An insightful and emotional journey in Israel 

An insightful and emotional journey in Israel 

In Mishna Peah we learn that among the mitzvot that are “beyond measure” are gemilut chasadim — deeds of kindness. Our liturgy defines this category of action to include the affirmative actions of visiting the sick and comforting the bereaved.

On my most recent trip to Israel as part of a Young Judea Volunteer group, from January 26 to February 4, I came to understand the true meaning of this teaching. I have been traveling to Israel regularly since 1968, when I spent my junior year of college in Israel. Over the last 56 years, I have been to Israel in both joyous times and difficult days; at celebrations of peace and in times of war. Never before, even in the depths of the intifada, has my awe and admiration for the Israeli public been greater, as I experienced firsthand average Israelis standing up for each other and reaching out to help each other in the face of the greatest existential crisis in the history of the state.

I specifically chose this Young Judaea trip because it was a week built around three days of volunteer service. I didn’t want just to bear witness to the tragedy of this war, but rather to experience firsthand the volunteer efforts that Israeli civil society is undertaking

For two days we volunteered with Achim Bneshek — Brothers in Arms — a volunteer group that arose a year ago as one of the leading organizers of the public protests against the Israeli government’s attack on the court system. On October 7, this protest group, led by retired and reserve military officers, pivoted from political action to social service. We volunteered at a vast distribution center that has been set up at the Tel Aviv Expo convention center, where supplies are gathered, sorted, and distributed to the nearly 200,000 Israelis who have been displaced from their homes in both the north and south of Israel by this war. Packing boxes with food, hygiene supplies, clothing, and toys that families had requested truly was a mitzvah beyond measure. Having met many multigenerational families living in our hotel in Tel Aviv who have been displaced from both Sederet on the Gaza border and Kiryat Shmona on the Lebanon border and are recipients of packages such as we were preparing made me feel both grateful and sad. Grateful that Israelis are saying through these actions, “Hineni, I am here to help my brethren,” and sad because this is necessary.

Our third day of volunteering involved harvesting cucumbers on a moshav. The majority of foreign agricultural workers fled Israel after October 7. The overall labor shortage in Israel is made even worse by the massive numbers of Israelis who have been called up to active duty. The depth of gratitude of the farmer whose crops we were helping to harvest was confirmation for many of us that our presence in Israel at this time was truly beyond measure.

While the focus of the Young Judaea trip was volunteering our time with NGO groups that have stepped into the void left by the government’s inability to meet the social service needs of hundreds of thousands of Israelis, I did have limited time to visit Israeli friends and to hear their personal stories about how October 7 and the war, now in its fifth month, have affected them, their children and grandchildren, and the families of every Israeli. The fear for the fate of the hostages, the concern for the soldiers on the front lines, and their anger and frustration with both Hamas and the Israeli government were clear. So too was their determination to do their part to not only survive this war but to rebuild a better Israel.

These feelings were amplified in meetings with the families of hostages and those murdered on October 7 and listening to their anger and frustration with both the Israeli government’s inaction on October 7 and what they see as its non-prioritizing of the fate of the remaining hostages. One of the most powerful experiences of the week was standing in the rain with parents at the grave of their 24-year-old daughter Gili, who was murdered at the Nova music festival. Members of our group knew Gili, who had been a counselor at Young Judaea camp Tel Yehudah this past summer.

Another poignant experience for me was reading Amichai’s poem “The Diameter of the Bomb” and reciting memorial prayers on Mount Herzl at the fresh graves of soldiers who have fallen in Gaza. The constant flow of strangers, friends, and family, along with uniformed soldiers coming by to cry while expressing gratitude and love, was overwhelming.

From the military cemetery on Mount Herzl we proceeded to Hadassah Hospital, where we fulfilled the mitzvah of bikur cholim, visiting the sick, including a police officer who was wounded in Sderot on October 7 by the Hamas terrorists who invaded Israel. We also met with a Hadassah nurse who had just returned from active duty in Gaza. In addition to describing for us the emotional experience of delivering a Palestinian baby under fire in Gaza, he described rescuing wounded soldiers from battle in an “open Humvee.” This nurse’s description of both saving soldiers and delivering a Palestinian child, while under fire in Gaza, coupled with the story I heard from a friend that night about her son-in-law’s experience in riding along as the protection on one of these rescue vehicles, I have come to a new level of realization about how ingrained in the psyches and souls of Israelis is the talmudic teaching of the ultimate value of every single human life, Jewish or non-Jewish.

On Friday on our way to spend Shabbat at Kibbutz Ketura, we stopped in a Bedouin community, Rahat, near Beersheva. There we heard the story of an Israeli Bedouin police officer who personally saved some 200 people from the Nova festival by continually driving out small groups of festival attendees to safety in his car. The officer, speaking to us in Hebrew, was adamant in not seeing his actions as heroic. Rather, he saw it as his responsibility as a policeman, as an Israeli, and as a human being. His regret was his inability to help more people.

Shabbat at Kibbutz Ketura offered the 30 of us who had traveled together a spiritual opportunity for reflection and left me with true hope for the future of Israel.

Ketura is a kibbutz founded 50 years ago by Young Judeans who had made aliyah. Originally its economy was based upon agriculture, but today Ketura is the solar energy engine of Israel. In addition to the solar power it produces and sells in Israel and Jordan, which powers multiple communities on both sides of the border, its Arava Institute is a world class research institute where Israelis, Jordanians, and Palestinians work and study together.

In informal discussions before and after Shabbat services and in and around the dining hall, I was awed by learning that the members of this kibbutz community remained firmly committed to the security of Israel and the safety of all its citizens, Jews and Arabs alike, and equally committed to pursuing what I believe is the awesome task that, post October 7, has become an even greater imperative — a two-state solution where Palestinians have the right and responsibility to live independently and at peace with Israel.

Neal I. Borovitz is the rabbi emeritus at Temple Avodat Shalom River Edge.

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