around you all the time. In one day – or even one moment – you can experience all of these things at once. We visited places that should have been all sorrow and darkness and in some ways they were. But there was also a tangible and inspiring resilience and positivity in these places – army bases, hospitals, Kikar Hachatufim (Hostage Square), homes of families who lost loved ones on October 7th or whose loved ones are on the front lines in Gaza. And yet, the people we met in these places were uplifting us; giving us strength and encouragement and thanks.

I went on this Israel Mission to show my support for my Jewish brothers and sisters in Israel and to help in any way that I could. Somehow, I left Israel feeling like I was the one being supported by our amazing people. Leaving Israel is always difficult and that was amplified after a trip like this. But one thing that is abundantly clear from almost every conversation I had over the week of the trip is that we – Jews all over the world – have a part to play during this time.

Towards the end of the trip as our group arrived to serve dinner to the soldiers on an IDF base right outside of Chevron, their commander told us this: “Our mission here in Israel and in the army is to destroy our enemy and win. Your mission when you go back to America is to be proud Jews. And if you do your mission properly, it gives us the strength to do ours properly.” Right now, this feels like the easiest task in the world because I have never been more proud to be a Jew.

So, while there certainly are no words to describe a week like this, three words ring truer than ever: Am Yisrael Chai.

About the Author
Elizabeth Soclof grew up in Cleveland, Ohio and is an attorney living and working in New York City.
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