[I intended to send this on Monday, before the UJA Federation solidarity mission began. My hope was to share more personally about my visit with my family and friends here before writing about the mission itself. I just have not had a moment to finish this note. Everything written below took place before the formal mission. Since writing this, I met with families of hostages, survivors of the massacre in the south, attended the funeral of a young soldier killed in battle on Tuesday, and so much more that I want to share with you. I have learned so much since writing this. I will write about these things when I return, and speak about them on Tuesday night at 7:30, so please join me then for my reflection on this week.]
I landed at Ben Gurion airport and it was empty. The open view of the departures area- usually filled with people drinking coffee and shopping for duty free items- was a ghost town. It was the first sign that we are living through an extraordinary moment. My journey from leaving the plane to exiting the airport took no more than 25 minutes. I never thought that I would miss the long lines and chaos of Ben Gurion.
My brother-in-law Noam picked me up from the airport and took me to his kibbutz in the South. Noam grew up on a moshav in the desert and is a sabra in the best possible way. Allow me to paint a picture. A few years ago, Noam and I drove to pick his kids up from gan (preschool), a trip that should have taken about ten minutes. About 45 minutes later, we were still talking to a total stranger about his tractor, which Noam spotted as we were driving. He drove off the highway onto a dirt road in a field just to get a closer look at the tractor.
On any drive with him he might see the perfect spot for a cup of coffee, pull off the road, take two chairs out of his trunk, make a fire, two cups of Turkish coffee, and just sit, delighting in the magic of the desert. He is salt-of-the-earth defined. You get the picture?
When I exited the airport, he gripped me in a typical bear hug, and I felt my body relax. I don’t think I fully comprehended how much stress I was holding in my body for those 22 days. Just seeing him was a tremendous relief.
On the way to the kibbutz, Noam and I caught up. I asked about his kids, the kibbutz, the overall mood. He shared a bit, and then the conversation moved to a surprising place. He wanted to know how my family and I were dealing with the explosion of antisemitism in America. We discussed it for a bit, but I was in Israel to offer him comfort and support, not the other way around.
I was relieved to see our family, Tali’s sister Shani and their three boys, Daniel, Amit, and Eitan (and of course, the dog Noche). We hugged, and I opened a bag of endless amounts of candy for the boys and gave Shani and Noam some clothes that the Aldouby family sent with me (as either an act of love or shopping therapy, or both).
There is no mistaking that this is a time of war. I lived in Jerusalem during the second intifada with almost daily suicide bombings. However, someone could have visited for a few days and sensed that life was more-or-less normal if it happened to be a time without a bombing. This is not so now. Life is far from normal. Once we arrived at the kibbutz, Noam stopped to pick up his M-4 rifle which never left our side. I had never seen him with a gun before. There are ongoing security patrols and civilian drills that started after October 7th. You can feel the tension as soon as you enter the kibbutz.
When we walked into their home, five friends were sitting in the kitchen, drinking coffee and talking about the situation. Everyone here is traumatized by the magnitude of this terror operation. The heinousness and sadism of these attacks are topics that are routinely discussed. The massive failure of the intelligence, military, and political sectors to protect Israelis from the blood lust of Hamas has created a profound sense of vulnerability here. I have never heard such fear threaded through conversations with Israelis. In this country, the ethos of yihyeh b’seder (“it will be fine”) has been replaced with a dread that Israel may not succeed in winning a war for its very existence.
The possibility of a second front opening with Hezbollah terrorists infiltrating the north, tens of thousands of rockets raining down on northern cities, chaos and rioting in the West Bank, more missiles fired from Yemen, and more direct engagement from Iran makes this war truly frightening. Israelis feel that they are fighting for their very survival, and nothing less. I don’t share this with the pretense of being an expert in geopolitics or military strategy, but simply as someone listening to Israelis and reading the Israeli press. This may not be the way the war is being portrayed in the American media, but it is how many Israelis see this situation. This is a war of survival.
While listening to Noam and Shani’s friends talk about their friends and family called up into the army, the attacks themselves, the hostages, and the war, someone turned to me and asked me about the antisemitism in America. “We are worried about what’s going on there. Jews are being trapped in libraries on campus. Do you feel safe in the States?”
The conversation about antisemitism in America, particularly on campus, followed me everywhere I went. Whether I was standing with a soldier outside of his base up north or sitting in the kitchen of someone whose uncle was burned alive on Kibbutz Be’eri, the conversation always turned back to how scared American Jews must feel right now. This reveals so much about the ways Israelis see Diaspora Judaism. Israelis at least feel that they can directly fight the antisemitism that fuels Hamas’s jihadist fantasy of murdering Jews; they are at least in control of their destiny. But they are worried that we American Jews can’t defend ourselves and will once again, need to actively hide our Jewishness or risk being attacked.
Shabbat was special for me, even if it was textured with a deep despair about the death of so many Israelis. How can one truly enjoy Shabbat when 220 Israelis are being held hostage somewhere in Gaza. It felt a bit like sitting shiva. You sit around a table full of food, talking about the pain and grief, sharing your fears, and then suddenly you are laughing about something ridiculous. The laughter is not avoidance; it’s just part of the moment. But it isn’t a belly laugh, and the food is for comfort, not for savoring. I wanted to be with our family in order to listen, to share with them, to offer support and love. And yet, they were in full care-taking mode. They cooked delicious meals, made sure I was comfortable, and Shani even did my laundry.
Perhaps, having a family member from abroad stay with them in the midst of these horrors provided a brief respite from the worry and the grief. But when the house shook from the explosions over the border, it was not possible to forget what was happening. It seems that when at war, cooking, cleaning, doing laundry, and taking care of others is a way to feel in control, as Israelis deal with the aftershocks of an attack that revealed how little control they actually had.
Most importantly, we just had time to talk about everything, to hug, and cry a bit. Even though they are shattered by the past few weeks, my time with them was very special.
On Sunday, I wanted to visit my dear friend Avinoam and his son Nadav, who were a short drive away on the border with Gaza, but I got a text from Avinoam at 3am saying that he and his son were both going into Gaza to fight. It wasn’t meant to be. I tried to imagine what these days are like for his wife Havi, knowing that her husband and son, named for her brother who was killed while in the army, were both serving inside Gaza. It’s too much to fathom.
Instead of the Gaza border, Noam and I drove two and a half hours north to Kfar Vradim. We tried to listen to music or talk during the drive, but we mostly sat quietly and listened to the news. Interviews with people who lived through the Hamas slaughter or whose family members were kidnapped are all over the airwaves. Signs meant to keep morale high line the highway, urging unity during this time of war. Over 300,000 reservists were called up, so one sees them everywhere. I am writing this on a train to Jerusalem and it is full of soldiers, some of whom are on a break from the fighting in Gaza. They sit exhausted, dirty, headed home for some much needed rest. In America, our soldiers do a tour of duty for six months at a time, maybe longer, because the war zone is halfway around the world. Here, soldiers can fight for a week or two and then get on a bus home for 24 hours. The movement between war and regular life is staggering.
We drove north to meet up with Sarah, a young woman whom I met when she was just ten years old. She came to Israel when she graduated from high school and earned her way into a fighting unit in the army. I had the privilege of being present when she was sworn into the army. She has the courage of 1,000 warriors. Sarah is currently a university student but was called back into reserve duty for this war. Noam and I met her as she was on her way back to her unit stationed on the northern border after a Shabbat off.
She is determined and strong. She is the only woman in her battalion, and she is unfazed by the challenges this presents (fighting equipment made for a much larger body, sleeping in a tent alone instead of with her fellow soldiers, etc). I wanted to buy her breakfast but the cafe won’t let soldiers pay for their meals. It was wonderful to see her. It meant a lot to me to be able to just hug her goodbye and tell her how proud I am of her. It was hard to say goodbye because that soldier was still, in some strange way, that ten year old girl whom I met many years ago.
We then drove to Ein HaShofet to see my nephew Yarden, who grew up in New Jersey but came to Israel to serve after high school. He is also studying in university. There are four siblings in Tali’s family, and Yarden is the firstborn of all of their children, so he has a special place in our family. We picked up some food and drove through the forest to find his makeshift base, which is serving right now as an iron dome battery to protect one of the air force bases. We had about 45 minutes with him before he had to leave on a patrol. When he was a year old, Tali and I fed him his first taste of ice cream, and it was adorable to watch his face discover delight. Now I was giving him Druse food with a rifle slung over his tired shoulders. We opened the trunk of the car and sat with our legs dangling over. Noam, Yarden and I just talked. We wanted to know about his days, the work he is doing, his morale, what he was eating, and so on. It almost felt normal, until I remembered what I was doing in the middle of nowhere next to an iron dome battery.
Yardeni wanted to know if my son Noam was okay because he saw the videos of what happened to Jewish students at Cooper Union. There it was again. My nephew who is patrolling Northern Israel during a war is worried about Jews in America. I changed the subject.
We spoke more about the war and how important he feels it is to fight Hamas and Islamic fundamentalism everywhere. He mentioned his four friends who were killed at the rave on October 7th, and I didn’t ask any questions, but I know it makes everything that he is doing all the more personal. We called Tali, talked some more, and then said our goodbyes. Noam gave him a bear hug, and fighting back his tears, he insisted that when Yardeni has a break he should stay with them for some steak and rest. I told him how proud I am of him. I hugged him goodbye, kissed his cheek, got in the car and watched him walk away. I didn’t let myself dwell too much on what he might see and do in the coming weeks. I just put the car in reverse and drove on.
We headed northeast to Givat Ela to visit my friend Eran. When we arrived, his son was on the porch playing on his iPad instead of practicing for his bar mitzvah. I had not seen Eran since before COVID. We met about 25 years ago when I was a group leader for USY Israel Pilgrimage and he was my medic. We have remained friends ever since, and he even spent Yom Kippur with us at Beth El about six or seven years ago. Eran’s uncle, aunt, and cousins live on Kibbutz Be’eri. He shared the harrowing story of how he directed the Zaka medic to his uncle’s home to try to locate him. He was found with his fingers chopped off, tortured, and burned alive. His aunt is still missing, so she is either one of the dozens of unidentified bodies or a hostage in Gaza. His family is broken over this, of course, so we just listened to him share his story.
His wife Mychal, a therapist, came home from work, and we caught up a bit. Eran spoke about the fantasy of leaving Israel to live in peace and quiet in the US, but Mychal pointed out that the Jews in America seem more unsafe than the Jews of Israel. “Besides,” she said, “if I am going to die for being a Jew I would rather die in Israel, if only for the sake of my saba who came here to fulfill the dream of Zionism.”
Conversations about where one is most likely to die as a Jew were supposed to be ended by Zionism. It wasn’t the time for politics. I just listened.
Eran and Mychal spoke of the ways that Israelis are reeling from trauma, and she pointed to her refrigerator. The weekly family calendar simply says milchama (“war”) written across each day, because nothing else seems to matter right now. Certainly not the daily activities that generally fill each day for their three children.
Next to the calendar is their five year old daughter’s drawings. One side has rainbows and hearts and the other side is black squares filled in with black scribbles, a bunch of Xs, and what looked to me like barbed wire.
We are a traumatized nation right now.
We finished our visit and I wished Eran comfort, as he was headed out to his uncle’s funeral the next day. And….I wished them mazal tov, as their son Nadav was set to become a bar mitzvah on Thursday in the ruins of the ancient synagogue of Tzippori. They asked if I would extend my trip for a day in order to officiate, but I told them that I have a shul to get back to. Maybe for the next one.
From mourning to celebration. This has always been our birthright. To be a Jew is to know how to move between them, from one to the other. To be Israeli is to live in them both simultaneously.
I spent the drive home thinking about the massive “booms” that I heard and felt while on the kibbutz, some which shook the house. I knew that on the other end of those explosions was terrible destruction in Gaza. Even in the fog of their own suffering and trauma, Israelis know that there is no way to defeat Hamas without the loss of more innocent lives. This too is a source of pain. In this war against Hamas, the IDF continues to distinguish between civilians and terrorists. Even so, innocent Palestinians have been killed, and this is a tragedy too. There is no shame in acknowledging the truth of that statement; the overwhelming majority of Israelis understand that each one of these deaths is a tragedy that only Hamas could prevent. The use of innocent civilians as human shields is part of Hamas’s strategy, further adding to the terrible grief that sits like a fog over our people fighting for their survival.
We returned to the kibbutz utterly exhausted. We sat in the kitchen chatting while the kids were playing video games with friends. Shani wanted to feed me pasta bolognese (of course she did). But I had no appetite. I just wanted to crash. As I was getting ready for sleep, Shani told me that there was an antisemitic mob of people rampaging through the airport in Dagestan, Russia, looking to attack Jews arriving from Israel. It was too much to stomach at the end of a long day. I watched the videos of this wild-eyed mob storming the plane, hunting for Jews to assault, and I heard Mychal’s voice again: “If I am going to die for being a Jew, I would rather die in Israel.”
The dream of Zionism is to build a home in which we can live as Jews. Yes, many have died in order to build this country, and too many others have been killed for merely living in it. But ultimately, this war is seen by Israelis as a fight for their lives, for the basic freedom to wake up on a Saturday morning without the fear of being slaughtered or tortured or burned alive or taken hostage. The country is somber and grieving, and strongly unified in this fight. It is personal. Every single person I visited during these past few days has been directly touched by these terror attacks and this war. Nobody has escaped these horrors.
It should be personal for us too. We must not become dispassionate observers of this war. It is ours to fight too. The sad truth of this moment is that Israel will not win this war without America; the fight against Hamas is a fight against antisemitism, and this is- and will always be- our battle to fight, wherever it takes place. And right now, it is here, and Israel’s children are being called to defend their home. As they do, we will stand with them in solidarity, not just on October 8th and 9th, but however long this takes. That is what solidarity looks like, and this is the commitment of Zionism.
David A. Schuck