Why are you here?

Why are you here?

Visiting Israel in an unprecedented time

About the cover: Singer/songwriter John Ondrasik — Five for Fighting — plays in Hostage Square, supporting the effort to bring the hostages home. (Reba Auslander)
About the cover: Singer/songwriter John Ondrasik — Five for Fighting — plays in Hostage Square, supporting the effort to bring the hostages home. (Reba Auslander)

My friend and I got to Israel on Friday, April 5, on my daughter’s 19th birthday.

My daughter was already nervous about me visiting during wartime, so arriving on her birthday was meaningful to me but also added a bit of extra stress, as I knew she would worry. It’s not like my friend, Ray Rosenberg, and I went naively. While we had booked our plane tickets in late January, by the time we left, we obviously knew that tension was escalating between Israel and Iran. But we were committed to going to do our small part in bolstering the spirit of our friends and family, and volunteering to help families displaced from their homes, soldiers, and animals in need.

The reality of the situation smacked us in the face right after we stepped off the plane and entered Ben-Gurion Airport, where posters and shrines of hostages taken by Hamas to Gaza line the sides of the main hallway, and “Bring Them Home” signs are everywhere. These images and signs are now so common throughout Israel that they blend into the background of everyday life.

We went straight from the airport to Jerusalem. Our taxi driver, Omar, was an Israeli Arab. When we told him that we came to visit and volunteer, he said, “Welcome home.” That was perfect. Both of us had separately spent years of our lives in Israel, for short visits as well as to live for a few years in Tel Aviv. My last time in the country was 10 years ago, during the 2014 Gaza war, when rocket attacks and Iron Dome intercepts were a daily occurrence.

On the way to Jerusalem, Omar asked if we wanted coffee. Considering that we had barely slept on the 11-hour flight, that sounded good to us. We stopped in a town called Shoresh, where there’s an Aroma café by a gas station. (I love Aroma.) The café was being renovated, and the two servers, who were Arabs, were operating out of a kiosk. The motley crew of customers were a mix — American Orthodox women, a secular Israeli woman, a man in the middle of a long bike ride with friends, and a few other people of mixed backgrounds.

I ordered in Hebrew and asked about milk alternatives. When the Aroma server offered oat milk, I didn’t recognize the term. Several people in the small crowd started translating and getting involved in our order. I couldn’t help but smile, as this moment represented why I love Israel. This is partly what we came for: the community, diversity, camaraderie, and to support our ancestral homeland during a very difficult time.

That evening, we had Shabbat dinner with a big clan of my cousins, in a town called Modi’in. Our host, my mother’s cousin by marriage, is nearly 99 years old. Everyone was thrilled to have us there, but before and during dinner, a few cousins closer to my age turned to us and asked, “Why are you here?” And they did not mean this in a figurative way. What they meant was, Why the hell would you come here in the middle of the worst war we’ve seen in our lifetime, when for the first time in our lives we have thought about leaving?

This heartbreaking picture of baby Kfir Bibas, still held hostage in Gaza, is all over, but Ms. Auslander found it particularly powerful to see it in the airport as she got off the plane in Israel.
(All photos courtesy Reba Auslander)

Perhaps we were being somewhat naïve about the situation, with Iran threatening to attack Israel while wars were raging with Hamas in Gaza and with Hezbollah in Lebanon. But many volunteers had been going to Israel since October 7, 2023, and we can never know what will happen at any given time.

We had meaningful, tearful conversations that night. For the first time since either of us had been in Israel, we saw a big crack in the hard surface of Israelis. A person born in Israel is known as a Sabra, after the sabra fruit, which is prickly on the outside and soft on the inside. But that night, we saw that the prickliness was gone. My cousin teared up as she talked about her daughter about to do service in the Israel Defense Forces on the border with Lebanon.

Another cousin, a psychologist, is counseling a little boy who was taken hostage, and then released, with his mother and grandmother. She said there are no studies on the impact of children in captivity, so they have to trust their methods with zero data to back them up. She works in a practice comprising Jewish and Palestinian therapists and patients. That was a source of pride before 10/7, but working there now is tense and stressful.

That night, hours after dinner, we went to a hospital for a medical emergency resulting from an allergic reaction (I’m leaving out details to protect privacy). The first team of medics who responded were Jews. The second team, who came with an ambulance, were Arabs. We got to the hospital in Jerusalem around 2 a.m., and immediately noticed a mix of Arabs and Jews working side by side. I’m not sure if there more Arabs there since it was Shabbat, but the doctor whom we dealt with was a young religious Jew.

These were medical professionals who have dedicated their careers to helping people. Religion and beliefs did not seem to matter. Throughout our trip, we learned that in Israel there are a lot of Palestinian healthcare professionals. Arabs treat Jews, and Jews treat Arabs, even when the cities and towns surrounding hospitals are tense with distrust and uncertainty, as they have been since 10/7.

After our first two days visiting family, we started our volunteer work on Sunday, April 7, down in the Gaza Envelope. When we planned for this day, we hadn’t realized that it was the six-month anniversary of the unthinkable, barbaric murders, rapes, and kidnappings of about 1,540 people in that area. We joined a group of Israelis gardening on Kibbutz Kfar Azza. The group was organized by a man named Nissim, from another kibbutz further north, called Beit HaShita. We wanted to visit this area to bear witness to the atrocities of 10/7, but also do something to help rebuild, so the gardening project was perfect.  There, we also witnessed the horrors of destroyed, burned-out houses, some with dishes still in the sink and charred food on shelves. It was hard to grasp this juxtaposition of weeding and admiring flowers while seeing the remnants of medieval brutality, all on a beautiful, quiet day.

Throughout the kibbutz, several houses were completely decimated while their neighbors’ homes remained intact. We couldn’t help wondering whether it was random or intentional. Were their neighbors murdered or kidnapped, even if their houses weren’t shot up or bombed out?

Ms. Auslander holds a puppy; she’d been volunteering at Shanti Farm, an animal refuge near Haifa that has taken rescues from the Gaza Envelope and Gaza itself.

Another striking observation about Kfar Azza, aside from the obvious horrors we witnessed, was seeing how close it is to Gaza City. You can see the city as a wall of buildings, like an illusion emerging from a deserted planet. I couldn’t imagine living there now. But throughout our trip we learned that many of the people who lived in that area who were killed or kidnapped were peaceniks. They wanted to live close to their Palestinian neighbors. Some of them would drive Gazans from the border to hospitals and helped them as much as they possibly could. People believe that some of the Gazans who were helped by their nearby neighbors or worked on the kibbutzim brought information back to Hamas and helped them target people and homes on that fateful day. Others say that’s not true. I don’t think we will ever know for sure.

The mother of Sivan Elkabets — a 23-year-old who was brutally murdered with her husband, Naor Hasidim — opened her daughter and son-in-law’s tiny home as a sort of museum, so people can witness what the “monsters” did. Since it was the six-month anniversary of the attacks, there were various IDF troops there, including an all-female one led by Shifra Buchris, the Orthodox mother of 10 kids who rushed to the Nova music festival site on 10/7 to save as many people as she could. We introduced ourselves, and she smiled at us. I do not know how she could still smile after everything she has witnessed. But this too is Israel, full of people with strength and resilience, who still welcome visitors.

It was evident watching the young soldiers that years of immigration from Ethiopia, Russia, and other countries has fostered more diversity than ever. Black-, brown-, and white-skinned soldiers were unified through their dedication to protect the citizens of the country in which they grew up. It’s a far cry from what their peers overseas are doing.

Walking back to the car, we met a young couple now living on Kfar Azza. They were sitting on a blanket outside their house, drinking beer and vaping. They had lived on Kibbutz Nir Oz, then became refugees in their own country, like everyone from the surrounding kibbutzim. They decided to go back for the now-quiet surroundings and to work; the woman told us she works at a sound production company on the kibbutz. The couple seemed isolated; only about four houses were occupied. They had recently adopted a puppy to keep them company.

As we drove along the roads in the Envelope, I tried to picture the chaos on that horrific day. I have listened to countless podcasts with survivors and saviors recounting their stories, which were so graphic I had felt sick picturing what they described. But while there, even witnessing memorials in bomb and bus shelters, where peace-loving young adults from the Nova festival hid during the massacre, I felt somewhat detached. It was difficult to process that, just as it is difficult to process the idea of the tens of thousands of people dead in Gaza, just a few miles away.

It was just too much violence and murder to fathom, on a warm, sunny day, with hardly anyone on the roads.

Before visiting the Nova site, which now is an evolving memorial for the 340 people who never returned home, we volunteered at a makeshift free restaurant and store set up by three brothers to serve soldiers entering and exiting Gaza. We rolled meatballs and washed dishes. Our driver recognized a tour guide who was there with a couple who escaped the Nova festival. Now people can mention such things in a matter-of-fact way.

This is a house in Kibbutz Kfar Aza that Hamas terrorists destroyed.

A young soldier approached me at the outdoor sink and asked if I could wash a reusable tray so he could fill it up with food for his friends. I asked him where he was from, and his answer blew us away. He grew up in the north, on Kibbutz Degania Bet, which was where we were planning to stay for the next two days. We couldn’t believe the coincidence. The next day, after we arrived on the kibbutz, I went for a run by Lake Kinneret. When I came back, I saw a woman sitting at the gate. When she asked who I was staying with, and I answered, she said, “Oh, you met my son yesterday!”

This, too, is Israel, where everyone is connected. In moments like these, I felt like that was the reason we were there.

Our trip continued in this manner. We volunteered at a small farm, a warehouse full of donated items for families in need, visited Hostages Square a couple of times, met with activists and influencers, including a former Knesset member, and made a point of spending money to support the economy. Everyone we spoke with, and bought from, thanked us profusely for being in Israel during this time. It was humbling.

Speaking with pretty much everyone we met, either randomly or on purpose, we learned things we don’t see much in the news outside of Israel. For example, we did not know that in addition to the 600 IDF soldiers who have been killed, more than 3,000 have been injured, many seriously. Soldiers, many of whom are reservists and therefore parents, business owners, employees, and farmers, have come back with missing limbs, arms and legs full of shrapnel, and other horrific injuries. One of our taxi drivers in Tel Aviv, a mother, praised God that her son can’t go back to serve because shrapnel in his forearm rendered his left hand mostly useless. Imagine that being a source of thankfulness and joy to a parent.

The ongoing burden of the war, with 133 hostages still in captivity, prompts hundreds of thousands of Israelis to take to the streets of every city and some towns every Saturday night.  For the past two years, Ray’s friend, with whom we stayed for two days, has been organizing a weekly two-hour bus trip to Tel Aviv, which hosts the largest rally in the country. First, the protests were against the judicial reform bill that would have removed the Supreme Court’s ability to strike down laws the government pushed. After 10/7, the protests shifted to pressure the government to get the hostages out of Gaza, and now also to remove the government’s leaders.

The protesters believe that this government, which they regard as a group of criminals, racists, and dictators, including and primarily the prime minister, are solely to blame for the situation. A few of the more right-wing people we spoke with say that the protesters are “crybabies,” and while the current government isn’t great, who would step up to replace it? I don’t have the answers, but my cousins were worried about me going to a protest and getting hurt. They are worriers, but their concerns were not unfounded. My friend’s cousin, who also protests weekly, has a friend who was a pilot in the IDF who lost an eye from the water barrage being used to deter protesters. Now, security agents at the protests use what is known as ”skunk water,” because of how bad it smells, as a deterrent. This is what Israeli authorities are using against their own people.

As a reminder, Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East.

Volunteers from Kibbutz Beit Hashita work on a garden at Kfar Aza, for families that want that work done. Not all do.

On top of all the grief, sadness, and fear, some of our friends said that the current government, and therefore the current situation, is really their own fault. In the last election, many leftists, in particular younger voters, hung out in cafes and basically ignored politics. Contrarily, right-wing voters, including ultra-Orthodox Jews — there are many of them — voted for a government that serves their agendas.

Aside from the war with Israel’s militant Jihadist neighbors, who want to wipe the state of Israel off the map (in other words, eliminate Jews), there’s evolving civil unrest inside Israel between left and right, secular and Orthodox Jews. The government pays ultra-Orthodox Jews to study Torah full-time. Therefore, their many children don’t learn conventional studies and don’t serve in the IDF. Families in those communities live on welfare financed by the more secular population, who go to conventional schools and enter the IDF at 18. These young soldiers risk their lives to protect the ever-growing ultra-Orthodox population, while their families pay taxes so those same ultra-Orthodox citizens don’t have to serve at all. There has to be a better way.

Throughout our trip, I noticed young fathers in IDF uniforms with a large rifle on one arm and a young child in the other. They were either coming back from or heading out to their service. Many had come back for the Passover holiday and perhaps had hoped to be done with their service, but with the escalation of war with Hezbollah in the north and with new threats from Iran, their home and work lives will have to continue to wait.

One week into our trip — two days before we were scheduled to leave — we spent the day shopping in an artisan market, where we ran into students from our local Jewish day school, along with one of their parents; they were to return home in two weeks after a semester-long program. The day before, we learned that the 19-year-old who oriented us to one of our volunteer jobs happens to be on the same one-year program as our close friends’ daughter, and of course they are good friends. Again, this is the Israel we love. We were thousands of miles from home, yet running into friends of friends or making new connections nearly everywhere we went.

I will admit that I had been largely ignoring the news. I knew that if I read what was happening in real time, I would not be able to be as relaxed as I was throughout our travels and activities. But on Friday evening, erev Shabbat, we had a pleasant dinner with a friend from high school in Toronto. As she dropped us off at our Airbnb, she casually mentioned the escalating threat from Iran, and my heart sank. I had been in Tel Aviv twice during wars and missile or rocket attacks. The first time was during the Gulf War, when Iraq fired missiles over Tel Aviv. That was 32 years ago. When I returned after a group trip 10 years ago, a few friends and I hung out in Tel Aviv while a few sirens blared and we saw rockets being intercepted overhead.

I did not want to go through that again.

I felt a bit guilty, knowing that our brothers and sisters in Israel have no choice, and the shaky anticipation of sirens rattles many of them, too. But if it happened, I didn’t want to be in some tiny bomb shelter in a strange building. When I was 20 years old, I may have felt invincible, but I’m no martyr, and now I wanted to get away.

Rallies to urge the government to get the hostages home happen at least weekly in Jerusalem; here, one is getting started.

Close friends suggested reaching out to their cousin, who lives on a kibbutz closer to the airport. I contacted her on Saturday morning and she said, “Come here.” Knowing that she is as far as possible from being an alarmist, her invitation let me know that I was not overreacting. Instead of spending the day at the beach, we ordered a taxi and followed her suggestion. Once on the kibbutz I could breathe easier. Our hosts made us lunch and dinner, we met their friends, and everyone reassured us that our 11 a.m. direct flight home the next day would be fine.

I went to sleep that night in our host’s second bedroom, which is also a safe room. My friend decided to sleep on the couch. I woke up a couple of times during the night but didn’t check my phone or hear anyone stirring. At 5:50 I got up, looked at my phone, and my heart sank once again. I had missed more than a dozen texts and calls asking me if I was home and if I was okay, and telling me what a scary situation I was in. Then I looked at the United Airlines app and saw the red “cancelled” line for our flight. Iran had fired more than 300 missiles and drones all over Israel, and I missed the whole thing. There was no siren where we were, even though the Iron Dome intercepts were going off all night in areas all around us. I hadn’t heard anything, so I had thought all was okay.

I won’t lie. That was a rough, dark day. I was not worried about safety, but I was nervous about being stuck without any flight options. Even after the airspace opened again that afternoon, United said the earliest that they could re-book us was for April 22, which was eight days away and after the start of Passover. Even if I had the flexibility to wait, I did not trust United, since the airline has a tendency to cancel flights to and from Israel during times of escalated conflict. After searching online for most of the day, with help from at least six people in Israel and at home, I found a flight on Arkia, an Israeli airline I had never heard of, departing three days later for Cyprus, from where we could catch another flight to Athens and then fly home to New Jersey after an overnight layover.

While this was going on, I also worried for Israel, the Middle East, and really the world. I have heard many people who have volunteered in Israel over the past six months say that they felt safer in Israel than at home in Los Angeles, New York, or other cities outside Israel, due to the virulent, relentless antisemitism that erupted after 10/7. Case in point: When I dared to check news feeds, worried that a quick retaliation would cancel out our new flight scheme, I saw story after story of vicious, pro-Palestinian and pro-Iran rallies in cities across North America.

I think the reason I could be in Israel in past years with missiles flying over our heads is that I had every faith in the Israeli government and the IDF to protect me — to protect “us.” Since 10/7, I no longer feel entirely safe in Israel, and I sense many Israelis share this feeling. Yes, on April 13, Israel, Jordan, and Britain knocked out 99% of the missiles and drones Iran launched at Israel, but that doesn’t change the fact that since 10/7 some people in Jerusalem fear that their Palestinian neighbors might invade their homes. Although in some Israeli towns and neighborhoods Jews and Arabs coexist peaceably — and may even maintain close friendships —in others there’s more mutual skepticism and an undertone of mistrust.

This reality was reinforced the day before we were re-scheduled to leave, as I visited yet another New Jersey friend’s American cousins, who live on the kibbutz where we were staying. Their very close friends, a Christian Israeli Arab couple whom they consider family, were at the house at the same time. The husband has worked for the U.S. embassy for the past 20 years. A few days before, a friend of his, a coexistence activist employed by the U.S. Agency for International Development, was brutally murdered in Jaffa by an off-duty border police officer. His friend’s motorcycle was blocked by the policeman’s car, and when he tried to get around it, they got into a fight. In the end, the cop shot the guy 10 times. Ten times.

He was only about 50 years old, a loving husband with two young daughters. The guy next to me just sighed, rubbed his face, and said he’s just so tired of this garbage. I certainly couldn’t blame him. We were in the country only 12 days by that point, and I was utterly exhausted.

Ray Rosenberg, left, and Reba Auslander stand with Dror Trabelsi, one of the three brothers who set up a rest stop to support the IDF in the Gaza Envelope.

On the last night of our extended stay in Israel, I went out for dinner with two of my cousins from Jerusalem. We were thrilled to spend more time together, but they were not happy that I had visited during such a turbulent, unpredictable time, and they felt responsible for me. That was heartwarming. But it saddened me that they were worried and would not want me or my family to come back until things calmed down.

When will that be? It’s difficult right now to see a path forward, but there has to be one. Several people told us that it may take several decades to repair the country. Israel hasn’t yet had time to deal with the PTSD of returned hostages, the families of non-returned hostages, the collective trauma of 10/7, the killing of too many innocent Palestinians in Gaza. And where are the hostages? Are any still alive? When are they coming back? No one seems to know.

Israel is very far from perfect. Its government and military have done some terrible things. The current government must change. Yet right after 10/7, Israelis and some non-Israelis went back to Israel on the first flight they could get to serve in the IDF. In the index of age-standardized suicide rates in 27 countries, Israel is ranked third lowest for men and fifth lowest for women. In 2024, Israel dropped only one spot, to fifth place, in the World Happiness rankings.

I don’t know how much weight to put into these rankings, given what we heard and saw throughout our travels, but I do know that whatever happens in Israel, everyone is like family, and they will always have your back.

Walking around Jerusalem and Tel Aviv on a Saturday morning, families flowed in and out of synagogues without any security. Windows were open, so I could hear prayers all over the streets. Men wear kippot everywhere, and people drape themselves with Israeli flags as they head off to evening rallies, with zero fear of being ridiculed and attacked. This is why many Jews in other countries say they feel safer in Israel right now than in their own countries, despite the Israeli government’s failure to protect its citizens on 10/7, with anti-Zionist sentiments openly raging and governments staying silent. It’s yet one more reason to be in love with Israel.

I have always said that most Israelis are Jews, but not all Jews are Israelis. Post-10/7, however, that gap has become much narrower. Despite having different upbringings, we are all connected by a shared history and ongoing threats to our existence. I am very grateful to Israelis who fight, without question, to protect Jews all over the world.

In the meanwhile, five days after we returned to the U.S., Jews at Columbia University, one of the top colleges in the world, were told not to attend classes in person out of fear for their safety due to violent pro-Palestinian protesters.

How we got to this place is a whole other discussion, but all of what’s happening in Israel and abroad leads to one final thought: Never Again is right now. That should have been our answer. That’s why we were there.

Reba Auslander of Maplewood is a public relations executive who grew up in Canada, worked and studied in Israel, and has lived in the United States for the past 25 years, 16 of them in Maplewood. She’s a member of Congregation Beth El in South Orange and has served on its board.

read more: