Author of "Embracing Auschwitz" and "Mensch•Marks: Life Lessons of a Human Rabbi - Wisdom for Untethered Times." Winner of the Rockower Award, the highest honor in Jewish journalism and 2019 Religion News Association Award for Excellence in Commentary. Musings of a rabbi, journalist, father, husband, poodle-owner, Red Sox fan and self-proclaimed mensch, taken from essays, columns, sermons and thin air. Writes regularly in the New York Jewish Week and Times of Israel.
One of the byproducts of the timing of Operation Protective Edge is that it has placed thousands of American Jewish teenagers and college students squarely on the front lines – given that virtually the entire country is now on the front lines. Along with those visiting with teen tours and Birthright groups, there are countless other synagogue groups, cruises, family visits, bar mitzvahs, weddings, professional seminars and conventions, and all the things that have been bringing Diaspora Jewry to Israel in the summer for all these years.
Simultaneously, this is precisely the time of year when thousands of Israelis visit that magical place called “Hul,” translated essentially as anyplace outside the country that Israelis are allowed to go. There the only rockets they’ll encounter are on Space Mountain and the only warning sirens are for tornadoes in Kansas are riptides at the Jersey Shore.
Israelis are flocking to America, while American Jews are on the front lines in Israel. I don’t think this is the kind of population transfer that Avigdor Lieberman had in mind.
There is no rhyme or reason to this timing, and I’ve no doubt that many of the Israelis currently sunning themselves in the Hamptons are horror-struck at not being home right now, even as their relatives implore them to stay away. Meanwhile, American tour groups are starting to curtail visits and cancel upcoming trips.
Over time, the Israelis will be back in Israel and American Jews back in America. The population transfer will return to status quo antebellum. But the current situation demonstrates clearly that the entire Jewish people, not just those with Israeli citizenship, are being impacted dramatically – not merely inconvenienced. We are literally putting our children’s lives on the line.
I heard from a congregant of mine, a college student who had just arrived in the country when things began to spiral downhill last week. She described for me how her Beersheba area kibbutz hosts assured her that they were in a “safe place.” Then, the next morning, she awoke to a siren….
This morning I jumped out of bed to blaring missile sirens. It’s not the alarm clock noise I’m used to, but good thing because I usually sleep through those anyway. I had no contacts in and I’m as blind as a bat so I couldn’t see where I was going but just followed my roommate and ran as fast as one possibly could blind, barefoot, and awake for only 3 seconds. We banged on the door to the bomb shelter but the girls inside could not get the door to unlock. We got there in the allotted 30 seconds but standing just a few steps outside the bomb shelter would do us no good. All of sudden and this sudden seemed like it took forever we all rushed in. All around me there was frightful screaming. We felt the ground shake a little and the fridge I was ducked next to rattled (I guess my instincts to get on the ground next to a large heavy object that could fall was probably not so spot on). The 90 seconds wait after the alarm had stopped passed in complete silence.
My congregant then described repetition of this ritual of taking cover, and how it brought her group together:
Funny how missiles falling from the sky can bring people so close to one another. No wonder all Israelis love each other.
American Jews are part of this war. We were also part of the buildup. We prayed and agonized over the search for Eyal, Gil-ad and Naftali. We cried with their parents and felt the shock of an extended family member when their deaths were announced – some of us felt the same anger that Israelis felt, others felt manipulated at the prospect that Israeli authorities might have known of the deaths early on. A part of us died when they were murdered. Another part of us died when Muhammad Abu Khder was murdered by Jews. While the rest of America was distracted by a refugee crisis on the Mexican border, American Jews have remained focused on Israel’s perilous borders and fragile psyche.
These past few weeks have shocked us. But through it all, we’ve been there.
The next time you are tempted to say that Diaspora Jews have no right to criticize policies of Israel’s government because we aren’t willing to put ourselves and our children on the line for Israel, think about the the population transfer of July 2014. Yes, Abu Mazen, it is a Jewish state. Yes, Bibi, that gives us the right to voice our opinions.
Over the years I have led over a dozen groups to Israel and have made such visits my number one priority as a community leader. My next group, comprising about 30 people of all ages, many of whom have never been to Israel and have waited a lifetime for this moment, is scheduled to leave a week from Monday. The likelihood grows each day that we will have to cancel the trip. It sickens me that it might happen, and it sickens me more that it quite possibly didn’t have to happen, that misguided policies and a botched peace process led to this.
I love Israel unconditionally. Israel has a right to defend itself. Hamas is a despicable organization that has no concern for innocent lives, including their own neighbors. I long ago drank the pro-Israel Kool Aid.
But I am directly responsible for thirty Jews whose lives could have been changed forever. Thirty who would have cried at the Kotel, splashed at Ein Gedi and gasped at a sunset by the port in Tel Aviv. Thirty who would have come home and spread the word about our incredible homeland.
Compared to the horrors going on right now, a single cancelled trip is not a tragedy. The problems of thirty little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in his crazy world. I’m not asking the Israeli government to clear their wars with my secretary before putting them on the calendar. It’s just very, very sad.
Some may call me a coward for possibly cancelling the trip. Go ahead. I’ve been to Israel during wars and intifadas, leading solidarity groups that brought comfort and support. I recall the store signs in Jerusalem thanking “Brave Tourist” and offering a 20 percent discount. But that’s not what this trip is supposed to be about. That’s not what this group was bargaining for when it bought into the dream of making this pilgrimage. A dream I sold them. A dream I’m having trouble holding onto.
So unless there’s a ceasefire before next weekend, thirty more Jews will likely take their place in line at Space Mountain – right next to the Israelis.
Some more collateral damage from the Jewish people’s war.