Reflections from Israel and my 50th birthday

My family’s winter visit to Israel was a gift for my 50th birthday. This trip held special significance as my mother, born to Holocaust survivors, accompanied me, along with one of my brothers who hadn’t set foot in Israel for 31 years. Our journey was not a typical vacation but a poignant trip, joining a small group to witness the aftermath of October 7th and engage in volunteer work.

I find myself still grappling with the profound experiences that unfolded before me. Navigating through the emotional landscape, we visited families connected to my grandmother’s survival story, explored the Nova Festival massacre site, spent time in the ICU with soldiers injured in Gaza, toured kibbutzim destroyed on October 7th, and contributed through tasks such as picking grapefruit and cleaning kohlrabi. The hotels where we stayed were still housing internally displaced families from the south and north, unable to return home due to safety concerns for what is now five months. It was evident that this was not a typical tourist experience but a necessary journey for diaspora Jews in the current challenging climate.

This was my most meaningful experience of my lifetime in Israel and it will be a visit that I won’t forget and will haunt my memories.

An experience in Israel usually charges my Jewish communal battery and my soul. This was not that trip. This time I needed to travel to Israel with a fully charged battery ready to give more of myself than ever. This was like no other visit to Israel – it was a mission to help, volunteer, and provide strength and solidarity. Immersed in the emotional tapestry of this resilient nation, the heart of my journey lay in absorbing the impactful stories of individuals dating back to October 7th and its aftermath. I will share just a few of those accounts here.

Venturing into the realm of personal narratives, I visited families in the ICU, sharing in the struggles of soldiers who were critically injured. Some had faced near-death situations in January but now exhibited progress, able to perform daily tasks independently, such as showering. It became apparent that the soldiers of the Tik Tok generation, often underestimated, surprised everyone with their resilience and exceptional response to the challenges of war. I will continue to pray for refuah shelma for Eran Ben Elka, Oded Ben Chaya, Raphael ben Elana, and Ori Yehuda Ben Tziporah Esther. May their families continue to feel the love of all the people of Israel from around the globe.

One poignant stop included the site of the Nova Festival massacre, where the fields were carpeted with my mother’s favorite flower, the Calaniot, anemones, and wildflowers of white and yellow. It was the time of Darom Adom, the Scarlett South. This bloom happens every year naturally, but this year they have sprung up from the blood and ashes of the 365 mostly young concert goers, murdered, tortured, mutilated, and raped. While walking through the makeshift memorial, the sounds of war could be heard from over the border in Gaza. It was so close. I could understand how the concert goers were trapped in the space surrounded by hundreds of terrorists. Survivors hid in ravines, garbage bins, and clumps of trees, they pretended to be dead scattered among the bodies of their friends. These images from the videos shot by Hamas terrorists themselves and those visuals from the testimony will never leave my memory. The memorial is now a makeshift pilgrimage site for all Israelis: secular, religious, army recruits, the friends and families paying respects at the last known location of their loved ones, and for those coming to Israel from around the world to bear witness. This experience underscored the unsettling reality that such tragedies were never supposed to occur within the Jewish state. A modern-day pogrom was not supposed to happen when we had an Israel Defense Forces, let alone inside Israel. The rawness of these emotions lingers within me, and I am still processing it all, emphasizing the importance of being present in the moment.

In Kfar Azza, we met with Zohar, a survivor, who shared with us the efforts of Israelis on the kibbutzim surrounding Gaza, particularly those who were peace activists. These individuals worked tirelessly towards peace, organizing programs to support Palestinians, employing Gazans, and promoting coexistence. However, the shocking revelation on October 7th changed everything. Those whom they were helping, seemingly innocent Gazans, played a role in planning the attack, gathering information, and aiding terrorists. The harsh reality has shattered the dream for many, revealing a truth that challenges the values believed to be shared among all humans. Until the world wakes up from its fairy tale, true peace remains an elusive goal. The actions on October 7th and the treatment of hostages by those on the other side provide a stark reminder to open our eyes to the reality before us.

After our visit to Kibbutz Kfar Azza, we met up with my friend, Elisa. Our friendship was forged through Israeli folk dancing, road trips to NYC, and surviving Sylvia Barak Fishman’s American Jewish Literature class together at Brandeis. This time, my visit was not just about catching up but delving into the profound experiences that Israel offers. We strolled through familiar streets of Jerusalem, seeking Magen David necklaces and Kiddush cups as souvenirs. Our dinner in a bustling restaurant accompanied by live music, provided a welcome sense of normalcy amid the profound experiences of the trip.

For Elisa, our visit acted as a countermeasure to the unsettling messages she had received while sick in bed the previous week. Battling bronchitis, fever, and vomiting, she found solace in the normalcy we brought. The messages detailing antisemitism, reluctance to stand with fellow Jews, and the constant qualifying of statements about Israel were overwhelming for her as an American Israeli. Elisa said that our visit was the medicine she needed – a dose of people standing on the right side of history. As we recounted our experiences at dinner, it became clear how crucial it is for people worldwide to hear these stories and meet individuals on both sides of the border. The citizens of the world need to understand the reality, not just rely on memes and social media posts.

Even while in Israel, students’ experiences of being harassed on college campuses since October 7th were at the surface. In fact, parents of one of the students on our trip had to meet with the college president while we were in Israel to discuss plans for the student’s safe return to campus. Against this backstory, we prayed and spent time together at the Kotel bringing in Shabbat. The singing and dancing at the Kotel on Shabbat night on both the women’s and men’s side brought the college students on our trip to tears because unlike being ostracized on their campus since October 7th, they belonged and once again felt at home. The power of Israel continues to unite our people.

Reflecting on the sentiments of the people I encountered, I found myself fielding questions about their reactions to the unfolding events. Our dialogue delved deeper, resonating with the gravity of the situation. I believe that a new normal in supporting Israel is emerging, a need to invest in the rebuilding of both country and infusion of support in the healing of trauma and loss. It is a necessary endeavor and will require that each of us digs deep for this effort. The overwhelming reaction from Israelis, so thankful to see people coming to Israel, underscored the reality that they feel they are fighting alone. They see what we in America are now struggling with on college campuses and the rise of antisemitism around the world and appreciate that in this moment of global challenges, Jews from the diaspora are coming to lend a helping hand in Israel.

I encourage others to partake in a meaningful Israel journey, either through the United Jewish Federation of Tidewater’s Solidarity Mission in June or any other experience now. Personally bearing witness can help our Jewish family in Israel usher in the initial steps of healing.

Am Yisrael Chai – the nation of Israel lives.