On October 6th 2023, Hoshana Rabba, I sat inside Shirat David, a synagogue in Efrat featuring one of Israel’s renowned chazanim, Shlomo Katz. During a Hallel that lasted nearly two hours, I watched a packed house of Israelis—albeit with a few scattered American tourists like myself—dancing with lulavim and etrogim, swaying arm in arm, singing their hearts out. More beautiful than the music though was the diversity of the crowd. The women’s side of the mechitza offered the full spectrum of hair coverings—wigs, mitpachtot, falls, snoods, hats, scarves, you name it, but many with no head covering at all. Women dressed in pants and t-shirts davening alongside women in thick tights under their long skirts and long sleeves, all there together for the shared purpose of praising God on the final day of Sukkot or perhaps pleading with God on the final day of repentance. A beautiful tapestry of Israeli life, and of Jewish life, all under one roof. How inspired I felt that morning. The bitterly divided Jewish State, which I had witnessed at a Jerusalem protest the week before, together with the polarization of American Jewry waiting for me back in New York, neither of these were felt in this sanctuary. No, for that brief, or not so brief shacharit service, I felt a sense of achdut, one people with one heart, and the Jewish future seemed bright.
Less than 24 hours later, I awoke to the unfolding horror of October 7th, the high euphoria of the day before replaced with fear and sadness, hope and inspiration turned into uncertainty and despair. I remember learning once that in Hallel we recite the verse “This is the day the Lord has made, let us rejoice and be glad in it,” while in the immediate verse that follows, without a pause we exclaim “Lord, please save us.” The juxtaposition underlines what we all experienced that day, joy suddenly turned into tears, a festival turned into a great cry for help. Life changing in an instant. Along with the many Americans who had been spending Sukkot in Israel, I left Israel a few days later feeling scared and guilty for abandoning Israel during an imaginable time of need while I returned to what I believed were the safer shores of New York. (Little did I know that the world, and in particular the American university campuses, would somehow find Israel at fault for losing over 1400 of its citizens to a brutal massacre by Hamas terrorists. It’s still hard to believe.) But as my plane took off from Ben Gurion I wondered when—if ever—I would again experience something like that Hoshana Rabba in Efrat.
Well, I did.
It came for me 118 days after October 7th when I returned to Israel last week as part of a Ramaz High School parent-child mission. Together with 25 other parent-child pairs, we came “to give strength and be strengthened.” The itinerary of our mission resembled other itineraries of countless synagogues, schools, and Jewish organizations across the US and around the world. We visited devastated communities in the South. We stood in the open expanse where the Nova Festival took place. We provided free agricultural labor at a plantation where the workforce of Thai farmers had returned to Thailand. We went to Hostage Square. We packed and delivered care packages to wounded soldiers in Tel Hashomer Hopsital. We, and especially our high school kids, participated in all kinds of entertainment activities with displaced youth, and families of soldiers—carnivals, woodworking, rock climbing—things that do not have much appeal to US teenagers normally, but had different meaning in Israel. And yes, like nearly every American mission, we of course barbecued and danced at an army base. I asked one of the soldiers how often missions come with barbecues and he said several times a week. I asked if he was sick of it. And he said “not at all.”
Our 4-day mission was understandably filled with many moments of despair, a reckoning of what Israeli life has been like over these months. Moments of “Lord please save us.” Parents of murdered children retelling the day. Parents of hostage children describing their sleepless nights and moments of breakdown. Itinerary changes because the base we were intending to visit suffered too many losses and injuries that day. Families who have been relocated from their homes and are living in cramped hotel rooms. Young children in certain communities without school. The list can go on and on, and the truth is I had expected this.
What I did not expect were the incredible moments of inspiration. So many moments of strength, faith, and above all, achdut. Israeli volunteers we met in Sheba who come every day to visit and bring food and words of comfort to wounded soldiers. Israeli educators who came out of retirement to design a school system for displaced children from the North—including a track of special education. The inspiring array of soldiers we met–soldiers of all backgrounds and ages, lone soldiers, soldiers with families, reservists who crossed oceans to come and proudly serve their country. The efforts of Chabad Rabbi Shmuel Herman facilitating kaddish, memorial candles, and sefer torah dedications for those murdered and kidnapped at the Nova festival—demonstrating how sacred every life is no matter how that life chooses to observe Shabbat or a Chag. Standing in the threshold of the bomb shelter where Aner Shapira threw back seven grenades to save some of the two dozen concertgoers cramped behind him, before the eighth grenade killed him and blew off the arm of his friend Hersh Goldberg Polin. The more and more stories emerging of those who willingly sacrificed their own lives on October 7th to save the lives of others. Yes I’d read about many of these incredible acts of heroism online, but physically being at the sites of this bravery, picturing and reimagining the shock and trauma of the day, made their selflessness and love of every Jew palpable in a way no news article or social media post could capture.
And, at nearly every site we visited, we often ended up in song or prayer. Some were joyous—like an upbeat drum circle with young children from Ofakim, dancing to Matt Dubb and Omer Adam, or the pumped up energy dancing at a base, our American high school children barely younger than the majority of chayalim. But most of the singing was praying, pleading, and yearning. We sang with the relatives of hostage Tal Shoham in Hostage Square. We sang and then said kaddish with the parents of the brutally murdered Sivan Elkabetz from Kfar Azza. We swayed and listened to the friends of hostage Gali Berman play his favorite song “Count on Me” by Bruno Mars. At these sites and many more, that beautiful, diverse tapestry of Israeli life and Jewish life I experienced in Efrat reemerged as Israelis and Jewish visitors come together, stand together, lock arms together, sing together and pray together for future days to “rejoice and be glad.”