Streams of Anxious Consciousness 35

In a few minutes I am boarding a plane to Israel. I have never been more frightened.

I do not scare easily. If you are reading this and have never met me, I am 6’0 tall and 235lbs, (after fasting). I am not easily intimidated and do not cry quickly, unlike some of my B&H rabbinic colleagues.

I am not afraid of bullets and bombs when in Israel. I am not scared of sirens going off in the middle of the night. I am not anxious to fly coach. I am petrified about what I am going to see and what my eyes and heart can absorb when I land in Israel.

Israel is part of my DNA. Our family has spent our summers in the Holy Land for the past 14 years. Our kids have been raised and shaped there every June, July and August.  We have a community in Israel. We have favorite places where we shop, the guy we trust to take our laundry, restaurants we frequent and parks to hang out in on Shabbat. We integrate into the fabric of Israeli society every summer, and throughout the year.  In any given twelve-month span, I can go and come from Israel north of five times. When my wife and I talk about where we will retire, Israel is the place that is the top of our list. Our kids have each been to Israel more than twenty times. It is our home away from home.

But now, I am going to a place that I know like the back of my hand, but it is wounded and hurting. My stomping grounds of Jerusalem will not look any different, but I am sure it not feel the same. That is because I am going to a place where every person in the corner market or at the flower stand has someone who was killed or knows someone who is being held hostage. Everyone is wounded. Every soul walking the streets will not be smiling. Each person will be scared. Israel is that small and that closely knit.

When in Israel, we will meet people whose children,  spouses, parents and siblings are being held by Hamas in Gaza. What can I say to them? How can I bring strength and comfort to them? I am not sure my heart can handle what it will witness. I am terrified to be adjacent to that pain, anguish and worry.

We will meet people who are sleeping on cousin’s couches because their home is uninhabitable. Hamas set it ablaze, and they cannot live that close to the war zone. They have no idea if or when they can ever return home. They are coming to grips with the reality that nothing will be normal again. What can I say to those people that buoys their spirits?

We will meet members from ZAKA who are tasked with cleaning up body parts and mopping up blood. They have witnessed what the most deviant minds could not imagine. How can I bring calm to the noticeable tremble in their voice?

We will meet with first responders who ran up and down the streets and checked for pulses the night of October 7th. They had to distinguish those people who were shot and those who were brutalized. They are still at a makeshift camp helping the wounded soldiers in the Gaza envelope. What can I bring to offer them solace for the trauma they are carrying?

We are making shiva visits to the family of soldiers who made the ultimate sacrifice protecting our homeland. They were killed ensuring my rite to live and love and imbibe the beauty of our country.  They died protecting Jews worldwide. What words of consolation could be uttered?

We will see soldiers who have comrades who have died in their arms in recent days, and they cannot mourn them properly. They have fellow soldiers who have been seriously injured, yet they cannot visit them. These soldiers know they will soon go back into the war zone, and they are not sure which of them will return to their families and country standing on their own feet or carried off in a somber walk. What can we do for these soldiers to express our appreciation? Show our love? Demonstrate our support?

We will be in hospital rooms visiting those who have lost limbs, have bullet wounds and others who are carrying emotional scars that weigh more than bricks. How can our visit bring them relief?

This trip has me so scared for what I will see. I quake just considering how ill prepared I am to deal with these circumstances and this moment.

12 years ago, my mother called me out of the blue to say my father had suddenly fallen sick. He was taken by ambulance to the hospital and was in the ICU. He was unresponsive. The prognosis was grim.

I dropped everything and flew to Florida immediately to be with him and my mom. My brother picked me up at the airport and I remember shaking. I was scared. What was I going to see? The man who gave me breath, taught me much and was a larger-than-life force was lying in bed motionless, a machine breathing for him and tubes coming in and out like a highway intersection.

My dad was a man I knew better than most and he was in a condition of vulnerability. Even though I visited the sick for a living as a rabbi, I was wholly unprepared for the moment. I had spoken to my dad almost every day. We texted and emailed too. But next to that bed where he was hooked up to beeping monitors and clicking machines, I had no idea what to say. How to handle the situation. What to do. I was lost.

I am having that feeling of walking into that ICU room again.

One of my proudest moments as a rabbi was watching how our community responded to the war in Ukraine. We took our ballroom that seats 450 ppl along with a  dance floor and filled it to the rafters with supplies to be shipped over to the refugees and those fighting against Russia. We assembled a small army of more than 150 people who came and loaded the toothbrushes, baby formula, deodorant, socks, sleeping bags, Tylenol, and other items into large camp duffels. Eleven of us brought 147 duffels on two planes to Poland and the Ukrainian border on a humanitarian emergency mission. Those items were put to use within hours of landing in Poland.

A short few weeks later, a Christian Ukrainian family of nine souls ended up at our doorstep. Our family decided to house them for a couple of days. That quickly turned into six weeks. One of them had a baby and the family of nine overnight became ten,  (one was pregnant and gave birth in America). They all became an extension of our family.

Eventually, Temple Emanu-El found and furnished an entire home for this family near our synagogue. We are still paying for the rent for them as they continue to flee from Putin and his evil machinations. Our community has adopted this family and spoil them with clothes, sporting equipment, household items, cars, sight-seeing and tourist moments and lots of food. We love them very much.

Helping this family speaks volumes about the combined ethic of our community. My wife and I say regularly to each other that we are so proud of the community we chose to raise our kids within.

For this family though, I cannot appreciate for a minute what they must think. While we stick our chests out a little and boast of our goodness, how do they feel? I know they are beyond appreciative. They have shared in word and hugs and tears regularly how much our beneficence has inspired them.

Yet, I do not know what it feels like for someone to wear only borrowed or hand me down clothes. I do not know what it feels like to sleep in someone else’s bed indefinitely,  or live under a roof someone else pays for.

We at the Temple do not second guess our generosity for a moment.  We also follow Maimonides rules of charity as best we can, to maintain self-respect for the recipients of our assistances. However, the beneficiaries of our largess must feel indebted, humbled, beholden and at times,  inadequate for being unable to fend and provide for themselves. I imagine it hurts their pride and sense of dignity. Sadly, there is no end in sight for these and other Ukrainians, fleeing their home for safety.

This war in Israel has forced hundreds of thousands of people to live from the kindness of neighbors. Those making the donations do not pause for a millisecond at offering up their space or wares to help those in their time of need. That is core to the Jewish spirit. But the acts of wearing borrowed clothes and sleeping on someone else’s couch and eating another person’s food must bruise their pride. Its would, mine. How long can that sting last? How long can someone continue to be supported by others without a sense of guilt or worthlessness?

I am sure this feeling is unilateral. When this war in Israel happened, my family instantly decided we would open our home again for a displaced Israeli family. It is a no brainer for us. We need less than five minutes to get ready for them.

But for those coming in the house and living as a guest, I worry for their loss of dignity and self-esteem. It is just another casualty of this vicious attack and deadly war.

I am bracing my eyes for what I am about to witness. I am opening my heart to those in need. I am prepared to lift any spirit and add love to help restore dignity and purpose to those whose lives were shattered into pieces. Wish me strength.

About the Author
David-Seth Kirshner is the senior rabbi of Temple Emanu-El, a Conservative synagogue in Closter, New Jersey. He is the past President of the NY Board of Rabbis and the NJ Board of Rabbis and is a Senior Rabbinic Fellow at the Hartman Institute and serves on the Executive Committee of the JFNA. Rabbi Kirshner was appointed to the New Jersey/Israel Commission by Governors Christie and Murphy. Rabbi Kirshner is a National Council member of AIPAC.
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