First you have to show up

First you have to show up

Our correspondent writes about what she learned on the JFGMW’s mission to Israel

MetroWest visitors and IDF soldiers stand together in solidarity. (All photos by Guy Yechieli)
MetroWest visitors and IDF soldiers stand together in solidarity. (All photos by Guy Yechieli)

Despite my anticipatory anxiety, I knew I had to show up in Israel.

What I witnessed firsthand there, on my solidarity mission with the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest, was both beyond imaginable and transformational.

I was reminded that in Rabbi Harold Kushner’s book, “When Bad Things Happen to Good People,” the question is when bad things happen, not why. Within moments of when Israel was attacked by Hamas, despite some uncertainty and disagreement with the government, Israelis became unified with a deep meaningful pride and resilience.

Yes, Israelis are angry with the government and military intelligence, knowing that this horrific attack, the rampage, murder, rape, terror, and pillage, was carefully planned for three years. And we learned that the timing was tied to the talks about the normalization of relations with Saudi Arabia.

Throughout our trip, we were thanked profusely, as Americans, for our support of Israel. The message we continually heard was to bring the hostages home. We were brought up to date on the Abraham Accords, the use of artificial intelligence to forward falsehoods, and that the statistics about casualties and deaths in Gaza come from Hamas. We were told that wire fencing surrounding kibbutzim that were attacked was what those communities wanted to help promote peaceful co-existence instead of erecting more robust defenses. All these issues are going to be reviewed and discussed and debated for years and years.

Kibbutz Be’eri, as it looks after the terrorist attack.

We also heard about the myriad difficulties Israelis faced with social welfare. But despite the initial chaos, the nation immediately mobilized with tremendous resilience. Restaurants procured kashrut certificates, hotels opened to evacuees, there was a 178% rise in enlistments in the IDF, agencies acted vigorously, and JFGMW created an emergency fund with more than $28 million.

While everything hit the proverbial fan, Israelis and the Jewish community came together.

When we landed in the country early in the morning, we saw images of the hostages, with the demand to bring them home. Accompanied by an armed security escort, we were warned, “You are in a country at war.” We went to the outdoor Hostage Square, experiencing a roller coaster of emotions viewing photos of the kidnapped, along with art exhibits depicting an emotionally eerie series of sentiments.

We met Shelley, mother of hostage Omer Shem Tov, and we noted her intense pain. We met Tomer, (last name?) who oversees the incredibly well-organized volunteer-run Check Point Missing Families Forum, created to support hostage families by getting messages out about them. And we heard from a survivor who escaped the Nova massacre and literally jumped in his car to enlist in the IDF. He told us of the horrifying loss of friends, a sentiment we heard throughout our visit as every person in the tiny country knows someone who has been deeply affected by the terror attacks. And just as I thought I had no more tears, the survivor strummed out the Beatles song “Imagine.”

We continued to Ofakim and kibbutz Erez, where residents awakened to the sirens of October 7, and listened intently to stories of the attacks on their lives.

Marjorie Feinstein considers the horror of what she’s seeing at kibbutz Erez.

Then it was on to kibbutz Be’eri, one of the sites of the most vicious Hamas butchery. There, we were witness to unspeakable devastation and were left with images that simply didn’t fade and of stories from residents who tried to defend themselves. In one case, a barking dog apparently reacted to the slaughter of a 6-year-old, causing the terrorist to flee and saving the rest of a family. We heard that the rubble surrounding the community was the result of continued excavation to locate body parts. And we learned how hard it has been to prove incidents of rape as the world stays mostly silent on the sexual atrocities committed against Israeli women. It’s proving the truth of the hashtag Me too except if you’re a Jew.

The takeaway message, we were told, is to build public pressure, to create a sense of security — and to raise lots of funds to make that happen. The goal is for communities to foster an atmosphere that would allow residents to return. One of the questions we heard was: “How can I raise kids here, when death is all around?”

But others will come back. One child asked, “Why are we not coming back? I don’t care about the red color alerts.” Another asked, “What happens if someone knocks on the door and he wants to kill me?”

The nights were challenging for me. My anticipatory anxiety clicked in as I envisioned hearing sirens. And where was the stairwell? And what would happen if I had to be sequestered in a safe room? There were so many ifs.

We arranged a barbecue for members of the IDF. Music was piped in to the base area. In an unanticipated and comforting series of actions, our energetic crew began to dance with the soldiers. The result was the creation of lots of loving connections. Our photos had a caption explaining that the dancing was almost cathartic for us and the IDF.

Eric Berman, who survived the attack at the Nova music festival, plays the Beatles’ “Imagine” as a ceremony honoring the JFGMW’s support.

The big question for me is what Hamas could have hoped to accomplish. A scary reality is that the terrorist group knew that Israel would retaliate, and that the world would respond as it is responding now, by blaming and condemning Israel. The layers of shock in Israel are ever present. We met directly with staffers from the Joint Distribution Committee and the Israel Trauma Center, who are on the ground, and we learned that the governmental red tape when it comes to aid for suffering Israelis can be enormously frustrating. Some feel that the government is failing them, but assistance seems to be pouring in. And we met a young man who is with UN WATCH; he told us how dismissive the U.N. has been to his outreaches.

We were told over and over again that Israel is suffering trauma, and that when a loved one is in that state we, the Jews, simply show up. We discovered, again, that after the darkness comes the light, as we sensed Am Yisroel Chai.

Now, I can share with certainty what I said to our younger 30something-year-old mission participants. I told them that they represented tikvah l’atid — hope for our future. They have to pave the way for the new generations to understand Israel’s the vital role in our lives.

On our last night, we talked about our deeply felt connections. And after we had no more words to say, and a plane to catch, our mission leaders led us in the only way we could conclude our visit, as together we sang “Hatikvah.”

Hatikvah means hope, and it has become my takeaway from my visit to Israel, along with my need to have more faith and extend more kindness. On the way home, I wrote for hours; a flight attendant asked if I was a journalist. My reply was that I was just trying to be a keeper of memory.

I returned with a broken soul, but this memory must survive, and it’s the responsibility of each of us to move this narrative forward. I am just a work in progress. I’ve said, “Please God” so many times, and now it is clear that I need to do my own part in making some difference. I am really trying to do that.

Marjorie Feinstein of West Orange is an author, has retired from Saint Elizabeth University a a professor of communications, and is passionate about supporting human rights in her roles as co-chair of the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest’s Holocaust Council and chair of the advisory board of Saint Elizabeth’s Center for Holocaust and Genocide Education.  She is a member of Congregation Agudath Israel and an involved federation philanthropist and refers to herself as a “work in progress.”

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