Steven Stark Lowenstein

Zionism 2.0

I’ve always been an Emotional Zionist. I’m the rabbi that loves to tell the story of Golda coming to the Blackstone Hotel in Chicago in 1948 with no money and just a pack of cigarettes in her pocket and walked out with 50 million dollars. How President Harry Truman, because of his friendship with his former business partner Eddie Jacobsen, secretly met on March 13th 1948 with Chaim Weizmann and minutes after Ben-Gurion declared the Jewish State on May 14th, Truman announced that the United States recognizes the establishment of the Jewish State, against the advice of George Marshall and many of his advisors.

Every trip I lead stops at the Bullet Factory to hear how 45 youngsters from Tzofim Aleph, right under the noses of the British, produced 4 million bullets to save the country in an underground factory the size of a tennis court.  We always stop at the Pioneer Cemetery on the shores of the Kinneret to see the graves and read the stories of the Poets and Pioneers, the Dreamers and the Doers who drained the swamps and jumped off their haystacks to build the Jewish State. For the first 60 years of my life, that was Zionism 1.0.  Im tirzu… If you will it, it is no Dream.

Over the last 107 days, I’ve come to understand that for the first few hours in the early morning of October 7th, that state of Israel that I so love ceased to exist. The government, the army in a moment of chaos disappeared for a brief moment as 1200 terrorists breached the fences and entered Israel and did the most unthinkable and heinous acts imaginable.

What has emerged since those early morning hours of October 7th, is Zionism 2.0:  A new State of Israel in which everyone is a pioneer.

This week I returned from my second trip in 6 weeks with members of my congregation and with each trip I learn and understand just a little more of what Zionism 2.0 means, and will mean, for all of us.

We have been reborn into a new and devastating reality, where everything is upside down. Where everything is complicated. Israel will never be the same. Our lives will never be the same. When I returned last time I said there are 7 million people with PTSD. I amend that to say there are 7 million with TSD. We are not Post anything, and unfortunately will not be for a long time.

Everyone who is human in this country and on this planet is aching. The death of every soldier and the fate of every hostage is beyond anything. Ain Milim….there are no words. The loss of innocent Palestinian lives is haunting.  The mounting death toll in Gaza is unfathomable.

As my colleague Rabbi Jay Moses writes in a beautiful Facebook post of his recent Wexner trip: “The response of Israel’s citizens, the culture of volunteering and grassroots support of those most in need, is beyond staggering. The spirit of this people, stepping up to help each other with every imaginable form of support, is one of the most inspirational things I have ever seen.” This is a strong and brave and caring society more so than ever before. Those of us who have been there see the most resilient people this world has ever seen. A people in the long run who will not just survive…but thrive. When the government went missing, the people stepped in.

At Sheba Medical Center and at Wolfson Hospital we met with some soldiers and Doctor’s in the “returning to life” Rehab unit. Their morale was amazing, and we were honored to hear their stories. A young father of 3 who has been living outside of Israel in India for the last 7 years returned on October 9th without being asked and was badly wounded in Kahn Younis. An American Doctor from Malibu, Dr. Dan Katz who closed up his practice and has been pulling shifts at Sheba Hospital Emergency Room for several weeks who said that when the uniform was cut away of a soldier who was airlifted there this week, he felt for the first time in his life like he saw his own child on the table beneath him. I was especially heartened to see Omri again, a young man badly wounded on October 7th. Six weeks ago, we saw him in his hospital room as he told us his story. How he transported 7 people in his Hyundai to safety from a kibbutz only to be wounded in a firefight with terrorists a few moments later. We saw him in the community room walking around on the morning he was being discharged after 104 days and countless surgeries. He still wants to run a Triathlon and the Am Shalom Emergency Fund is buying him a bicycle.  He was beyond excited to return home, start a family, and drink a glass of wine on his balcony with his wife, which he did that night. Even after 104 days in the hospital, he wants to return to Gaza with his unit as soon as he can.

We spent a great deal of time learning about and visiting Kfar Azza one of the 22 communities most directly impacted with over 60 killed and 5 still being held hostage. We visited with many survivors of the kibbutz now living at another kibbutz called Shefayim. Nothing prepared us for actually walking the grounds of the kibbutz with Chen, a daughter of the kibbutz, who grew up there with many members of her family. Chen walked us around and told us the stories of what happened to member of her family and her community. She knew each member of the security team that were killed. Chen walked us by the homes badly damaged of her family and friends pointing out where the glider landed. The still-standing Succahs, frozen in time from the last day of the holiday and the bullet holes in buildings and windows made us all understand the beauty of this kibbutz: a true community.

The young adult area designed for those in their 20 and 30s and closest to the hole in the fence was especially hard hit. As we walked through this area Chen asked us to especially think of them and to share their stories. Their community is incomplete without them. We stood with Chen at the end of our visit and sang a prayer for peace and gave her a Mishaberach Bear in the same way we stood at the makeshift memorial site in an open field and said Mourner’s Kaddish for 360 youngsters who came to sing and dance and party at the Nova Music Festival.

While in the Gaza envelope we hosted a BBQ out in the field for artillery soldiers a mile from the border. We filled their stomachs and their souls as we gave away a whole swag bag of Chicago Bulls hats and merch which we did almost everywhere we went.

We visited Hostage Square at the hour of Kfir Bibas’s 1st birthday. The saddest birthday party ever. They released orange balloons in honor of his red “Gingi” hair color with messages written on them, and at the same time we heard from Shani whose cousin was released but is still waiting for her husband.

While walking in Machane Yehuda market in Jerusalem, we noticed a blue and white graffiti stencil painted on the side of a wall. We stopped and read it. “It’s not about right and left, it’s about light and the darkness.” There is so much darkness here – 107 days and counting- but even more there is also so much light.

The pain and grief Israelis are still experiencing is impossible to describe. They grieve for the loss of innocence – for us, for our friends, for our children. They grieve for the families who have lost everything. They grieve for the uncertainty of what will happen next in the north or in the west bank. Matti Friedman, one of many amazing speakers we heard shared with us that this could be a war that might never end  and it could also be a war that hasn’t even started yet if Hezbollah get involved with their 140,000 rockets. Yup, it is complicated.

Yet, I do believe Zionism 2.0 will thrive because of the light. There will be a new state to rebuild. Just like Golda’s 50 million from the Blackstone Hotel, JFNA announced this week that they have already raised more than $750 million in their Israel Emergency Fund. And that doesn’t even count MDA, United Hatzala. Sheba Hospital. Israel Sport Center and all the other amazing organizations like ours.

Rabbi Moses is spot on. “This is a dark chapter in Jewish history and part of a very dangerous moment for the world.” I too return home scared, sad and angry but also full of certainty, full of faith and full of hope that the strength and the spirit of Israel and the Jewish people will most certainly prevail. As Representative Richie Torries said in Shul last week “Hope is the anthem of the Jewish people.” Let’s let the light begin to outweigh the darkness. May Israel prevail in its mission to bring home the hostages and bring about stability, security, and peace to all of its inhabitants.

For the 11 of us who travelled together, this journey was a privilege and an inspiration, and we draw hope and strength from every person we met. They thanked us for coming to help build and rebuild our Jewish homeland together. After 60 years, I am still an Emotional Zionist, ready for Zionism 2.0.

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.
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