Steven Stark Lowenstein

To Hug, To Help, To Hear

In the Torah last week we readJacob was left alone and in the darkness of the night he wrestled with a being all night long. Jacob wanted a blessing and would not stop until he received one. “No longer shall you be called Jacob but Israel. For you have wrestled with beings divine and human and have prevailed. For the rest of his life Jacob walked with a limp from this all-night encounter. All week long I’ve reflected on this late-night wrestling match as I too in the darkness of the night wrestled with myself and my emotions having spent this past week in Israel.

From the moment we landed we knew that we had entered a changed Israel. The world we were familiar with abruptly ceased to exist, as did the entire state for a few hours on October 7th, replaced by a gray cloud of what once was. Sadly I sometimes feel that Israel might never be the same and neither will I after what people called the Holocaust of October 7th. The Black Sabbath. A Pogrom. A Genocide. A Massacre. A second Israel Independence Day. We could feel the collective grief that is felt by an entire country consumed by hostages, death, grief, and war even during days of a cease-fire. Along with several members of my amazing congregation and my dear friend and Guide Mike Hollander, we came to Israel to hug, to help and to hear.         

We came to hug our friends and family who were so incredibly appreciative of our presence on the ground. Even more than that they were so grateful for the collective us: the friends, family, and extended family of Am Yisrael who made donations, marched in Washington, sent emails of connection. We hugged everyone because everyone needed it. We hugged people who spoke of what they saw and what they lost. We hugged soldiers after feeding them. We hugged total strangers who just needed to know they weren’t alone. It was incredible to hug Hannah who grew up right behind Am Shalom and now lives in Tel Aviv as well as Ian and Helena, medical students at Tel Aviv University who chose to go back in the middle of a war. It was great to hug my cousin Bradley who luckily had a day off from Miluim. It was great to hug Mike and his family as they are all working so hard helping so many people with the funds we have raised.

We came to HELP. To help pick up the morale of so many who are still living the day of October 7th over and over and over again. As my friend Sarah Tuttle Singer so beautifully shared at dinner on Tuesday: 

Every day I have to physically look at a calendar to see what day it is…Wednesday? Friday? The thing is, for me, it’s really just the same day: October 7. Yesterday was October 7. Today is October 7. The todays of tomorrow will be October 7. I don’t know how to stop making it be October 7. I am not ok.

We helped many organizations and individuals by donating money...To organizations like the Israel Trauma Center that is trying to coordinate and provide mental health assistance for an entire country which, over the next period of time and long beyond, will need psychological counseling and mental health assistance on a scale like never before. In some ways we heard that there are possibly 7 million or more with PTSD. We saw loss, grief, trauma and pain that we can’t even fathom. They are living on a different planet altogether. What Hersh’s mom Rachel Goldberg calls the “planet of tears.” 

This is already Israel’s longest war with no end in sight and a serious sentiment of many we talked with is that Lebanon will soon be involved. Everyone knows someone who died. Someone held hostage. I sat next to a doctor on the plane coming home who was coming to the USA to raise money for Sourasky Medical Center as they need to build a new department for Mental Health. That’s the hospital in central Tel Aviv where all of the hostages are being flown for assessment and debriefing.  

We also helped with our own hands for a few hours by sorting avocados for a farmer who used to rely on Thai help in the fields and almost all were called home after the attack. And with thousands of men and woman called up in the reserves, human power is greatly reduced everywhere. So as not to waste or let fruit rot, we packed the boxes of 12, 14 or 20 avocados and sent them down the line for shipping. The best ones being sent to Europe and oversees, others used in Israel and the slightly damaged ones donated to schools, yeshivas and food banks. In the fields you see cars lined up with high tech stickers on the windshield of employees giving time to help the farmers. A representative of the JDC, the Joint Distribution Committee dealing with agriculture, shared a beautiful Yehuda Amichai poem:   


And we heard first-hand accounts of everyday individuals whose lives have been turned upside down. The 30-year-old soldier Omri who got in his car in the morning of October 7th and drove down to the south and helped fight off terrorists putting 7 injured soldiers in his tiny Hyundai. I didn’t even know if I could fit so many in my car, he quipped, and then drove them to safety only to go back to the school and get shot 2 times in the leg. 50 days later he is now walking with a crutch but knows he will run his first triathlon in less than a year and we are going to continue to help him reach that goal. We heard from the 51-year-old CEO Avishai who, though he wasn’t called up, showed up at his base and went down to Gaza and on the 5th day of the ground operation was shot in both legs trying to rescue his soldiers. We heard his story at Sheba hospital where all 72 rooms on the top floor of a rehab unit have been converted to house wounded soldiers and victims of the Nova Music Festival. On this wing there are no rules of only 2 visitors at a time with each room overflowing with family, friends, musicians, celebrities, and of course Chabad rabbis handing out Hanukkah menorahs. There are ping pong and foosball tables in the hallways and groups of friends sitting everywhere.  

We heard the stories of Orit, Givat and Batya, from kibbutz Kfar Aza now living just outside Tel Aviv on Kibbutz Shevayim together with 200 others. How Orit spent 36 hours in their safe room with her husband and 4 kids. 4 kids who watched the Sponge Bob movie that they accidently downloaded onto their I-pad 8.5 times in the safe room while hearing terrorists on the roof of their house. Givat, whose body shook as she said that she attended 61 funerals and shivas of everyone from Kfar Azaattending 8 in one single day in tents around the kibbutz. 

We heard. We helped. We hugged.  

But what most took my breath away was the fact that while the government has been missing in action since October 7 and long before, it has been the civil society that has and will pull Israel through this existential wrestling match. 

Civilian command centers called Hamals were literally set up overnight by volunteers who saw the need to provide support to soldiers, refugees and the hundreds of thousands of Israelis impacted by the war. It is hard to describe the extent of services offered by the Hamal. They have created computerized spreadsheets that match people looking for help and those willing to offer it: From medicines to hot meals. Soldiers who need rides to get to their bases are matched with drivers willing to get them there. Parents in need of diapers and baby formula are provided with whatever they need. Those who came from the south with only the clothes on their backs are given coats, socks and underwear. A free store was set up and donations are still pouring in in dozens of other places around the country. Volunteers that worked at the Hamal come from almost every sector of Israeli society. Young and old, students and professionals, religious and secular all coming together. These volunteers are able to do what the government should or would not do. And the same is true with the hostage center in Tel Aviv and Kikar Hatufim. Former diplomats and volunteers assisting each of the families by coordinating the messaging that must be front and center to BRING THEM HOME. Talking to the press, lobbying foreign Governments…they will not stop until all the hostages are free. These are places of compassion and connection, of anger and love, of fear and hope. Kikar Hatufim Hostage Square is a place of incredible, searing public art, that started with a Shabbat able set for 242, just like the 242 chairs we have in front of the Synagogue. It is a place of memory and hope, tears and hugs, songs and prayers. It was and is Holy Ground.  

And Jacob was left alone and in that darkness, wrestled almost all night long. He walked with a limp for the rest of his life as his hip was torn from its socket. I understand more than ever that after October 7th we all will forever walk with a limp. We are all one family the children of Jacob. We are ISRAEL. We are God-wrestlers. Yet, the root of the word ISRAEL has another meaning that helps me understand this difficult time. It means to persist or to persevere. It gives us all the hope, courage and strength to continue to battle in the darkest night to wrestle with beings divine and human and prevail.  

Our brief time in Israel depleted us and at the same time strengthened us. Somehow, despite everything we have experienced, despite everything we’ve been through – from pogrom to massacre to genocide – we persist. We always have and we always will. We are in pain with even more than our wrenched hips, but we are not broken. We have all become ISRAEL. We will continue to persevere day after day, year after year and sadly war after war. In time we will pick up the broken pieces and build a better and healthier country. You can be sure we will be back to HUG, to HELP to HEAR and in due time, to HEAL. Let’s HOPE.  

About the Author
Ordained by HUC-JIR in 1995, Rabbi Stark Lowenstein has been a Rabbi in Chicago for 29 years the last 22 at Am Shalom in Glencoe, illinois. He is the author of For the Love of Being Jewish and For the Love of Israel.
Related Topics
Related Posts