Ron Wolfson

‘Love, Ruhi’ – When War Comes to Israel, Relationships Matter

A friend calls and asks: “How are you processing the feelings of dread circulating in the Jewish community during this challenging time, both in Israel at war and across the diaspora confronting growing antisemitism?” My answer is one word: “Angst.”

I search in my memory bank for another time when I felt this anxious about the future of the Jewish people, especially our family and friends living through the horror in the aftermath of October 7, 2023. And then, I remember when. It was October 6, 1973.

On that bright Fall Saturday morning, my wife Susie and I walked the few blocks from our apartment to Congregation B’nai Amoona for Yom Kippur services. A few weeks earlier, we, along with our colleague Debi Kantor, z’l, had returned from our second summer bringing post-B’nai Mitzvah teenagers from St. Louis to live like Israeli teenagers for eight weeks with the families of moshav Nir Galim, an idyllic agricultural Jewish community just a few miles north of Gaza. This totally immersive educational experience for the coincidentally named “Zion” class was transformative, the kids working side-by-side with their Israeli peer teenage hosts, picking melons and living with their families in private homes. The relationships developed during the summer between the St. Louis kids and their now adopted Israeli families were deep and powerful.

As we walked up the stairs into the courtyard of the synagogue that morning, many of the kids had gathered in a group before entering services. The usually happy teenagers were sullen, nervous, crying. Given that it was Yom Kippur, Susie and I had not turned on the television and did not know the news. They had. The kids ran to embrace us. “Ronnie! Susie! What will happen to Nir Galim?!” We were confused. “What? What? What’s happening in Nir Galim?!” One 15-year-old girl, Miriam Klotzer shouted, “Israel has been attacked!” We were stunned. “We are so worried about our families!” another girl cried. We did our best to comfort them, but our collective worry about our Nir Galim, families, and friends was overwhelming.

Throughout that long day in shul, whispers of news circulated among the congregants. It was grim. The senior rabbi, Bernard Lipnick, z’l, relayed updates to the community throughout the long day of prayers. The surprise attack from Egypt had overrun the unsuspecting Israeli Defense Forces. Unlike the triumphant Six Day War in 1967 which led to a feeling of invincibility, the Yom Kippur War raised the real possibility that the very existence of the State of Israel was at stake.

Rabbi Lipnick later wrote: “The realization flashed like a bolt of lightning across the Jewish world. Indeed, Arab animosity buttressed by Russian opportunism were quite capable of ‘making good’ the oft-repeated threat to drive the Israelis into the sea and destroy the Jewish state. Nor did anyone feel this realization more keenly than the young people of Nir Galim and their friends – the Zion Class. With the outbreak of hostilities, a steady stream of letters, cables, and overseas telephone calls revealed the depth of friendship and trust which had grown up between these two groups of 15-year-old youngsters. It was natural that the Israeli teenagers should have been eager to share their feelings with their B’nai Amoona friends. Most confided in letters their fears and their great longing for an end to the tension which had been their lot from the moment they were old enough to be aware of their surroundings.”

One of the Israeli teenagers, Ruhi Shimoni, penned a series of letters to her American friend, Miriam Klotzer. With the urging of Miriam’s parents, the congregation published a collection of the letters, titled “Love, Ruhi.” Here is her first letter, written just before the start of Yom Kippur, October 5, 1973:

“Dear Miriam, I want to describe to you what’s going on in Nir Galim 4 hours before Yom Kippur. You know, we must fast…the last meal is at 4 o’clock. Soldiers are standing on the road waiting for a ‘hitch’ to reach home, no longer than 2 minutes, all the cars stopping to take them home; it makes the heart warm. I wish you could be here! My mother thought that you and the others would forget us soon, but she never would believe that it will be such a strong connection between us.”

The next day, Ruhi continued her letter:

“Miriam, there is another war! I’m so afraid. Yesterday evening we sat in the Bet Knesset; suddenly came a car. They asked for Avner’s brother to come to the army. Since the morning, all the time came cars and took the men one after another, about 30 people. Who knows how many will never come back. The Rabbi allowed us to turn on the radio and answer the phone. We heard the Egyptians and Syrians attacked us. We are not allowed to turn the lights on, we put blankets over the windows. Now Golda is talking on the T.V. She is telling what is going on. She looks tired and worried. I’ll never forget this Yom Kippur. Oh, Miriam, we prayed so hard for peace, but nobody lets us live some years on peace and quiet. I promise I’ll write tomorrow again. Please answer soon.

Love, The worried Ruhi.”

On October 9, Ruhi wrote:

Today, we got your telegram from B’nai Amoona. It says: ‘We are confident of victory. We listen for news all day. We are praying for peace in Israel. We hope you are all safe. We miss you, write soon with news. Love, Chaverim from B’nai Amoona.’ Nice, isn’t it; it is so good to know that there is somebody who thinks about you and worries.”

Through nearly daily letters, Ruhi documented the progress of the Yom Kippur War, until October 29, 1973:

“Dear Miriam, Cease fire! I really don’t know if it is good for us or not. We have to beg that the Egyptians give us a list of the Israeli captives in Egypt. Here in Israel we try to return to a normal life. Its hard, because almost all the men are still in the army. Its hard to get used to seeing all those widows and orphans that have to build their lives. Do your know how terrible it is to see a 7 years old orphan saying Kaddish for his father?

Love, Ruhi

These letters from a half-century ago demonstrate the critical importance of person-to-person relationships in Israel education. We are witnessing this truth once again during the current war. In their eJP article “Supporting ‘our’ Israelis” published on November 30, 2023, three outstanding Israel educators, Rabbi Anat Levin-Katzir, Lisa David, and Rabbi Stacy Rigler, describe how young Israeli shlichim who are sent to our summer camps and other educational settings as counselors and teachers build connections with our kids and their families. They generously share their lives with us during their time in our communities and now, more than ever, they need us to “be there” for them.

This is exactly what happened between the Zion Class kids and their Nir Galim friends and families during that shocking period of the Yom Kippur War. One of the those “kids,” Alan Appelman, now 66 years old, is still in touch with his Israeli friend, Leizu Duitch and his wife Tzipi…and with Susie and me. In a text just after the October 7 massacre, Alan sent us a recording of a call he received from Tzipi:

“Hi Al. This is Tzipi. We received your mail. It’s very hard to tell you this, but our little daughter lost her husband, Moti Shamir. Her husband was a Colonel in the Army. He was a hero. He ran quickly to fight and he was killed. We were with her all this week. And our boys and boys-in-law are also now in the South and in the North. It’s not a very easy time for us. Thank you very much for your kindness, for you to be with us. We will talk, we will talk. But now it’s not an easy time for us, as you see. We love you and we know you are with us all this time.”

There is good reason to be anxious during this current crisis. But the strongest antidote to “angst” is action. So, whether through WhatsApp calls to family, friends and colleagues in Israel, or by expressing support to an Israeli family speaking Hebrew in the aisles of Costco, or inviting Israeli friends to a Shabbat dinner or an upcoming Hanukkah celebration, let us rededicate ourselves to building and deepening relationships with our Israeli brethren in any way we can.

About the Author
Dr. Ron Wolfson is the Fingerhut Professor of Jewish Education, American Jewish University, author of Relational Judaism, The Spirituality of Welcoming, God’s To-Do List, The Seven Questions You're Asked in Heaven, the Art of Jewish Living series, co-author The Relational Judaism Handbook, Creating Sacred Communities, and Raising A+ Human Beings. Co-founder of Synagogue 3000 and President, Kripke Institute.
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