By Rabbi Yitzchok Adler
Rabbi Yitzchok Adler, spiritual leader of Beth David Synagogue in West Hartford, recently returned from a three-week-plus stay in Israel, where he and his wife, Leslie, visited their daughter and son-in-law and their grandchildren. During his stay, he kept a diary filled with reflections about his experience being in Israel during a time of war. He shares excerpts from that diary with Ledger readers.
Nichum Aveilim, Being Comforted by Mourners
The Gaza War was raging with all of its fury when we arrived at Ben Gurion Airport on the last Thursday of July. Exiting the plane, I expected a mob scene of travelers like those associated with American airports like Newark or Atlanta. Much to my surprise, the terminal was quiet; we passed through passport control without a wait in line and had our luggage within five minutes of getting to the baggage claim carousels. Where were all the passengers from all of the other flights? Was there commercial air traffic in the approaches to Ben Gurion or were the skies nearby compromised by the missiles of hatred and destruction? We will never know for sure; but I experienced the undeniable impact of the war a very few days later.
One of the first e-mails I retrieved as we settled into our weekend accommodations was an invitation to join a small delegation of American rabbis who would be spending the coming Sunday morning visiting Jerusalem homes where families were in shiva over the losses of IDF sons killed in the war. How could I not join? It was a mitzvah opportunity, organized by the RCA (Rabbinical Council of America) in Israel. These were the places where the price of freedom was paid with the most precious of currencies, where the heroism of Jewish survival was casting its own contemporary shadows on the pages of history and national survival. I was expecting encounters with wails and cries. I was expecting tirades of anger and resentment leveled against the enemies who stole these young lives. What I actually experienced were the true heroes and heroines of the Jewish State.
I met parents, grandparents, siblings and extended families who came together with love and unity. I did not meet mourners who questioned the 60 or 70 years that these fallen sons and soldiers would never live, I met loved ones who celebrated the 20 or 21 years of life that they viewed as blessings. In both cases, they gladly welcomed “the rabbis from America” so that we would know and share their stories.
Of course, they were hurting and in pain. Undoubtedly they were shedding tears in private moments and crying themselves to sleep every night; but in the national spotlight and with international media peeking in, these families strove with immeasurable depth, courage and fortitude to be the faces of comfort for everyone else. With hundreds of visitors passing through their worlds every daylight hour – not an exaggeration – these mourners comforted those who came to console them. All of them were strengthened through the time that we had spent with these IDF families. Nichum Aveilim – we were comforted by the mourners.
On Shabbat, the Rabbi Slept Late
My son-in-law likes attending early morning services on Shabbat mornings. Some of these minyanim convene as early as 7:30 or 8 a.m. He is an early riser, probably as a consequence of having two young children; yet, many neighborhoods in Israel have synagogues, yeshivot and shtebels (neighborhood worship houses) offering early Shabbat morning services. Many are finished with their prayers by 9 or 9:30 (10 at the latest), and this makes it possible for families to spend most of the day together. Wanting to enjoy the full benefits of a vacation Shabbat, I had no interest in being out of bed that early.
On a weekend spent in the Talbieh neighborhood, I sought out a synagogue on Chovevei Street where at least three different Shabbat morning services started at staggered times with the latest starting at 9:30 a.m. That service was my first choice. Oy vey! I was startled to hear the singing of Anim Zemirot as I approached the entrance at 10. It could not be that a Shabbat morning service ended in 30 minutes. Was I at the wrong place? Did my face show the countenance of an American seeking the closest neighborhood Kiddush Club? What a relief it was to hear Anim Zemirot followed immediately by the beginning of the Torah service. At the Chovevei Synagogue, Anim Zemirot is included in Shacharit; unlike our American congregations where it is usually incorporated into the closing songs of the morning.
Through this insightful moment, I experienced Shabbat as many do in places where it is common for attendees to straggle into shul from almost any time between the scheduled start time and the end of services. It was a feeling of remorse and relief coexisting in a common experience. The relief was further validated after I found a seat and began to quietly say my prayers. I arrived at my final page at the same time that the last “amen” was responded to the last Kaddish. No kiddush was served that day at that shul and I walked out together with everyone else – those who arrived before me, around the same time as me and those who came even later. Ahh, to be 6,000 miles from home and learn that there are other shuls around the world just like my own.
Regional Peace and a Soccer Ball
One evening, we went to a sushi restaurant in a neighborhood called Ramat Beit HaKerem. To be more accurate, it was a sushi sports bar. It was a bit amusing to me to have traveled to Israel and there enjoy sushi, and to enjoy it in a restaurant whose walls were lined with large flat screens all broadcasting sports from around the region. In my wildest dreams, I would never have considered sushi and sports TV to be a part of Israeli culture. That was, until I saw a commercial posted by FIFA, the umbrella federation for international soccer.
In the opening scene, several Israeli Orthodox pre-teen boys are kicking a soccer ball along a narrow Jerusalem street. As they lose control of the ball, it ricochets off a wall and careens down a narrow alley. The ball is caught by a group of Palestinian boys who are walking up the alley. The Jewish boys turn the corner, see the Palestinian boys, and stop in their tracks. The trepidation on all of the faces is palpable. With hesitant caution, the Palestinian boy holding the ball extends his arm in an offer to play. Stares give way to smiles as a friendly and informal street game of soccer ensues. In the background, we see two mothers – one an Israeli woman in a long black skirt and one Palestinian woman dressed according to her culture – chatting and looking on with approval.
I know, we all know, that peace is not as easy as soccer; yet, I could not help but think about the famous quote attributed to Theodor Hertzl, “Im tirtzu eyn zoh agaddah” – if you will it, it is not a dream. Commercials are created to sell products. Perhaps a few more commercials like this one might not be such a bad idea.
The Blessing of Thanksgiving (Birkat HaGomel) is a short one-line blessing recited after a person has been saved from a hazard or threat to personal well-being. Commonly, the blessing is recited after surviving an automobile accident, after recuperation from serious illness or surgery, or after completing an overseas trip. Many people recite the blessing upon returning from Israel. I have never considered, or wanted to consider, a trip to Israel to be dangerous; and therefore I have never said the blessing. This time, however, when we are back in West Hartford, I intend on reciting Birkat HaGomel.
It has been a wonderful three-week visit bonding with our Israeli grandchildren, and the on-again-off-again ceasefire with Hamas barely impacted day-to-day life in Jerusalem. That was until our last Tuesday night. At 11:45 p.m., not long after we had gone to bed, the warning sirens wailed. In sleepwear, we made our way to a safe place in the building and waited. Lights flickered and the hallway echoed with the voices of other people just like us waiting for notice that it was safe to return to their apartments. We were back in bed by a few minutes after midnight, but sleep was fitful for the rest of the night. Morning news reported that over 40 rockets had been fired out of Gaza over the course of Tuesday evening and night, and one had landed in an open area just outside of Jerusalem. We did not hear the boom, but the sound of the siren will be with me always.
Jerusalem is not a huge city and its neighborhoods seem intertwined as they wrap the hills and valleys. Indeed, the psalmist was absolutely accurate in his description of Jerusalem when he wrote “Harim saviv lah” – that it is surrounded by mountains (Psalm 125). It is a very metropolitan place, yet there are open areas with parks and playgrounds just about everywhere except the merkaz ha’ir (city center). The next phrase in the verse is also timeless in its relevance: “V’Ado-noi saviv l’amoh” – and God surrounds [the] nation. It would be untrue if I claimed not to have been just a bit concerned when we woke to the sirens; yet it is equally true that I was basically confident that everything would be fine. Between God and the Iron Dome, I felt protected. Nonetheless, this trip for sure, I will recite Birkat HaGomel when I am back at Beth David.
Postscript – Sirens on Shabbat
Our last full day in Israel was the Shabbat we shared with the Shmueli family – Beth David congregants – in celebration of their son Ofir’s bar mitzvah. As guests arrived at the resort facility outside of Tel Aviv on Friday afternoon, all was pleasant, if not outright joyous – until a few minutes after 6 p.m., when the sirens gave forth the call to retreat to safe places. Everyone at the party turned and smoothly transitioned to a safe room on the ground floor of the building. No panic. Most of the guests lived in the Tel Aviv area and they seemed accustomed to the interruptions imposed by the Hamas rockets. Routine is not to be confused with nonchalance. The threat is real and understood. After about 10 minutes, everyone returned to the party and, even before the musicians could re-orient themselves, a spontaneous outpouring of patriotic pride gave way to the most spirited singing of “Am Yisroel Chai” – the nation Israel is alive and vibrant! – that I have ever seen.
It was like the mural of the children of Israel, as painted by the words of rabbinic tradition. The verse declares that the Israelite nation burst into spontaneous song immediately after the miraculous splitting of the sea that saved them from the pursuit of the Egyptian army: “Az yashir Moshe u’Bnai Yisroel” – then did Moses and Israel sing (Shemot 15:1). The Rashi commentary on that verse echoed in my mind: “When he saw the miracle, the song rose in his heart.” This assemblage, gathered to celebrate a bar mitzvah, was not about to allow any threat to compromise the spirit of the moment. Shabbat candles were lit a few minutes later and the Friday night prayers could not have been more inspirational.
Fast forward 26 hours. It is now 8 p.m. Saturday night and the Seudah Shelishit – the third and final meal of Shabbat – is ending. Everyone is moving from Birkat HaMazon – Grace After Meals – to evening prayers, and the sirens wail again. Within seconds, we hear the now familiar twin “boom-boom” as Iron Dome intercepts more incoming rockets. Everyone waits until it is clear to proceed… then life goes on.
Under normal circumstances, Shabbat begins with a candle-lighting and a blessing and ends at Havdallah with another candle-lighting and another blessing. Last Shabbat, it started with sirens, candles, blessings and songs; and it ended with sirens, candles, blessings and songs. And life goes on.
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