This summer has been incredibly difficult for our brothers and sisters in Israel. Instead of vacationing with their families or making memories at day camps, Israeli children have spent sunny days hiding in bomb shelters and learning more than their fair share about the Iron Dome missile defense system. Instead of jumpstarting their careers or focusing on basic training, thousands of young men and women have found themselves on the front lines of the war in Gaza.
It’s been a very long and challenging summer, to be sure. But Jews around the world have been sharing inspiring stories of extreme charity and anecdotes of unprecedented displays of brotherhood that have taken place over the past few weeks.
These stories buoy our spirits and help us remember just how fortunate we are to be members of “the Tribe.” Since I spent some time in Israel during the war, I have a few stories of my own, but one in particular stands out above the rest – a life-altering moment I experienced in the rocket-battered Negev city of Sderot.
The story actually begins in January, with a phone call from Yossi Baumol, executive director of American Friends of Sderot. Yossi explained he was in dire need of a Torah for an Ethiopian synagogue in Sderot. The congregants had been using ritually unfit Torahs and were pining for a kosher Torah to call their own.
I immediately got on the case. Dr. Joe Rozehzadeh, Simon Jacob, and I decided to dedicate the Torah in memory of Joe’s father, my father, and Simon’s father-in-law. Promptly, a Torah was on its way to Sderot.
Joe, Simon, and I postponed the Hachnasat Sefer Torah (Torah dedication ceremony) until all three of us could be in Israel together. After much discussion, we settled on Friday morning, Aug. 8 (the eve of Shabbat Nachamu) as the date for the ceremony.
As the war unfolded, we made a conscious decision to stick to our plan. Not only did we want to see it through, it dawned on us that a celebration of this kind was more important during a war than at any other time. We were committed to giving our Torah a proper homecoming and standing in solidarity with the citizens of Sderot when they needed us most.
On the morning of Aug. 8, Nachum Segal Network general manager Miriam Wallach, Joe, Simon, and I arrived in Sderot with an entourage of family and friends. Though we were overcome with excitement, we were also somewhat nervous because there’d been several air-raid sirens that morning. Later we would realize that while sirens rang out immediately before and after the event, not one sounded while we were actually singing and dancing with the Torah.
The first thing we noticed was that the “synagogue” was actually a trailer with a capacity of no more than 30 people. The congregants, Ethiopians spanning generations, were beaming with joy and pride. In addition to genuine excitement about the Hachnasat Sefer Torah, it was clear they were simply thrilled to have a reason to celebrate outdoors on a sunny day. In a city plagued by aerial terror, moments such as these were not taken for granted.
And so we began. The small group gathered together, dancing with the Torah at the entrance to the synagogue as we raised our voices in song. Israeli musician Yehuda Katz joined us for the ceremony, and his sweet vocals and instrumentals helped set the mood. As the members of the congregation chose one song after another, we were pleasantly surprised by the selections.
We had assumed that an Ethiopian synagogue would mark the occasion by singing melodies American Jews couldn’t possibly know, and we were all prepared to just hum along and clap when it seemed appropriate. It turned out, however, that their Hachnasat Sefer Torah set list matched our own without exception. The universality of the custom was moving.