My friend Gloria took me to lunch on my birthday. When I told her I had just booked a Ramah Service and Solidarity Mission to Israel, within an hour, she had registered and booked her tickets to join me. Though each of us had visited Israel many times, for extended periods, we knew that Israel had been fundamentally changed by the trauma of 10/7. We weren’t quite sure what to expect. As a psychotherapist, I was hoping to see how an entire country copes with both collective and individual traumas, traumas that are continual, ongoing.
The experience proved to be intensely powerful – and painful. What we saw and heard was heartbreaking, overwhelming, horrifying, tragic, and impossible to absorb totally. I was confronted with the most monstrous sides of human behaviour in a way I knew only intellectually, from the history of the Shoah. Now I felt it at a deep, visceral level because I saw the places that still bear the fresh signs of the carnage, and I spoke with victims and survivors. That awareness is something I wish never to have felt. It batters the spirit and pulls one down into hopelessness, anger and despair. It is easy to become numb in order to maintain balance – and sanity.
At the same time, in almost equal measure of intensity, we saw and felt the indomitable soul of the Jewish people in action, in ways both large and small. Pain doesn’t just belong to the individual – it is collectively felt and shared. There was an overwhelming sense of unity, purpose, shared experience, compassion, kindness, and appreciation. Those positive feelings didn’t relieve the pain, but existed beside it, making it a bit easier to tolerate. By noticing the positive, the negative becomes a little more bearable, providing some relief by temporarily distracting from the pain.
One of the questions I was asked several times by Israelis was, “lamah bat bi-zman milchamah?” Why did you come during war time? Religious Israelis know that Jews the world over pray to return to Jerusalem, feel the connection to Israel, so they understood why diaspora Jews would visit during war time. However, many hiloni (secular) Israelis who do not have strong ties to Diaspora Jewry, as some do through Federations or other organizations, couldn’t quite understand what motivated us to come and do what we could to bear witness and to help. They see themselves as Israelis first, who happen to be Jewish, and they see diaspora Jews as belonging to their nationality first. I explained that when my parents were sick in Toronto and I was in Detroit, I felt better when I visited, even though it changed nothing practical about their situation. So, if my People were suffering, I had to be with them – as much for me as for them. That did help them understand the level of solidarity we felt, the feeling that motivated our visit. We are united by our Judaism, no matter where we live. That sense of Peoplehood is uplifting. The expression, B’yachad Nenatze’ach, Together We Will Triumph, now seen on signs everywhere in Israel, is not just a slogan, but expresses a profound sense of unity that is inspiring.
I never expected the level of gratitude so many Israelis expressed the support they felt by our simply showing up. At a spa converted into a respite for soldiers resting for a few hours away from combat, we prepared a BBQ dinner. It felt rather ridiculous being thanked by them; we had come to demonstrate our appreciation for them! Their thanks were so heartfelt and sincere. They said it made life a bit easier. How little it took from us to make a difference to them. When a farmer told us how he appreciated our work picking lemons and how he could now make a sale to a hotel, I felt gratified. I had no illusions that what we did could make a big difference to the country as a whole, but it did make a particular difference to the farmer. Every small effort seemed to really help.
Israelis do seem to recognize that one’s own worries can be overwhelming and make one feel hopeless, but that helping others gives one a reason to persevere. Whether they intuitively or consciously understand that is irrelevant. They just know it. At a Chabad facility that daily makes 2000 sandwiches for soldiers and school children, with four different fillings, I was paired with an older woman who comes four to five times a week to volunteer. And that is even though she helps out daily with her grandchildren because four of her sons and her son-in-law were called up to miluim. She said being busy makes her feel she is doing something practical to help and keeps the worry more manageable. Staying engaged in helping others is an antidote to obsessive worry and feelings of helplessness.
Israelis certainly didn’t sit passively by. They either noticed a need and sought to meet it, or imagined what might be helpful and created it. Some soldiers have decided they would like to wear tzitzit, which the army was not equipped to provide. (“There are no atheists in foxholes!”) A man who runs a volunteer organization pairing companies with people or places that need particular help, set up a clinic to teach people how to make tzitzit. Regular locals and visitors from abroad volunteer there to make them for the army. The organizer doesn’t only fill a current need. He pairs up people in his volunteer organization to work together who might otherwise not know each other, religious and non-religious, those on opposite sides of the political divide. His hope is that after the war, it will help keep that feeling of affiliation, reducing the sense of otherness. He is thinking beyond the immediate needs, about how he can promote good will. Another man, whose family was expelled from Iraq, and who has his own rags to riches story, recalled that when he was released from the army, all he wanted was fresh toiletries. At his own expense, he has volunteers assembling toiletry kits to give to soldiers when they are released. Included in these kits are letters of appreciation from students to the soldiers. The concern is not only for Jews, but for all Israeli citizens. In Rahat, we met Bedouin women who told us how 10/7 has impacted their community. We packed food boxes to help those who live there below the margins. Taking care was taking charge.
So many Israelis express feelings and ideas through astonishing creativity. Rather than retreating and internalizing, they express through the arts. There are songs which express both pain and hope. The Shabbat table at Hostage Square expresses the pain of those who are missing from their families’ tables. The Exposition which recreated the space of the Nova Rave, captured the desire of the participants for love and peace, and captured the horror of the massacres, rapes and mutilation which ensued. Tal, the young woman who was both an organizer and survivor of the rave, spoke passionately of not only what she experienced, and the pain of the murder of her friends, but also of the love her community stands, for and their commitment to dance again. Though humor is not usually associated with trauma, Israelis find a very Jewish way of using dark humor to underscore their experience. We laughed and then we sighed. Both emotions are true.
At Har Herzl, just reading the inscriptions and seeing the photos and memorabilia on each grave made palpable the love families had for their fallen soldiers. While there, four soldiers –strong young men in their prime – came with balloons and beer to the fresh grave of their fallen comrade to celebrate his birthday. Rather than avoiding the pain of loss, they face it head on and find ways to integrate the memory of the fallen into their hearts and lives. The scene was heartbreaking and inspirational all at the same time.
There is a collective wish for the hostages to be returned and for soldiers to be kept safe. And, of course, for stability in the region that would bring the endless cycles of violence to a close. Those desires are expressed in formal prayer-in tefillot for the state of Israel and for the soldiers, and in recitation of Tehillim for the redemption of the hostages. They are also expressed in casual conversation, as people share their hopes that someone’s son will be safe, or that someone’s family member will be returned or that healing take place. It doesn’t really matter whether one believes that prayer affects God’s interventions in life, or is simply a way to help clarify our intentions. It creates a sense of cohesiveness of purpose and a sense of togetherness that mitigates feelings of helplessness.
Under the most painful, stressful circumstances of unyielding threat, anxiety and uncertainty, Israelis model highly effective coping mechanisms and exhibit the best of the human spirit. The lessons are not new, but they are stirring. Showing up for one another, taking care of others, reduces one’s own worries and provides a sense of purpose that gives meaning to the pain and suffering. Don’t sit passively by. See what is needed and how you can make a difference. Creativity allows for expression of feeling that can bypass words or the intellect and enter directly into the heart. Acknowledging reality, though difficult, ultimately leads to more complete healing. Action over passivity reduces helplessness and despair. Prayer, in whatever form, unites us in our hopes. And finding connection, community, and a sense of belonging doesn’t change things, but makes tough situations easier to bear.
Though I came expecting to feel only pain, I left also feeling inspired and awed. What an amazing People and country. Am Yisrael really does Chai!