I recently participated in a trip to Israel, a solidarity mission with Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC), where I serve as Vice Provost. On the flight from Los Angeles, I read Rabbi Sharon Brous’s powerful new book, The Amen Effect: Ancient Wisdom to Mend Our Broken Hearts and World. Unexpectedly, I found the book’s lessons reflected in every meeting and presentation we attended with Israelis in this time of war and heartache.
Avoid loneliness through connection. Get to know your neighbors.
Social capital among Jewish Israelis is quite high. They tend to have strong social networks from school, military service, workplaces, synagogues, and neighborhoods. These networks – and the small size of the country – made the October 7 attacks and subsequent war so difficult. Everybody knows someone who died or was taken hostage. Residents of kibbutzim and other communities near Gaza lost dozens of friends and relatives.
Tel Aviv’s Hostage Square on hostage Kfir Bibas’s first birthday. Photo by Benor.
The strong social networks also enabled the country’s resilience, as we learned from a leader of Brothers in Arms in one of their distribution centers. For the past year, hundreds of thousands of Israelis had tapped into their strong networks to organize protests against the Netanyahu government’s judicial reforms. Starting on October 7, those networks became crucial in responding to urgent and evolving needs, from rescuing people trapped in their safe rooms to providing displaced people with services that the government failed to provide. This amplifies another one of Brous’s lessons:
Identify and carry out your unique contributions to society, starting with small acts of service.
Since October 7, Israelis have contributed their time, talent, and treasure to help Israelis affected by the war. Companies lent out space in their buildings. Tech execs donated their technologies and held hackathons to address challenges. We met or heard about volunteers who had evacuated and relocated people from the south and the north; donated, collected, organized, and distributed emergency supplies and military gear; coordinated preschools in hotels; harvested produce; and provided a pastoral presence to people in crisis. Some offered artistic contributions: new prayers and songs, clever graffiti on city walls, moving installations in the Tel Aviv plaza that has been renamed “Hostage Square,” and the striking red and black Bring Them Home posters that have raised awareness about the hostages around the world (and, even in Israel, are written in English – geared, it seems, to an international audience).
Our hearts can hold both sorrow and celebration.
Even as Israelis are mourning, worried about the hostages and soldiers, and fearing the next attack, they have returned to regular life – to some extent. The streets of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv seemed quieter than on my previous visits, but the restaurants and food courts I saw were bustling. Teens socialized happily as teens do on field trips to Har Herzl (the military cemetery) and ANU: Museum of the Jewish People. A rabbi we met shared a photo of a bittersweet bat mitzvah: despite the absence of her dad – murdered on October 7 – she read Torah beautifully.
Show up. Share grief and joy. Go to the funeral or shiva.
Israelis are showing up at funerals and shivas, as are busloads of diaspora Jews. We met with two HUC alumni – Israeli Reform rabbis – and learned about the funerals they have officiated and the pastoral services they have provided to comfort mourners and help the families of hostages. They are showing up, even for those beyond their congregations.
Rabbi Yael Vurgan sharing photos of a destroyed home in one of the southern communities she serves, along with posters of hostages. Photo by Benor.
The lesson to share grief is not only for those comforting the afflicted but also for the afflicted themselves. As Brous points out, when we admit we’re feeling bad, we give people a chance to help us. Our trip was the brainchild of one of our Israeli colleagues. She knew it would help morale among her students and colleagues to share their stories with their American counterparts. Initially I was wary that our mission would be seen as war tourism, foreigners gawking at bereft Israelis and then returning to the safety of our cities. On the contrary, every Israeli we spoke to expressed gratitude that we showed up. Based on a rabbinic teaching, Brous posits that visiting the sick alleviates one sixtieth of the patient’s pain. That did seem to be the case as we cried with beleaguered rabbis, bereaved parents, and distraught relatives of hostages. And it was confirmed when one of our Israeli colleagues started her session with that very rabbinic teaching. We were, as Brous puts it, “bearing with-ness,” and our with-ness was much appreciated.
Every person is worthy of love. Tribalism is natural and ubiquitous, but we should also engage with people beyond our tribe.
When the people beyond the tribe are Jews of different ancestral, religious, or socioeconomic backgrounds, this is easy. Displaced Israelis from the south and the north (the less wealthy areas that Israelis call “the periphery”) are interacting with Israelis from the (mostly wealthier) middle of the country. Across the political spectrum, families of hostages and thousands of volunteers are working together day and night to Bring Them Home.
In contrast to these displays of unity, Israeli Jews are finding the work of bridging difficult when the “other” is Palestinian. This is even the case among left-wing Israelis who are normally engaged in peacemaking. Not one of the people we met called explicitly for a ceasefire or expressed compassion for the 24,000 people killed in Gaza. Based on individual conversations, I gathered that many Israeli Jews tend to see all Gazans as Hamas or Hamas sympathizers and therefore legitimate targets. At least among those we met, Israeli Jews’ circles of care (another phrase from Brous’s book) do not extend to Gaza.
At the same time, among the left-wing Israelis we met, especially those who have worked for years to build a shared society in Israel and the West Bank, some relationships with Palestinians outside of Gaza remain strong. We heard an example of this from Saleem Yagmur, a beloved employee on HUC’s Jerusalem campus, a Palestinian from East Jerusalem. A few years ago, Saleem noticed a Muslim student – one of many Palestinians at an ulpan that rents space at HUC – praying in a corner of the library. He snapped a photo of the student and sent it to Dganit Timor Jenshil, HUC’s COO, expressing concern that Muslim students did not have a place for prayer. Together Saleem and Dganit solved the problem: they converted a classroom into a multifaith prayer space. Students and staff of multiple religions donated prayer books, prayer rugs, Qurans, and Bibles and now use this space regularly for personal prayer.
A Muslim student prays in the interfaith prayer room on HUC-JIR’s Taube Family Campus in Jerusalem. Photo courtesy of HUC-JIR.
We heard another heartening story of bridging from Elana Kaminka, a peace activist who lost her son Yannai on October 7. Some of her Palestinian friends expressed their condolences by phone, sad that they were not allowed through checkpoints to attend shiva. One gave her dates – a traditional Muslim gift for a house of mourning – passing them through the security fence. Elana wrote to her Palestinian neighbors, “Dear neighbors, I am in pain now, deep pain, but I want to tell you that within this pain my heart is open to you. I don’t blame you for the deeds of the Hamas, and I hope this cursed situation will somehow bring our two nations to at last learn how to live together, with mutual respect, so there may be no more parents, Israeli or Palestinian, that must grieve for their sons and daughters. There is no other way.”
I don’t want to be overly sanguine about the relationships between Israeli Jews and their Palestinian friends. Even at the progressive Hebrew Union College, there has been some tension. (This is based on reports by Jews; with the exceptions of Saleem and some taxi drivers and hotel staff, I did not talk directly with Palestinians.) Some Jews were concerned about the possibility of violence by Palestinian students, and some Palestinian students and employees had trouble getting to campus because of police harassment. The multifaith Teachers Lounge program paused operations and then shifted to separate Jewish and Arab tracks for its Jerusalem cohort because the teachers are not ready to interact beyond their tribe. They expect to resume joint programming eventually, but the wounds on both sides are currently too raw.
In Brous’s call for dialogue across divides, she emphasizes safety as a prerequisite – something that is clearly not possible between Jews and Gazans at the moment. Among those we spoke to, there is little hope for such dialogue in the near future. However, coexistence groups like the Parents Circle, Combatants for Peace, and A Land For All are still operating, and Rabbis for Human Rights is still helping Palestinian farmers in the West Bank plant olive trees – glimmers of hope in these months of darkness.
We can also observe hope in a discourse pattern that has spread beyond religious circles since October 7. Israeli Jews now tend to end conversations – spoken and written – with besorot tovot, meaning [may we hear only] good news. I even heard this from the El Al flight attendant as we landed in Tel Aviv. So much of the news Israelis are hearing is devastating, and besorot tovot expresses an expectation that better times will come soon. My wishes for besorot tovot are a quick resolution to the war, healing for Israelis and Palestinians, and a lasting peace in the region. And let us say “Amen.”