The only way to really understand what happened in Israel this summer is to have been here.
I arrived in Israel on May 27. It felt the same as it had the last time I was here, a little under a year ago. I roamed the shuk eating fresh figs, hiked my ancestors’ paths, camped out on the beach, learned at seminary, and met with friends all over the country.
On Friday, June 13, my adventures were marred by the taste of what living in Israel really means. I was waiting in the Central Bus Station with my friend, Phil, who was in uniform. A soldier hearing us speaking English asks if we know what happened. Three of our boys have been kidnapped, he says, near Hebron. We think: Impossible, Phil would be the first to know, his unit is in Hebron. As Shabbat arrives, the news is verified. Shabbat in Tel Aviv; the synagogue packed with scores of Jews of different affiliations, gathering together to recite Tehillim, the words ascribed to King David. They worked for him, let this be over soon.
Sunday comes, but it’s not over. Travel plans with friends are still on, though it’s hard not to constantly check my phone for updates. I feel the urgency during our tefillos. Natives slap me with “Are you crazy?” as I wait for a hitchhike, and I retort “We can’t live in fear.” I see my the face of my seminary teacher, Rachelle Fraenke on television. This was happening.
One minute you’re shaving shwarma off a pit, then the shwarma guy tells you he read a (fake) WhatsApp that the boys are dead.
I visit Phil’s base in Hebron, and see the conditions his unit works under. Soldiers are no longer the attractive gun-holders I knew from teen tours. These are my friends, spending their 20th and 21st years following orders and “eating dirt” in the field. The condition of their equipment helps me decide on my latest project. I contact friends and family, and raise enough money to donate headlights and water backpacks, around $10,000, through Yashar LaChayal. The project was personal. I couldn’t just prance around the country, freeloading protection from kids my age. They were putting their lives on the line to ensure our safety. What was I doing?
I start volunteering with Ethiopian teenagers in Kiryat Malachi, teaching English in a summer camp with YU Counterpoint. I learn about the government’s low expectations for the teens. This manifests itself in camp, where my campers tell themselves they have poor English. I see that without us, most of these campers would be on the street, many without food at home, with no aspirations to even finish high school. But we believe in them.
It’s June 30 and we’re eating dinner. After nightly words of Torah, our head counselor rises. She generally speaks only when there is news, and in these past few weeks no news has been good news. I haven’t checked my phone in the hour since dinner started, and in a way I was grateful that the news was coming from someone I knew. It was over: the three kidnapped boys were dead. We walk back to our dorm in silence. All staff meetings were canceled, all plans postponed. All we could do was lie on the grass in silence. We ask each other: Why do bad things happen to good people? What happened to all of our prayers? Will I spill my theological crises to strangers on the bus, or will I put my headphones back in my ears as if nothing has happened? I think of Robert Frost’s poem “Home Burial” – is it better to mourn or better to move on? A question I would find myself asking all summer. For camp at least, my personal answer didn’t matter. The next day I would come to camp with a smile and my usual excitement. Our campers needed us.