Jonathan Muskat

Rabbinic Mission to Israel

I was in Israel this week for a three-day rabbinic mission in conjunction with the Rabbinical Council of America, Yeshiva University and the World Mizrachi Organization. The mission started on Tuesday. On Monday morning, I went to meet a friend of mine for breakfast in Mamilla and it was raining but I had my raincoat and I didn’t know how to operate the Israeli taxi app, so I decided to walk. It was about a twenty-minute walk, which isn’t bad, except if it really starts to pour. Ten minutes into my walk, I am soaked. The water went through my coat and I am absolutely miserable. I keep saying to myself that in Israel they are saying “v’ten tal u’matar” and it’s good for Israel to have rain, but I am absolutely miserable. I’m thinking to myself that it’s just awful here in Israel. And at that moment, when I’m thinking how awful it is in Israel, an Israeli who just parked his car opens his car door, takes out an umbrella, and says to me, “Mitriyah?” I responded, “What?” And he said again, “Mitriyah?” Mitriyah means umbrella and this stranger just gave me an umbrella, and he drove off. I was still soaked, but instead of thinking of how awful it is in Israel, I thought how amazing it is to be in Israel. And that story, the story of the umbrella was the story of my mission. It was so awful and it was so amazing.

If you were to ask me what the purpose of this mission was, I will share with you what happened when my rabbinic colleague, Rabbi Ira Ebbin from Merrick, went to the passport control booth in Israel. The woman at the control booth said, “Good evening. Hi.” Rabbi Ebbin responded, “Good evening. How are you?” She said, “That is a difficult question to answer these days.” He said, “I’m sure. So sorry. But how are you – today?” She said, “Thank you. That is a good way to ask the question. Today I am doing ok.” Rabbi Ebbin said, “Good. Glad to hear. Day by day.” She said, “And what is the purpose your visit?” Rabbi Ebbin said, “To ask you and every Israeli that I meet, How are you, today?” And she smiled.

That is exactly what I thought the goal for our rabbinic group. To be there for people, to comfort people, to let people in Israel know that we, representing thousands of families in the United States, care about the people in Israel. But it was so much more than that.

On the first day of the mission. Rabbi Doron Perez, the Executive Chairman of the World Mizrachi movement whose son Daniel Shimon Ben Sharon is one of the hostages, asked the following question. According to the gemara in Chullin (91b), Yaakov Avinu left Be-er Sheva and arrived at Charan and then he said to himself,  אפשר עברתי על מקום שהתפללו אבותי, ואני לא התפללתי? Maybe I passed by the place that my ancestors prayed and I didn’t pray there? When he set his mind to return to this holy place, the land shrunk and he arrived at the place. The problem with this explanation is what Yaakov says the next morning after dreaming about angels going up and down a ladder and his encounter with God. Yaakov says,  אָכֵן֙ יֵ֣שׁ יְקֹוָ֔ק בַּמָּק֖וֹם הַזֶּ֑ה וְאָנֹכִ֖י לֹ֥א יָדָֽעְתִּי – surely God is in this place and I didn’t know. Yaakov didn’t know that this was a holy place. But how can that be? According to the gemara, he began to return to the place where his ancestors prayed, the ground shrunk before him until he reached this place. So why didn’t he know that this was a holy place? Rav Aharon Lichtenstein, Zecher tzaddik livracha, explained that, yes, Yaakov knew that it was a holy place, but he didn’t really know that it was a holy place. He compared this to the difference between a doctor and a patient. A patient can tell a doctor about his illness and his symptoms and the doctor can know that the patient is experiencing pain, but only the patient can really know the experience of his own pain. The doctor can understand the pain intellectually, but the patient who experiences the pain has real yediah, real understanding. Yaakov Avinu knew intellectually that this place was holy, but he didn’t really understand what that meant until he experienced it himself. This was the real purpose of the mission – yediah – that we should truly understand what happened on October 7 and what is happening now in Israel, that we can experience it firsthand. I hope to transmit to you all some of what I experienced during these three days.

What I experienced was both darkness and light. I first will share with you the darkness and I hope to conclude with the light. First, the darkness. We paid shiva visits and attended a funeral and we heard numerous stories of those who were murdered and these young men and women were the best of the best.

Staff Sergeant Eitan Rosenzweig, Hashem yikom damo, of Alon Shvut, talmid chacham, creative, gentle, sweet, great friend, full of life, excited to return to Yeshiva in Yerucham after the war would be over. He was the third member of his class at the Neve Shmuel Yeshiva high school to have been killed fighting in Gaza. Many of those killed have been yeshivat hesder students because they are passionate about Torah and medinat Yisrael and they increasingly enroll in dangerous combat units. At his funeral, Eitan’s grandfather quoted the seventh hakafa that we recite on Hoshana Rabba, למען איתן הנזרק בלהב אש – for the sake of Eitan who was thrown into flames of fire, למען בן הנעקד על עצים ואש- for the sake of the son who was bound on the wood of fire – Hoshana – save us. That prayer will forever have an entirely different meaning for me when I say it on Hoshana Rabba.

We heard the story of Ofir Libstein, who was the head of the Sha’ar Ha-Negev local council and was murdered trying to defend Kfar Aza. Ofir loved everyone and he built many relationships overseas with those who supported the Gaza border communities. He established an industrial area near the Erez Corssing, seeking to foster economic cooperation with the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip and promote friendship and peace between Jews and Palestinians. He was murdered under an olive tree, which is a symbol of peace.

We heard the story of Adi Vital-Kaploun by her mother and father. Her mother is the step-sister of Rabbi Reuven Tradburks who is the RCA liaison in Israel who coordinated the trip. Adi was an athlete, a dancer, a saxophone player and the valedictorian of her university class where she studied chemical engineering. She was murdered in front of her two four-year old children, and her body was booby-trapped with explosives. Her children were then taken with a neighbor to Gaza and somehow, miraculously, the terrorists freed the three hostages.

So many stories – I briefly shared with you three stories but there was so much more. So much darkness. We visited the Kibbutz of Kfar Aza, a kibbutz where 58 people were murdered, seventeen were kidnapped, six were hospitalized and one is still unaccounted for. I felt like I was at a shtetl in Poland that was destroyed by the Nazis. This was a Holocaust in artzenu ha-kedosha. We heard the horrific story of how the whole town was destroyed, how some homes were completely burned because terrorists couldn’t break into the homes so they just took fuel and burned the houses to the ground. We found bullet casings in baby carriages. And this was a completely secular left-wing kibbutz, whose members’ entire perspective about their Palestinian neighbors has been turned upside down.

We visited Ofakim, where 44 people were murdered. Terrorists drove into the city wearing IDF uniforms and planned to ring the doorbells so that people would open the door for the so-called soldiers, but they arrived very early so the citizens of Ofakim didn’t open their doors for the soldiers. The terrorists then climbed on roofs and once an alarm went off in the city, some citizens opened the door to see what was going on, and the terrorists started picking them off one by one. Even though Ofakim had a lot of soldiers, almost all of them went to the Gaza border when they heard that the border was breached and that left the city open to be massacred by terrorists.

We visited the Shura army base. This is the army base where corpses are brought and tahara is done to prepare the bodies for burial. The army built 243 shelves, for lack of a better term, to place corpses and the person who took us around told us that they never expected that they would ever need that many shelves. If there would be a very deadly attack, maybe they would need at most thirty or forty shelves to prepare bodies for burial. However, on October 7th, so many bodies arrived that bodies were on stretchers throughout every inch of the area. Currently, all the bodies of soldiers have been identified, but some bones of some bodies had to be taken to the United States to identify them because the United States has the most advanced technology in this field. Additionally, there are still some civilian bodies that have not been identified and this is seven weeks after the terror attack. One could only imagine how these individuals were killed.

What about now? We met wives and spouses of soldiers and with heads of schools. Our group divided into two, with one group meeting wives of soldiers and one group meeting mothers of soldiers. I personally met with the wives of soldiers, women in Efrat in their twenties, thirties and forties and many of them have not seen their husbands in three or four weeks. One woman said that the first week was a haze, the second week was a fog and by the third week they had to get it together. They need a partner to make regular day to day decisions and now they have none. For example, do they send their children to school if they must travel through the tunnel route highway where there was recently a terror attack? There is uncertainty as to when their spouses will return. Their children have periodic mental breakdowns. There wasn’t even anyone to take down their sukkot after the holiday.

What did the heads of school tell us? They are trying to get things back to normal as much as possible, but they are short-staffed because the men have been called to serve in the army and the Palestinian cleaning staff do not come to work now. Some children want talk about war all the time and some don’t want to talk about it at all. The head of the Midreshet Lindenbaum beit midrash wondered if they should study the masechet and perek that they were planning to study. It was Bava Kamma Perek Ha-Chovel – the chapter discussing what happens if you wound someone. Will this topic of study trigger students? In a boys’ high school, one boy lost a brother and he doesn’t want to recite kaddish or daven for the amud, so what should the principal do? The economy is taking a major hit with so many professionals in the army, the stress for mothers and wives is unbearable and there is no foreseeable end in sight. And I haven’t even discussed the pain that the families of hostages feel, many of them camped out in Tel Aviv in a large plaza by the Art Museum, or the thousands of evacuees from the communities in the north and the south. So many tears, so much pain, so much loss, so much uncertainty and so much darkness.

But with that darkness, we found so much light. We found light in the strength of spirit by those who suffered the most horrific losses imaginable. When I paid a shiva call to Kfir Franco, a soldier who fell in battle, a man just finished paying a shiva call and stood up and said to me, “My son is buried next his son.” That was the father of Yossi Hershkowitz and he had just gotten up from shiva. He told me that he has faith and that am Yisrael will prevail. Rav Doron Perez, whose son Daniel Shimon ben Sharon is one of the hostages, told us there Rav Kook speaks about tikkun ha-prat and tikkun ha-klal. We have a responsibility for ourselves and for the nation. When he made aliya, he felt part of something bigger than himself. So, yes, he is very worried about his son and he is in indescribable pain and this is about the prat, the individual. But this is also a time when God is giving us a test and a test is an opportunity for us to show what we are capable of, to up our game and to see what the DNA of a Jew truly is. Rabbi Hillel Van Leeuwen, a Mizrachi administrator on the trip, lost the brother of his son-in-law, Moshe Leiter, in the war. At the funeral, Rabbi Yechiel Leiter, Moshe’s father, said, “We have lots of things to thank Hashem for and we have lots of things to daven for.” Rabbi Van Leeuwen said that everyone left the funeral with their hearts broken and their spirits uplifted. The sister of Moshe Ohayon who was murdered told us the horrific story of his death but then said we must leave Ofakim with our heads held high. The spirit of Israel will prevail.

The volunteerism in Israel off the charts. As an example, we visited Check Point Software headquarters, which donated three floors to be used as the headquarters for the “Bring Them Home Now” hostage campaign. They have an incredible operation made up of thousands of volunteers that provides financial needs and psychological support for families of the hostages and that has a massive public relations campaign. The reason why they were able to get so organized so quickly is that many of the founders of this campaign were part of the judicial reform protest movement. After October 7th, they transformed much of their infrastructure from fighting judicial reform to helping the hostages. Even charedim are involved in this effort. We met a charedi volunteer in the building and he told us that someone who grew up charedi was supposed to go to the rave on October 7th, but instead stayed home with his family, so he wasn’t killed. Each day, this person coordinates one article with an interview with a hostage family that is posted in the Kikar Shabbat charedi website, and at the end of the article there is a request that everyone accept upon themselves to perform a mitzvah for the merit of the hostage.

The morale is very high and there is unity now. As an example, when we asked Doron Libstein in Kfar Aza why it took the army six hours to reach the kibbutz on October 7th, one of the questions that everyone wants answered, he said that now is not the time for questions. The key is to get the job done now and later ask questions. This left-wing secular Jew said that we need unity at this time and all Israelis that we met echoed this sentiment. When we visited an army base outside Kibbutz Re’im and handed out many cards and letters, there was such a feeling of love and unity between Israel and the diaspora. I hugged so many chayalim and said, “You are kodesh ha-kodoshim.” I was in such awe of their optimism and high morale notwithstanding how weary some of them seemed. When Rav Rimon, rav of Gush Etzion, led the soldiers in song and dance, he told them that there is a mitzvah in the Torah that we can all fulfill now, not to be afraid in war. And then we all burst out in singing, both religious and secular Jews, “V’ha’ikar lo lefached klal!” Rav Rimon said that his jacket is so holy because he has hugged 800 soldiers wearing this jacket, so he will not take it off.

Finally, the level of Torah and spirituality in the country is so high. Miriam Peretz has called this Israeli war “mashiv ha-ruach,” not just because it started on Shmini Atzeret when we start reciting “mashiv ha-ruach u’morid ha-geshem,” but because this war has been “mashiv ha-ruach,” it has restored the spirit of the Jewish people. Every chayal and every Israeli who is hurting wants us to pray for him or her. Chayalim told us, even secular ones, to pray for us and to perform mitzvot for us.

We visited with Yuval Haran at the headquarters for the “Bring Them Home Now” campaign. Yuval’s father was killed in Kibbutz Be’eri on October 7 and his mother and six other relatives, including a young niece and nephew, were taken hostage by Hamas. Yuval is completely secular. He told us that he has hope and he believes in the power of prayer, so we recited a mi she-bai-rach for the return of the captives. He then told us that he would like to recite a prayer. We asked which one? He said that there is a prayer called “achenu,” but he doesn’t know the words of the prayer by heart and he asked us if we know that prayer. Someone told him that, yes, we actually know that prayer and we can sing it. In fact, 300,000 Jews sang this prayer in Washington last week. I found “achenu” on my iPhone and gave it to him and we all sang “achenu” together.

People are learning daf yomi in Azza, although some are using some dark humor. For example, when they started masechet Bava Kamma, they joked that in the opening of the masechet, there are arba avot nezikin, four categories of damage, Hamas, jihad, Hezbollah and the Houthis. Shura army base is probably the largest aron in the world as it houses hundreds of donated sifrei torah that are checked and then sent to army bases. In fact, we had a mini-hachnasat sefer torah celebration when I brought a sefer torah to Israel that was donated by someone in Queens and I want to thank National Council of Young Israel president David Warshaw who helped make this happen. Every chayal wears tzitzit. In fact, sometimes a secular soldier comes home to see his parents and they are both running to embrace each other and the father is not wearing a kippah and neither is the soldier but he’s got tzitzit strings flying in the wind. Many soldiers are putting on tefillin for the first time in a long time. Many are feeling connected with their heritage. Underlying this feeling, one popular writer wrote that after October 7th, “For the first time I said, “ani Yehuda” as opposed to “ani Yisraeli.” There is pride in being Jewish and not simply Israeli among the chayalim and among Israeli society in general.

So yes, there is a lot of darkness but there is also a lot of light. Remember the umbrella story – it was awful being in Israel, but it was amazing being in Israel. I left Israel with tremendous sadness and tremendous pride.  I have tried to share with you some of my experiences of “yediah,” of really knowing what is going on in Israel, but the truth is, the only way for you to appreciate the darkness and the light is to go and visit Israel. If you are able to go, it will be worth every penny. If you are not able to go, I will leave you with a message that one young mother told me to share with you all: Give until it hurts and don’t stop. Our brothers and sisters are still suffering in Israel. We need to continue to help the soldiers, the citizens, the evacuees and our beloved country because they are not just fighting for themselves. They are fighting for all of us, for Jews across the world and for civilized society. We need to donate. We need to continue to write letters to our political leaders to allow Israel to do what it must do militarily. We need to continue to try to shape public opinion on social media. We need to take on more mitzvot and daven with even greater fervor, because God does respond to our commitment to Torah and Tefillah. We as a nation will emerge from darkness to light and we ask each and every one of you to participate in the process and not to stop.

About the Author
Jonathan Muskat is the Rabbi of the Young Israel of Oceanside.
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