As a 16-year-old high school student, I spend a lot of time thinking about values, limits and our stories — why we do what we do, how we do what we do, and what our value-add is to the community around us.
Values are how we make choices in moments that matter. And, I have also been taught, “A value is only a value when it is tested.”
When my school, SAR High School, announced a mission to Israel, I knew I needed to be there. I had no idea what we would be doing, but I felt an intense need to “show up.” Sometimes, the greatest value we can live is to just show up.
And, when the world feels like it’s upside down, and you aren’t sure how a student stressed out about school and college can make a difference, I thought about the value in bearing witness, hearing the stories of others, and picking avocados. Showing up in whatever way is needed.
The truth is, we are limited here in the US in how we can help. And being limited stinks. I felt helpless because I wasn’t in Israel with my family and friends. And it was the value of showing up that led me to convince my mom and grandfather to go on the mission with me.
It was on the mission that I truly began to understand the impact of the best Hamilton song — “Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story.”
Stories, experiences and memory play a serious role in how we both celebrate and commemorate our lives as Jews. Whether it is Kiddush on Shabbat or a Pesach seder, our rituals are bound up with our stories. Stories are powerful. People remember them, and they impact each of us in unique ways.
This is why we spent the majority of our time in Israel listening to survivors’ stories.
In Sderot, we watched footage of the October 7 early morning infiltration, hearing from a town employee. It was clear he needed to share his story.
At Sheba Medical Center in Ramat Gan, we listened to the testimony of two soldiers, one who was injured when a missile pierced his tank and one, a female soldier, who spoke quietly in a monotone voice and shared what happened to her “non-combatant unit” stationed on the border of Gaza. She didn’t want to talk, but it became clear that she needed to.
I watched as she didn’t cry, or raise her voice. She just gave us a step-by-step recitation of her experience when Hamas infiltrated … when she was awakened in her pajamas and quickly realized that her unit did not have the weapons needed to fully protect themselves.
After hearing about her injuries, none of us understood how she was still alive.
But what struck me most is that she seemed surprised that we, strangers, would want to hear her story. At the very end, we stood and clapped — and for the first time she showed emotion. In that one moment I knew that she needed to tell her story, and we needed to hear it. We needed to have shown up for her.
It was one of the most powerful experiences of my life.
As I left the hospital, a siren went off. Forced to lay on the ground with no shelter above us, the boom that we felt when the iron dome intercepted the rockets shook me to my core. The value met by showing up to bear witness, meant I now got to experience a small bit of what daily life is like with rockets overhead.
As a teenager, I know there will be many times when I can live the value of showing up. And right now, we can live this value by listening to the stories of others.
Every story matters. They are the lived experiences of people who need to be heard. And, even a 16 year old can give them meaning.