What the OU Solidarity Mission to Israel Taught Me
In Parshat Shelach, we read about the meraglim, the spies. Last week I embarked on such a trip to Israel. People told me I was crazy. People told me that I had to be safe. At that point the FAA had banned flights to Israel. Do we blame them after what happened in Ukraine? Well, let’s just say I started a trend that day, because Former Mayor of New York, Mike Bloomberg flew to Israel that very same day on a later flight in protest of the FAA ban.
The reason I wrote this is so that I can give a report of Eretz Yisrael, the Land of Israel. I arrived several days earlier then the OU Solidarity Mission which started later in the week. From the airport, I went straight Yerushalayim, dropped my bags off and went straight to Har Herzl, the military cemetery in Yerushalayim. Max Steinberg, an American Israeli hero who died protecting his land and people, was being laid to rest there. 35,000 people. Let me say that again, 35,000 people attended his funeral. The image of so many people who did not know Max was moving. As a nation we stood there in the blazing heat of midday and paid or tributes to a man, a boy really, who died doing a mitzvah, protecting his land and his people. As a nation we cried then. As a nation we mourned.
טובה הארץ מאד מאד (The Land is very very good!)
Meeting up with friendslater that day in the center of town, I encountered a rally for the IDF. About 300-400 people who sat in the middle of Kikar Tzion on the bottom of Ben Yehuda and sang together as one voice and as one nation. From Dati and Chiloni to Chareidi and Tzioni, everyone was there, all to show their support for our brothers & sisters, sons, & daughters, who were fighting against Hamas in Aza. As a nation we sang. As a nation we cried. As a nation we prayed.
טובה הארץ מאד מאד
The OU Solidarity Mission, I feel weird calling it that, I sound like a Christian out in Africa trying to convert someone. However, every big name out of the OU was there, Rav Tzvi Hirsch Weinreb, Rav Steven Weil, & the man who organized the whole trip, Rav Avi Berman, head of the OU Israel. We first went to visit Golani soldiers who just returned from Aza. We talked to them. Their commander told us that the worst thing that could happen is a cease fire. They need the time to do the job they need to do. It takes time to destroy one tunnel and the job is hard enough as it is without everyone calling for a ceasefire and getting in the way. He continued, saying, how can he make sure his troops are safe and how can he continue to protect Eretz Yisrael and Am Yisrael when there is a cease fire every day?
We then met with a Sayeret Golani (elite) unit, which had lost seven members in a Black Hawk Down like situation. Let me describe the powerful scene that occurred while visiting these soldiers. Off to the side we saw 7 bags. Clean. Not covered in dust. They looked, as if ready to picked up and put on a soldier’s back. Asking their commander what was going on, we were told they don’t belong to any of the soldiers there. All the soldiers we saw sitting there next to the army gear bags were watching over the bags. Taking care of them. “Why?” we ask their commander, a war harden soldier who fought in the Yom Kippur war and also lost his son in Jenin in 2003. He responded, “These bags are now the property of Hashem. These are the bags of the tzadikim who died ‘Al Kidush Hashem’.” These boys were sitting there protecting their belongings, keeping them clean. They never got to say good bye to their friends, their brothers. What achdut, unity? Again as a nation we cried. And as a nation we prayed that their neshamas should have an Aliyah. People arrive in droves to bring soldiers gifts, food for Shabbat and items they need out in the battlefield. No one asked them to do it and its technically illegal to go to the army camp but they do it anyway. Achdut.
טובה הארץ מאד מאד
We then went to visit an active Iron Dome just outside Sderot. As you would assume, it went off right as we were getting back on the bus. However, throughout Friday night and Shabbat morning we heard artillery shelling. Not going to lie. It’s quite peaceful to fall asleep when you know our boys and out there pummeling Hamas. No sirens over Shabbat B”H, as we found out it was a cease fire.
Friday night went as follows. We davened at the Hesder Yeshiva of Sderot. Let me draw you the scene. 300 yeshiva students. 50 Americans. 500 soldiers right of Aza getting Shabbat off. On top of all that HaRav HaGoen Shmuel Eliyahu was there. To say there was ruach would be an understatement. Singing and dancing late into the night. I think kabbalat Shabbat took 2 hours but I am not sure. I was too engrossed in the Koach of the chayalim. Dinner at the Yeshivah followed by an oneg with HaRav Eliyahu. That Friday night moved us. As a nation we came together in a place ravaged by rockets and in defiance to everything Hamas wanted to do to us, to kill us, to dishearten us, to scare us, we as a nation sang. As a nation we prayed. As a nation we danced. And as a nation we cried.
טובה הארץ מאד מאד
Shabbat morning we all went to separate shuls to daven and ate lunch by various Sderot families. I ate by a young couple. The wife was an olah from Montreal. They had four young kids. The oldest 6 yrs. old and youngest just a couple of months. They were so wonderful. They have so much strength and emunah to live there. They honestly believe that they belong there and I don’t blame them. They are not only doing the mitzvah of Yishuv Yisrael, settling the land, but also are living on our front lines.
Here a couple things to think about. Their oldest son, Imri (6), since the time they have started living in Sderot has gotten PTSD. No child at 6 years old should have PTSD. He is afraid to be by himself. Afraid to go outside by himself. Afraid to sleep by himself. Their two years old, at the lunch table keeps yelling “Tzevah Adom! Tzevah Adom!” “Red Alert! Red Alert”, over and over again. No two year old should ever be yelling these things. It should never be part of a two years old’s vocabulary. They should be talking about toys and laughing and playing not yelling these kinds of things. How can these kids grow up to have a normal life? Don’t they at least deserve that?
We rounded off Shabbat with spending a private seudah shlishit with HaRav Eliayhu and then something amazing happened. As a student at the University of Maryland, many of us get to experience “Slow Shira”, a time when the community comes together and sings until the end of Shabbat, and experience which is usually moving and very powerful. Never again will it ever be so for me. That’s because I experienced the most powerful, most spiritual Slow Shira ever. All of the Yeshivah students, the entire town, all of us from the OU mission and all of the soldiers sang together through the end of Shabbat. Not only did they hear us in all of Sderot but in Aza and in Heaven as well. The power and ruach of our voices as we sang an hour past then end of Shabbat was amazing. Meanwhile, Hamas breaks yet another humanitarian cease fire and begins to bombard the south with mortars and rockets. This brought us together as a nation in Sderot. It lit a fire with in us. And as a nation we sang. As a nation we prayed.
טובה הארץ מאד מאד
Rav Avi Berman recounts a story to us as we drive to Barzilai Hospital in Ashkelon. This is a story that will stay with me forever. A seriously injured soldier was visited by teenagers for Sderot. They were there to visit all the soldiers. This soldier was asleep when they came to see him. They turned away so as not to disturb them. As they were walking out he awoke and saw that on the backs of their shirts it said Sderot. He called out to them, “Where are you from?” They turn around and say “Sderot”. They proceed to give him flowers and gifts and keep telling him thank you. He sits up a little in his bed and responds, “When I took that grenade and got injured, I did it for you. I did it because I love you!” No words can describe this achdut, this pure love for a fellow Jew.
טובה הארץ מאד מאד
On Sunday we visited soldiers in Barzilai and Soroka Hospitals. They show so much strength and energy. All this thanks that they give us, do we deserve it? All we can say is “Thank you” to them and Kol HaKavod, well done and good job. They are stronger than me. I break down when I see them and their amazing power. They value life, they value Israel and they do what they do for us, for their country and for their people.
Two soldiers stick out in my memory who are extremely quiet. They are sitting with their families as we come to them and ask them how they are doing. Wishing them a refuah shlema and tell them thank you for protecting my home. One soldier can only make a faint smile and nod. His mother thanks us and tells us how much this means to her and her son. We ask what happened to him. He begins to break down. We begin to cry too. With difficulty he begins to speak. He says how he was injured along with his friend in the bed next to him. Then he loses it and begins to cry. His mother explains that his whole unit died. These two were the only survivors from his unit. By the time he finishes his story there are no dry eyes. He thanks us. He is so grateful for all we are doing.
But how can we accept his thanks when he and his brothers made the ultimate sacrifice to protect us? To protect our families. To protect our land. How many more soldiers must die before the world learns that no amount of the scum we are fighting is worth even one life of our soldiers?
As a nation we stand there outside the hospital, about to leave, until a woman and some kids begin to sing Am Yisrael Chai. We take it in stride and join hands and sing and dance. As a nation in the entry of Soroka hospital we sing. As a nation we dance. As a nation we cry.
טובה הארץ מאד מאד
Sunday afternoon after visiting injured soldiers we visited a program for troubled youth in Dimona. It is a very troubled, socio-economically low town in the middle of the Negev desert. These children are poor. They are neglected by their families. The parents cannot handle them. Mostly because of recent years of wars. These children act out as a response to being afraid. We gave then toys and candy and played a little pool with them. They are cute and fun if you let them be themselves. They just need to be kids running around outside. Instead they all stay inside, in bomb shelters all day, too afraid to come outside. What kind of childhood is that?
Sunday night we met with Miriam Peretz, had dinner with her and then she spoke to us. After everyone just finished eating dinner, Miriam got up to the podium and she began to speak. The room is dead silent. All eyes are on her. She tells her sorry. Which I will relate, but what you have to know, is that by the end, there is not a dry eye in the room. There are only shocked faces.
For those that don’t know her story Miriam has 6 children. Her oldest son Uriel died in Lebanon fighting in Sayeret Golani in 1998. He was 22 years old. 12 years later her next oldest son, Eliraz passed away in Gaza in 2010. He was the deputy commander of a Golani brigade. He was 32. He left behind a wife and four children. The oldest 6 and the youngest 1 1/2 months old. To add on top of her heart ache her husband Eliezer died of a “broken heart” as she put it, in 2005. She tells us, she now goes to Har Herzl where her two sons are buried. She says, they are 2 meters apart. “The dilemma I now face is inhuman: Beside which grave do I stand on Mount Herzl? What grave to I go an visit first?”
With all that has happened to her, Miriam remains a deeply religious woman with a heart overflowing with Torah and love for Am Yisrael and Eretz Yisrael! She has not lost faith. Her passion and commitment to Eretz Yisrael and Am Yisrael are contagious. She does not ask why it was her sons that died. She knows that they died defended every single one of us. Defending our land. She said that she talked to Eliraz two weeks before he passed away. He related this story to her that had happened that very same day. He had met his wife in Yerushalayim and walked with her to the kotel. When they got there he told his wife, “if I die I won’t think of my mom or you. I will see this (pointing to the kotel) and I will know that I died defending this.” This power and love for Eretz Yisrael, emboldens us with this spirit. It is amazing. It is contagious and it lights a fire with in us.
טובה הארץ מאד מאד
So let’s talk about what’s going on in Israel at the moment. Over 3,000 rockets have been fired into Israel from Aza. That averages out to be just over 120 rockets a day or 5 rockets every hour. As I am sure most of you know these are coming from schools, homes, hospitals and mosques. A few things to note here. Hamas uses its citizens as human shields. We are told and asked by the media about all the civilian casualties. “What about those innocent Palestinians?” Well to date there have been about 1,400-1,500 people killed in Gaza. Let’s get some statistical facts correct here. The ratio of terrorists, “combatants”, to civilians killed in Afghanistan and Iraq by America is 1 to 4. In Aza, it is 1 to 2. Yes civilian deaths are a terrible thing. Especially when they are innocent women and children. However, Israel is not to blame. How can they be when Hamas is the one that forces its own people to stay in their homes, schools and hospitals.
You have to understand that Israel wastes valuable resources trying to prevent the exact thing that they are being blamed for. They call, text, and drop flyers on areas they will be attacking days prior to them actually going ahead and doing so.
What country would do that? Let’s see Russia do that in Ukraine. Let’s see any other country do what Israel does to prevent civilian casualties. If this was any other country they wouldn’t even put their soldiers in harm’s way. Their air forces would just bomb them all to Kingdom Come. However, Israel knows that we are held to a higher moral standard. We know that the world looks at us to make one wrong move. So as much as it pains me every time to see a soldier dies and it angers me to the point of wanting to take a leaf out of America’s play book and just carpet bomb Aza, just like they did in WWII with Dresden. I know that this is not an option.
The fact of the matter is that we have an amazing piece of technology called the Iron Dome. It took 3 years to develop and the people who developed it are literally divorced now because they were married to this project. While Israel uses rockets to defend its people. Hamas uses people to defend its rockets.
Then we get to the threat that more threatening than any rocket. The tunnels. On average it takes about 3-5 days to destroy one tunnel. They are vast, large, and hold severe danger to our soldiers. We use gas, dogs, and robots, but this takes time before we can go ahead and blow them up. Each one is like a Chanukiah. It has many arms or side tunnels in Aza that begin in homes mosques and schools, combine into one tunnel to get across the border and then divide into many arms already in Israel which open up in kibbutzim and yishuvim near the border.
They are well made, having used resources that both the UN and Israel provided for Aza’s “infrastructure”. Over 160 children died at the hand of Hamas digging these tunnels.
So why did Hamas go through all this trouble. Hamas planned a large scale attack on Israel during Rosh Hashanah where 2,000 terrorists would go into these tunnels, come out in Israeli kibbutzim and yishuvim near Aza and while everyone was in shul, massacre every man, woman and child. This would have been worse than any other tragedy to befall the Jews since 1945. A worse surprise then the Yom Kippur War.
Now I don’t claim I know how Hashem works. But I do know that everyone has a purpose in life and in death. It is my belief that is was the purpose of our three sons, Eyal, Naftali, and Gilad to save Am Yisrael from this tragedy. I believe their deaths shed light and gave us the strength to unite as one nation against an evil threat we had no idea was coming.
This is our land we are talking about. Our home, and the only place we truly belong. We know that there is no place in the world we can get too comfortable before trouble finds us. The warning signs are always there, just no one heads them. We said never again and we must ensure never again. The warning signs have begun in Europe. European Jews are being threatened and tormented. The biggest Aliyah is not out of America right now. It’s out of France. America is next. It’s only a matter of time before we don’t feel so safe here. The signs are beginning to spring up. On university campuses across the country Israel is called a terrorist country committing genocide worse than Hitler. Not only that but in schools across the country like NYU, Jewish students have gotten eviction notices put on their dorm room doors, mimicking the eviction notices the Nazis used in Europe. And the administrations did nothing about it. The signs are there.
So what did this trip show me personally? It showed me that Am Yisrael has never, in over 2,000 years, been so united. Never have I seen everyone, backing the Israeli government and what they are doing. If this is not the onset of Mashiach I don’t know what is. There is so much achdut, unity and so much love that people have started collecting money and hiring architects to design the third Beit HaMikdash.
And it has also done something for me that affects me to my core. This trip, as unexpected as it was, and maybe that’s part of it, has reaffirmed my want and my desire to make Aliyah next year.
So I come back home now with this report. A report to tell you that enough is enough. We as Jews must defend Eretz Yisrael and Medinat Yisrael. We must stand up to the cruel lies and propaganda that Hamas is spewing. They are winning the media war and America’s gov’t is falling for Hamas’ propaganda. This was the sin of the meraglim. That they came back with their reports of Eretz Yisrael and the people believed their false reports. Don’t fall for their wicked ways. Don’t open the door for Amalek when they come knocking on our front door. I believe I have seen us overcome the sin of sinat chinam this past month, the sin of baseless hatred of one another that destroyed the Beit HaMikdash. Don’t let it be in vain. We must rise as a nation and pray. We must rise as a nation and cry. We must rise as a nation and learn. And we must rise as a nation and defend our people and our Home. For it says in the shmoneh esrei, “vetecha zena eineinu beshchuva letzion berachamim. Baruch ata Hashem, hamechazir shechinato letzion.” “May our eyes behold Your return to Zion in mercy. Blessed are You L-rd, who restores His Divine Presence to Zion.” Let me tell you, the schechina was there this past month and we must keep it there.
On Tisha B’Av, a day of mourning, we read in Eicha, “Eicha – yashvah vadad…” “Alas – she sits in solitude…”. This Tisha B’Av, we, Am Yisrael, sit and we mourn. In solitude? Yes. Am Yisrael now sits in solitude, with no friends and no allies. We sit and mourn our lost sons and daughters. We mourn the destruction of our Temple, and all the woes that have befallen us throughout history. We are a nation alone, as Belaam said, “Hein Am levadad yishkon uvagoim lo yitchashav.” “Behold, it is a nation that will dwell in solitude and not be reckoned among the nations.” We are alone among the nations but we are united as never before. Not one single Jew is alone this Tisha B’Av. We are united as a nation in our love and support of Israel.
טובה הארץ מאד מאד