I’ve just returned from Israel on what was one of the most difficult, but also most important and moving four days I can never remember. I wrote most of the following last night while waiting for our plane home and while I’m now back, I still wanted to share it with you.
It seems like five months ago that I posted I was headed to Israel with my friend and colleague Rabbi Matthew Gewirtz and would be meeting up with our MetroWest Rabbinic Mission.
It seems like five minutes ago that I posted I was headed to Israel…
You get the point.
When I headed out I had every intention of posting regularly so I could bear witness to the horrors committed by Hamas terrorists on October 7th. I planned to convey the urgent need for the international community to speak out more strongly and demand the terrorists release the 240 hostages they hold, and reflect on how Israelis are dealing with the trauma of the worst attack on the Jewish community since the Holocaust.
That didn’t happen.
From our first stop (in Mitzpeh Ramon to visit displaced members of Kibbutz Erez) to our last visit (to spend time, distract and play with children who are new Ethiopian immigrants—only to be told by the Israeli teen I was paired with, “I was supposed for be at the dance party that night but I got into a car accident and couldn’t go… but a lot of my friends were killed or are missing.”), the trip was more draining, heartbreaking and painful than I had expected.
But while the intensity and constancy of the emotions was more than I expected, those emotions didn’t really surprise me.
What did surprise me were the uplifting and inspirational moments. The strength of the Jewish people was on display everywhere we went. We spoke to so many people who are in terrible pain, but took the time to ask after us and express their gratitude. We saw people supporting each other in remarkable ways. We saw a level of pride and a sense of purpose and mission that is sorely lacking in today’s world.
And we saw a country transformed. Yes, Israel has been transformed by the horrors committed by Hamas. (The stories, videos and images of Hamas’ brutality are the stuff of nightmares, but none of them prepared me for hearing the stories of loss directly from the people who were there, or whose loved ones were murdered or are missing. I have never shed as many tears as I did this week.) Israel has been transformed from a country on the verge of civil war just weeks ago into a nation fighting for survival and united in its purpose.
The damage, devastation and trauma caused by the October 7 Hamas pogrom cannot be understated. The pain of so many individuals is beyond comprehension. And the fact that Hamas did such a thing, and people celebrated it (celebrated it!!) shakes one’s faith in humanity.
So, while I planned to post this week, I simply couldn’t. It was all too much. I don’t yet know how best to share the experience, but in the coming days I will try my best to do so. Because, now that I have had this remarkably difficult privilege, I feel an even greater responsibility to bear witness and remind the world why this war is being fought.
But not yet. Not tonight.
I want to thank Dov Ben Shimon, Sarah Diamond, and Greater Metrowest for making this week possible. Dov and Sarah, your leadership at all times but especially throughout this crisis and this week in particular are so appreciated.
Thank you Keren Hatkevitz for all you did to make this mission possible, particularly at such a challenging time.
Thank you to my colleagues with whom I shared this journey of solidarity. Your kindness, care, wisdom, humanity and thoughtful insights meant so much to me.
And to my dear friends Doron and Alisa Harel—that first hug when I saw each of you was yet another reminder that when all is said and done, even at terrible times, being with dear friends can lift ones’ soul.
And I’m grateful to our entire staff, but especially to Cantor, Moses, Beth, Tracy and Jodi, for making it so seamless for me to be able to do this. I knew that all the needs of the congregation, particularly at a time fraught with so many challenges, would be handled with their unmatched love, care and professionalism.
And a thank you to Raina for not being mad at me for giving her five sleepless nights.
I’ll be speaking about one aspect of the trip during services this evening, and hope you can join me at one of the more in-depth conversations about some of the experiences I had, their implications, and what we can do to help. You can find the details below.
Am Yisrael Chai
Rabbi Daniel Cohen