Last Friday, just before Shabbat, my congregational trip to Israel was cancelled.
Otherwise, at this very moment, 27 people from my synagogue, most who’ve never been to Israel before, would have been in the air, somewhere between Halifax and the Hebrides, winging their way toward the trip of their lives. Despite all the horrors of the past month, the kidnappings, the murders, the revenge, the riots and the rockets, most of them were still determined to go, right up until the last minute.
I met with the group a week ago, on Tuesday. Nearly a thousand rockets had fallen on two thirds of the country they were about to visit for the first time. But still they were determined to go. Older couples, young children, a bar mitzvah – all ages. They were not afraid.
On Thursday, it looked like our patience had paid off. In what was my own personal “Dewey Beats Truman” moment, I emailed the group to inform them that the BBC said that all sides had agreed to a ceasefire. Thanks, BBC.
But undeterred when that turned out to be a false report, the group held firm, even as I explained to them that this would not be the Israel trip they signed up for.
Then came Thursday and Friday, and a perfect storm that could have shaken the confidence of even the most veteran international traveler. Instead of a ceasefire, there was a ground war, and more rockets. There was unrest in places that are usually quiet: Jaffa, Haifa, Akko, and there was unease everywhere else. My stalwarts began hearing from relatives and friends in Israel, who advised them, “Don’t come now.” And, for good measure for a group about to fly over Europe, a passenger jet was shot down over Europe. Whatever it took to move the scales ever so slightly, the scales moved. Someone seemed to be trying to tell us something about the lousy timing of our trip.
I called a colleague for advice:
“What should I do? I feel like I’m betraying Israel, and I would go there in a second, but this isn’t that kind of tour.”
He advised me to encourage them to go because Israel needs them now. I’m sure many other rabbis would have said the same thing. But I couldn’t stack the deck like that. Call me a lousy rabbi, but I couldn’t tell them everything would be just fine, because I really didn’t know.
I presented the group with the choice late Thursday night, asking each family to weigh the options, to sleep on it, to grapple with this decision, and to respond privately in the morning. I assured them that even if only one family wanted to go, I would go with them. But I also had to admit to them that I felt this was not the optimal moment for a group such as this to experience Israel for the first time.
It was one of the more difficult things I’ve had to do in my decades in the rabbinate. For months I had pushed and cajoled and urged them to sign on. Some had waited years for this moment. Some had waited a lifetime. People make excuses not to go, until the excuses run out. And now their window would potentially slam shut again.
Friday morning, and the cancellations began to roll in, each email more heart wrenching than the last. With each precinct that reported in, the scenarios shifted and different possibilities had to be explored. What would I do with a group of 17, of 15, of 11? I felt the weight of the agony that each family was feeling. In the middle of it all, I was scampering to make my own preparations to go, though things weren’t looking too promising. At noon I took a “break” for a funeral. Then, back to the computer and phone. At about 3 PM our travel agent informed me that El Al had just told him that we were no longer officially a group, having gone under ten in number. The trip was on life support. The last couple of families left standing were the most gut-wrenching situations. Finally, at about 5 PM, we were down to zero.
And then, a half hour later, at a congregational cookout before services (we call it “Barbecue and Borechu,”) everyone was asking about the trip. A hundred times I had to repeat it: “We aren’t going.” All seemed pleased by the group’s common sense decision.
Then, somewhere during the prayer Shomer Yisrael (Guardian of Israel), Neshama Carlebach’s haunting version, as I was about to speak, it really hit home. I started to address the congregation and simply broke down in tears.
I know I’m not to blame for the rockets and for the craziness, but I felt such sadness, such a loss, both for those families and for Israel; all the horrors that Israeli children are enduring, the innocent people of Gaza too, all the promise and the hope dissolving into this horrific morass, and all the wide-eyed excitement of this group, just melting into a puddle, this trip of a lifetime turned pilgrimage to nowhere. It all suddenly came crashing down on me.
I’ve led about a dozen Israel trips, many of them during stressful times. In 1994, my group arrived in Jerusalem on the same day Arafat returned to Gaza. In 2005 we were there when the withdrawal from Gaza took place and Michael Oren called our bus from the front. In 2010, our tour bus was caught in the traffic jam of the Gilad Shalit countrywide march. I’ve been on solidarity groups during the worst years of the second intifada.
But not this time. Not this group. I would not let them lose their Zionist virginity having to air-kiss the holy ground while running to a bomb shelter.
Strangely, this group bonded even more than several groups who’ve actually experienced Israel together. I called them the best group I never traveled with. They were moved without ever moving. I taught them some of the history, lots of the geography, how to order falafel in a restaurant; and now they were following every rocket launch via their smartphones. We’re already in the process of setting a date for next year, and they are more anxious than ever to go.
Did I let Israel down? Sometimes a rabbi has to pull back from pure patriotism and look at the bigger picture. Sometimes people have to matter more than principle.
Next week, my wife and I will fly to Israel, carrying with us a single prayer for all those who haven’t quite made it yet to our fragile but undaunted holy homeland: Next year in Jerusalem.