The Celebrate Israel Festival on May 31 at Pier 94, slated to be the largest gathering to date of Israeli-Americans in New York.
Want to be awakened from the galut slumber? Want to be rejuvenated spiritually and emotionally? Want to free yourself from the lethargy, the apathy and the emptiness of chutz l’aretz? Go on a Solidarity mission to Israel.
Want to show you care? Want to rid yourself of that gnawing guilt feeling of “They’re giving up their lives and I don’t lift a finger to help?” Want to show your brothers in Israel you feel their pain? Want to tell them we’ll never let them down? Go on a solidarity mission to Israel.
We did just that. A group of about forty of us recently returned from a three-week solidarity mission to Israel. Ours was not an ordinary mission. We were not sponsored by any organization, nor are we affiliated with any.
We are just a group of tayere Yidden, zisse Yidden, whose love of Eretz Yisrael, Torat Eretz Yisrael and every Jew is deeply rooted in our hearts. What better way to translate this love into concrete deeds than to go, hear the people and see the land with our eyes and our pocket books?
Our group (called Rabbi Greenberg’s Group) has visited Israel every year for the last thirty years. We’ve traversed the land from north to south, east to west, our main objective being to aid and abet, and strengthen and encourage, our brothers in distress. People in Israel tell us that just the fact that we come gives them chizuk and shows them that we care.
Although we primarily came to give, we were also able to get. Our interests centered on the religious, the historical and on chibat ha’aretz. We met with gedolim. We visited yeshivas, talmud torahs, kollelim and the holy sites.
Of course, we were very interested in the history of the land and its people. We visited ancient and recent battlegrounds, excavations, universities, museums and Yad Vashem. We met with government officials and ministers, and we talked to common people.
As far as chibat ha’aretz goes, we visited frum and non-frum kibbutzim We spent time in the settlements trying to absorb the people’s mesirat nefesh, their vitality, their resolve, their resilience. We shepped a lot of nachat observing the development of a vibrant society with yeshivas, supermarkets, synagogues and malls.
* * *
Some impressions of this year’s Israel solidarity mission, starting with Yerushalayim. How can I not start with Yerushalayim, the crowning point of our mission? Yerushalayim! The most beautiful city in the world. The breathtaking views, the intoxicating beauty, the bright blue skies that last forever. You never forget them. Yerushalayim! The city whose air reverberates with the echo of the prophets. The “Palace of the King.”
Generations of Jews yearned to have the merit to see Yerushalayim, to touch its stones and to feel its kedusha. Moshe pleaded with Hashem 515 time to grant him entry, but did not succeed. And here we are viewing its rebirth and grandeur with our own eyes. It’s like a dream come true.
Yehuda Halevy, the poet and author of the Kuzari, lamented: “My heart is in the East [Yeushalayim] and my body is in the end of the West [Spain].” But we have the zechut to be in Yerushalayim with our heart and our body. What a glorious feeling.
And how can one be in Yerushulayim and not go to the Kotel? Just seeing it from a distance one becomes transfixed on our glorious past. Holiness fills the air. The Kotel! The only place the Shechina never left since the destruction of the Temple. The realization that we are walking the hallowed grounds, that we are tracing the footsteps of our forefathers, is beyond awesome. We felt so connected – so at home.
I recall, with great affection, our first trip to Israel. I prayed at the Kotel on Friday night with the Vizhnitzer minyan. You know, the minyan at the left corner. The emotions of that prayer session cannot be described. No doubt it was the confluence of three unforgettable events: My visiting Israel for the first time; my hearing the famous Vizhnitzer Lecha Dodi; and my hearing it at the Kotel. It was my most emotional experience since I recited Hallel on rosh chodesh at the end of the Six-Day War.
* * *
Can one see the Kineret and not burst out in song? How can one marvel at the crystal sky, reflected in the glittering blue waters, and not break out singing V’ulai? How can one walk these grounds and not see the young pioneers of yesteryear with their dreamy eyes and visions of a bright future? How can one not see them drying out the swamps and dying from malaria or Arab bullets? All the poetry and songs written about the Kineret fail to do it justice.
My heart goes out to those who gave their lives so that we can enjoy the fruit of their labor and their pain. It was the will of Hashem that they did not die in vain. The magic of the Kineret and the surrounding cities and villages, teeming with Jewish life, are witness that their visions of a bright future have been fulfilled with the help of Hashem.
* * *
Do you look for the highest level of idealism? Visit the settlements. Do you yearn for courage, for heroism? Get involved with the settlers. Do you search for self-sacrifice, for the willingness to give up one’s life to save another Jew? You will find it in the settlements.
Oh, idealism! That precious, beautiful word, the word that tells a thousand tales . Idealism – the ingredient that most Israelis, unfortunately, lack these days – is so abundant in the settlements, so cherished. It is the rock upon which all the settlements are built.
Itamar, for example, is a settlement near Shechem (Nablus). Thirteen of its members were massacred by terrorists, including an entire family. Does this deter its inhabitants? Does this weaken their resolve to fight on, to endure, to build? Not the slightest bit. Idealists never abandon the barricades. And with the help of Hashem they will prevail.
Gilo, in the belly of the beast is exposed to constant firing by a bloodthirsty enemy. Bullet-proof windows? Yes. Steel-reinforced concrete fence? Yes. But not one iota of despair. Not one iota of defeatism. The idealism of the residents, along with their courage and self-sacrifice, will enter the annals of this heroic period.
* * *
We hired a bulletproof bus and we went to Mother Rachel’s tomb. The feelings, the emotions, that the shrine evoked in me are difficult to describe. Mother Rachel! I get goose bumps just writing the words.
Mother Rachel! Rivers of tears, rivers that dwarf Niagara Falls, have been shed at your grave from time immemorial. Feelings that fill the oceans have been expressed at your tomb since you consoled our forefathers on their way to galut in Babylon. Mountains of prayers have been murmured at your shrine by thousands upon thousands since then.
And to us, dear mother, have you no consoling words? No motherly smile? No motherly hug? Haven’t we suffered enough? Were not the Crusades enough? Was not the Inquisition enough? Were not the pogroms enough? And above all, was not the Holocaust enough? Think of the Holocaust, dear mother…
But why talk about history? Look at your children today. When they leave their homes they are not sure if they will make it back again. They are being butchered by a brutal enemy. Entire families are being wiped out. The guts and brains of your children are being splattered on the walls of buildings. Your wounded children, legless and armless, are crippled for life. Does this not deserve your consolation? Does this not deserve your intervention at the Throne of Hashem? How could you not? How could you not?
I was jolted from my thoughts by a call to return to the bus. We were led out by soldiers in combat gear – machine guns, helmets, the works – with their fingers literally on the trigger. This is reality, I thought to myself, the cruel reality that in our own land we have to be protected from Arab terrorists – even at our holy places, and even during prayer.
Who could have imagined in 1967 that Kever Rachel, the symbol of compassion and motherly love, the quintessence of peace and serenity, would become a fortress? Not in our wildest dreams could we imagine that we would require bulletproof buses, and soldiers armed to their teeth, to protect us from Arab killers.
* * *
How does Israel solve the problem of ‘kids at risk?’ Israel’s answer: Take them to the army. The IDF has an Orthodox unit known as Nachal Charedi – a combat battalion created for soldiers from the haredi sector of Israel’s population. Nachal Charedi accepts haredi youths who, for various reasons, do not find their place in yeshiva study halls.
Nachal Charedi accepts with open arms these unfortunate individuals who’ve been rejected by society. They are enrolled in programs consisting of army service combined with a Torah education. These youths quickly regain their self-esteem. They become revitalized. They feel a sense of purpose now that they have re-entered mainstream society. It was a pleasure to see them daven with zest and with the realization that they were saved from the brink of the abyss. Nachal Charedi defenders have succeeded in preventing several terrorist attacks.
* * *
After visiting the front lines of ‘fortress’ Kever Rachel and Nachal Charedi, we realized that the Israeli people are not involved in a struggle to defend just themselves. They are in the midst of ferocious struggle to defend us well. Yes, us. To whom did the Argentinean Jews turn when they were set upon? To whom are the French Jews turning now that they are being set upon? Our Israeli brothers are manning the barricades and giving their lives for us. And I dare say that ‘us’ includes we Jews here in America.
The next time you come to Israel, therefore, hug the first Israeli you meet. Thank him for defending you. Tell him that you love him, whether he wears a kippa or not. Because according to Torah giants like Reb Moshe Kordovero and the Chazon Ish, it is a mitzvah to love every Jew – even the wicked (check it out). Please, never let the extremists and the maximalists convince you otherwise.
* * *
Our visit with Reb Chaim Kanievsky was one of the highlights of our trip. We’d made every effort to meet with this man whom many consider one of the greatest of our generation. As told to us by one of his ardent admirers – a woman who appeared to slip into a trance when she mentioned his name – the Shechina rests in his house. Reb Chaim listened very attentively to all our individual requests before sending us off with his fervent blessing and wishes that our requests should be fulfilled by Hashem. Our wives were received by the rebbetzin, a lady extraordinaire who left an indelible impression on everyone.
* * *
What an experience! I am referring to the massive human chain connecting Gush Katif with the Kotel. This was our chance to actually practice solidarity with the people of Israel, not just talk about it. So many Jews holding hands. So many Jewish hearts beating in unison. So many Jewish souls telling Sharon, “Don’t do it, don’t uproot Jewish families from their land in Aza (Gaza).”
We said to Sharon “Don’t do it” with the same emotion, the same fervor, that Elie Wiesel told President Reagan “Don’t do it” when he was determined to go to Bitburg, Germany, to visit a gravesite that contained remains of Nazi soldiers. Our message to Sharon concluded with, -Don’t surrender Gaza to Hamas. It will be the beginning of the dismantling of the state of Israel? – G-d forbid.
* * *
I would never have believed that bricks and mortar could inspire me to tears of joy. I am referring to Har Choma. Har Choma! The symbol of the ‘occupied territories.’ Har Choma! The symbol of Jewish stubbornness. A God-blessed, holy stubbornness not to give away anything that belongs to us.
My heart melted when I saw, from a distance, the sprawling compound perched on a hilltop like a lioness watching over her cubs. The quickly moving cranes were like dancing angels that fulfill the will of Hashem to perform the mitzvah of yashuv ha’aretz. The crane symphony, as I called it, was like music to my ears.
* * *
We brought back a very important message from every Jew in Israel to every Jew in galut:
Your mother land is crying out for her children to come home. We love you. We need you. We need your children. We will embrace you with open arms and open hearts.
Come see our beautiful land! Come witness the spirit, the vitality, the hope, the idealism and the heroism. Come see with your own eyes how much Torah there is here. There has not been so much Torah in the land of Israel since the days of Destruction.
Come take part in the rebuilding of the land. Take part in reconstructing the “Palace of the King.” Come become part of a young, vibrant country where every blade of grass, every drop of dew, every grain of sand bursts forth with the voices of rebirth and rededication, and heralds the imminence of the final redemption.
Bezalel Fixler, a survivor of the Transnistria death camp and a musmach of Yeshiva Torah Vodaath, is a contributing columnist to Dos Yiddishe Vort and the Algemeiner Journal. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
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