Sunday, January 21, 2024

In This Moment: Report from Israel; How Can We Observe Tu B'Shevat This Year?


In This Moment

Tu B'Shevat, Now

Five years ago, this JNF video highlighted the efforts of Israelis living near the Gaza border to respond to kite terrorism perpetrated by Hamas, by planting trees for Tu B'Shevat. It makes us all wonder how we can commemorate Tu B'Shevat this year and whether the response of planting trees alone was insufficient then and now. It seemed so idealistic back at the time, but now, we wonder how many of those in this video - human and tree - are still alive.

The Masorti movement has developed a bilingual Tu B'Shevat haggadah specifically for this year. You can find it here. I'm hoping to share some of it over the coming days. Meanwhile, take a look at this heartrending poem written by a 9-year old Israeli from Nahal Oz. If he can still have hope, so must we.

Report from Israel

by Beverly Stein

TBE member Beverly Stein just returned from Israel and reported on her experience at yesterday's Shabbat morning service. Below is the text of her talk and some photos that she took.

In this week’s parasha, Bo, the Israelites take their first steps as a free people out of Egypt on their journey to the Promised Land. Their journey takes 40 years of wandering in the desert. David and I recently returned from a four day Hadassah Solidarity Mission to Israel, where the journey to the Promised Land took 9 hours via El Al. We went with 50 participants from 8 countries – United States, Israel, Argentina, Brazil, Mexico, France, Switzerland and Canada. We went to bear witness to the atrocities that were committed by Hamas on October 7 and to show our solidarity with the Israeli people and country. We have been to a number of concentration camps, but nothing prepared us for what we saw and heard.

From the minute we landed until we boarded our flight after the Mission, the hostages were with us. Their photos line the walkway in the airport; hang on buildings and fences and are displayed on billboards across the country. They are on everyone’s mind and in everyone’s heart at all times. They are being held against their will over 100 days. The reality of their agony and of the atrocities of October 7 is part of the Israeli psyche. The entire society is traumatized. A trauma which cannot begin to heal until the war is over. Everyone knows someone who was killed on October 7, held hostage or currently serving in Gaza. Bearing witness to the personal and national trauma going on combined with the resilience, maturity and open hearts of Israelis and Diaspora of all ages and backgrounds has been a life changing experience.

Our mission began with an update on the situation from Eylon Levy, an Israeli Government spokesperson. He charged us with asking ourselves “what did I do today to help release the hostages?” Mr. Levy urged us to fight back by writing letters and calling our congressmen and congresswomen, senators and the White House. Wear the dog tag for the hostages, and when someone asks you about it, tell them their story.

At Hostage Square in Tel Aviv we saw a variety of installations dedicated to the missing and we heard from family members of hostages. Their stories were heartbreaking. All of them pleaded with us to find a way to “Bring Them Home Now!” The family members are meeting with leaders in Israel and around the world begging for their family members to come home. A mother of a hostage asked us to help them find creative ways to negotiate for the hostages release and to keep the hostage stories up front in the media. Like Eylon Levy she implored us to call the administration everyday saying “Bring them Home.”


At the Mt. Scopus Hadassah Hospital, we toured the brand new rehabilitation hospital, which, sadly, is now badly needed to treat the wounded. We walked the NICU that was moved from the sunny eighth floor to the subbasement in case of bombs. The hospital is taking precautions in numerous ways in case the war extends to Lebanon and missiles hit Jerusalem. A patient shared his escape with his 9 year old daughter from his home in Kibbutz Be’eri, which was overrun by Hamas on October 7. They hid in their safe room as their heard shooting and terrorists all around them and then they smelled smoke. He decided rather than being burned alive they would try to escape. Holding his daughter he jumped out a burning window. He jumped on a bike with burnt feet, and with his daughter holding on, pedaled through the fields. His daughter whispered in his ear whenever she saw a terrorist, “AZA, AZA (Gazan, Gazan)” They eventually made it to safety. He is healing from his burns. As I heard the story, I kept thinking I just can’t imagine what they went through or what they were feeling. And then it hit me, his 9 year old, the age of my granddaughter, will live with those images for a lifetime.

We had the privilege of meeting with President Isaac Herzog and First Lady Michal. He was particularly interested in hearing from the International members of our group as to their countries’ reaction to October 7 and the current state of anitsemitism. He was shocked at the Canadians response to October 7 and the rapid rise of antisemitism there. President Herzog stressed that the challenge of antisemitism is too large for any one organization to deal with. That it required a coordinated approach. He applauded President Biden’s response to October 7 and his support of Israel. He said the Biden was a true friend. He stressed that Diaspora Jews need to stand up, speak up and show solidarity with Israel. That the Mission participants need to bear witness and tell the world what we see and hear.

Michal talked about gender abuse issues and the double standard of the world on what happened to women and children on October 7. The gender based violence is difficult to deal with. She explained that Israel does not want to tell the women’s stories so as not to humiliate them, but these human rights abuses must be exposed. The “Me Too” movement meant that women were to be believed, but the UN Commission on women was silent on the issue. They are finally coming to Israel to investigate. Going forward, she said that mental health will be a a major issue for Israeli society. It’s the scar you can’t see.

After visiting with the President and the First Lady, we traveled south in an armored bus wearing a bullet proof vest and helmet. Our first stop was Kfar Aza, one of the kibbutzim attacked and overrun by the terrorists.  At Kfar Aza we saw the remains and smelt the burnt wood. As I stood at the back gate, where the terrorists entered, I could see the Gaza fence and the fields in Gaza. Seeing how close the kibbutz is to Gaza shocked me. Kfar Aza was a place of peace, a place where the residents were actively seeking ways to live in harmony with the people of Gaza. The residents were trying to build bridges. On Shabbat afternoons they flew kites over the Gaza fence that had expression of peace in Hebrew and Arabic. They drove Palestinians to doctors’ appointments and employed them to work at Kfar Aza.  The kibbutz was planning to build a factory to employ the Gazans to help them have a better life and show that we could live in peace. The betrayal of this dream is devastating.


Kibbutz Nir Am, near Sderot, fought off the terrorists. HMO head of Pediatric Cardiology, Dr. Sagul Gavri, a third generation kibbutz resident and one of the fighters told his story. He is the founder of “One Heart for Peace.” The program brings Palestinian children to hospitals in Israel for open heart surgery at no cost to the parents for surgery, recovery,

transportation or housing for the accompanying adult. Our daughter, Deborah volunteered for 3 months on her Hadassah gap year program with “One Heart for Peace” at the hospital in Holon. He also has trained Palestinian doctors and provided consultations for numerous patients. Not a patient, parent or doctor has reached out to him to see how he is since October 7. He wonders if any of the terrorists were once his patients.


As we stood there we heard the drones overhead and tanks and machine guns from Gaza. It was surreal. The kibbutz was lucky. When it heard fighting in the distance they realized something different was happening. The nearby fighting gave them the time to get to the armory to arm themselves and fight back. The attack was a shock to the Kibbutz. They had relied on the iron dome and the excellent technology to deal with any problem that arose. They convinced themselves that they were safe and could deal with missiles every once in a while. They will never trust again. Looking to the future, the Kibbutz has planted wheat, as Isaac did when he lived in the area. Why? Because wheat seeds grow and then you harvest them and they grow again. It is a sign of life and the future. 


Our day South ended at the Memorial at the site of the Supernova music festival, where 342 were killed, many were wounded plus 40 hostages taken. The Memorial is photos of the dead and missing on poles where they fell. There was no place for them to run. They were the peaceniks who believed in peace and love. As the sun set over Gaza we heard shooting in the distance and saw clouds of smoke from the Gazan sky.


Our last day began with a Sexual Assault Panel. The IDF has a reserve unit tasked with preparing bodies of fallen soldiers for burial: a female unit for women and male unit for men. We heard from a woman who was called up and has served since October 8. She explained the process of identifying the bodies. She stressed the importance of treating the women with respect in death because they had not been treated with respect as they were murdered and mutilated. Another panelist is a law professor who created the Civil Commission on October 7 crimes by Hamas against Women and Children. She is bearing witness to the international community and has testified at the White House. The panelist asked us to please tell people what we saw and heard. 


We next visited two Hadassah youth villages, Neurim and Meir Shfeyah, which are now housing some of the survivors from October 7 attacks and displaced youth from the North. At Neurim, we heard from 15 year old Mimi who lived through a 24 hour ordeal before being rescued. She found safe haven at the village. The village is working on healing the community’s souls and hearts.


Like throughout Israel, the children of Meir Shfeyah are volunteering with Israeli farmers who need workers, baking cakes for the home bound, preparing and delivering packages for the soldiers and displaced families. It was heartwarming to see something positive amongst all the ugliness we had experienced.


Our mission ended with home hospitality at a Druze village, Beit Jann. We heard from a Druze IDF reservist who explained the Druze religion and why they serve in the IDF. As with everywhere we went, he thanked us for coming to show support of Israel in these tough times.


We were thanked by everyone we saw. When I thanked a Lieutenant Colonel, he said no, thank you for coming and showing your support. I was thinking that I got on a plane but you are fighting for the survival of Israel. When the plane landed at JFK, the pilot thanked us for coming to Israel during a war and said it was really important to Israelis that we came.


As a result of our experiences, I feel a responsibility to share their stories and share what Israel is experiencing at this incredible time in history. I feel compelled to speak for the hostages and for those we have lost. Thank you for letting me share my experience with you this Shabbat.


As we fall asleep in our own beds tonight with no missiles or drones overhead, I pray for peace and the return of the hostages.

 “Bring Them Home Now!”

Today's Front Pages

Jerusalem Post


Yediot Ahronot

Recommended Reading

  • From Daniel Gordis's Substack" Above is the cover of one of the magazine sections of Makor Rishon. The larger headline on the right says “My heart is torn into two.” The small words, just to the left of that read “The yearning for the days that were, but are no longer; the difficulty of living in the present, and the fear of even imagining a future. Three young widows tell about life without the love of their life.” The number of new widows in their twenties is staggering. So is the number of young orphans. These are some of the scars that this country will carry with it long after the war is over, but that, in the meantime, are actually the headline

  • What Did Top Israeli War Officials Really Say About Gaza? (Yair Rosenberg, Atlantic) October 10, as the charred remains of murdered Israelis were still being identified in their homes, Gallant spoke to a group of soldiers who had repelled the Hamas assault, in a statement that was captured on video. Translated from the original Hebrew, here is the relevant portion of what he said: “Gaza will not return to what it was before. There will be no Hamas. We will eliminate it all.” This isn’t a matter of interpretation or translation. Gallant’s vow to “eliminate it all” was directed explicitly at Hamas, not Gaza. One doesn’t even need to speak Hebrew, as I do, to confirm this: The word Hamas is clearly audible in the video. The remainder of Gallant’s remarks also dealt with rooting out Hamas: “We understand that Hamas wanted to change the situation; it will change 180 degrees from what they thought. They will regret this moment.” It was not Gallant who conflated Hamas and Gaza, but rather those who mischaracterized his words. The smoking gun was filled with blanks.

As far as Israel is concerned, it is fighting a war of self-protection. Its intention is not the destruction of the Palestinians of Gaza, but the defeat of the Hamas fighting force which killed, raped or mutilated more than 1,200 people, mostly civilians, in southern Israel on 7 October. Yes, it conceded, that effort has cost thousands of Palestinians their lives, but that is the fault of what Michael Walzer, the distinguished philosopher of the morality of war, calls an “asymmetry trap” laid by Hamas. ...he explained that, by embedding itself and its equipment in the civilian infrastructure of Gaza – tunnels under hospitals, rocket launchers in schools – “Hamas has designed a war that Israel can only fight by killing civilians”. The Israeli lawyers in The Hague echoed that logic. Besides, they added, Israel gave regular warnings to Palestinians to get out of harm’s way, hardly the action of a state bent on genocide. As for the statements of those politicians and others, the lawyers insisted that most were fringe figures with no role in directing the war – and when, say, the defence minister referred to “human animals” in Gaza, what he meant was Hamas.

  • Why Israel Will Never Manage to Destroy All Hamas Tunnels in Gaza (Ha'aretz) - The tunnels under Gaza preceded Hamas' founding in 1987 and the coup in which it took power in 2007. Now, after months of effort, the Israeli army might have to admit that destroying the miles of maze-like subterranean passages was never realistic. This assessment, which has yet to be voiced publicly, is shared by all levels of the IDF. From the generals, trying to plan what they call a "year of warfare" in 2024, through the brigade and battalion commanders who are spending entire weeks on the ground to destroy just one section of the tunnel system, all the way down to the combat engineering troops, who are now starting to come out of Gaza after three months of fighting with mixed feelings. On the one hand they have carried out an unprecedented number of tunnel demolition missions. On the other, they know many more such tunnels remain intact.

Tu B'Shevat, Then

Posters from the Israel National Library

Over the years, several of our TBE Israel groups have stopped at the border with Lebanon to plant trees, right under the noses of Hezbollah. We would walk right up to the border at Kibbutz Malkia, which, like all the communities nearby, now lies empty and has been struck often by rockets. But there we were, proudly bringing forth new fruits to the sacred soil. These photos from 2018 still inspire me, even as they also bring such sadness.

And some more links for Tu B'Shevat:

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