I have an admission. At first I could not make up my mind: with Israel under attack again, should it go or not go in? I have led or participated in dozens of missions to Israel during every sort of circumstance. I have been here during difficult times - during the first and second intifadas, the Persian Gulf War, Operation Cast Lead; Operation Pillar of Fire....
This time seemed a bit different, however; the danger was broader, the vulnerability greater. Would we be able to convince people to go with us? Would it be responsible to take them at this time? Would we be welcome or would we be an unnecessary burden? In the end, I ruled out sitting on the sidelines; the pain was too excruciating. So, in consultation with my community, I announced a synagogue mission, albeit with limited goals. I sought five or six hardy souls, “macho members” who, I figured, would be willing to visit soldiers near the front. We would go there for a few days to make us feel better, and perhaps accomplish something small.
I should have known better...
No sooner did we announce and publicize the dates of our trip than we were inundated with calls from my community and beyond. We partnered with Emunah of America to organize travel arrangements and mission planning. The calls increased even more.
Within one day we had 25 participants; in two days, we were up to 35; in three, we had to decide whether to order a second bus; by the time we closed registration – to my disappointment, I had to agree that three buses would be too many to control – we had close to 90 signed up.
I should have known better.
There is no more important or stronger statement that Diaspora Jewry can make at a time like this than to pick up and travel to Israel. The global isolation of Israel becomes personal with every canceled trip, with the empty streets and quiet malls resulting from the hostilities. If Israel’s friends won’t support her when she needs us, who will? From the moment we boarded the plane, almost every person we met thanked us; from the stewardess on the El Al flight, who knelt next to my seat for five minutes to tell me she just had to meet the Rabbi who organized this mission; to the soldiers in the hospital rooms and the members of their families who were moved beyond measure by the fact that we journeyed from America to visit them; to families sitting Shiva for their sons killed in combat- who graciously received us and allowed us to express our support; to soldiers near the Gaza front who were shocked by our arrival and visibly moved by our expressions of gratitude and thanks – they took pictures of us to send to their families as we took pictures of them – to the children in shelters who, we heard, smiled for the first time in weeks because of our visit; to the driver of one of our buses who was moved to tears simply by the fact we came.... The list goes on.
Everyone thanked us, even though we objected, insisting that we, Jews all across the globe, and the entire free world received the benefit – not the reverse.
The true impact of our journey hit home even more when we realized how warped our sense of Israeli reality is when we viewed it from afar.
It’s not just that life here goes on; it’s deeper than that, a different life, a life where the war is a constant drumbeat in the background; where the day’s schedule is punctuated by Shiva calls; where everyone is related to someone, or a number of someones, fighting in Gaza at any given moment; where a red alert can sound at any time; where you continue to live your daily life with these realities accompanying you as you go.
There is no question of victory or defeat – it’s really not that kind of war. You accept that the soldiers do their job, and you hope it will be done with minimum cost and maximum benefit. You certainly don’t pay much attention to the global pundits. You know what has to be done, and you are united as a nation in the commitment to do it.
And even more, when you are here, you finally know what you can and must do.
Simply put, the IDF can use our help. I know this sounds strange. I have often heard this stated in the past, and, to tell the truth, it never made real sense. Can’t the Israeli government, I wondered, properly provide for all its soldiers? I should have known better...
When you are here at a time like this you realize that the burden is enormous. Israel’s army is, after all, a citizen army. The government of this young nation simply cannot cope with the overwhelming requirements of the massive call-ups necessary in a situation like today’s. And it’s not just underwear and socks.
It’s headlamps for searching through tunnels, scopes for rifles, silicone knee pads, bulletproof vests and more.
Suddenly, witnessing the scenes around you, you realize that, absent assistance supplied by you, some Israeli soldiers will simply go without.
And when that realization hits home, when you fully comprehend that one of these smiling, spirited, dedicated young men standing before you may enter Gaza without a piece of equipment you could have provided, your visceral reaction is immediate and intense. That insight explains why, in unplanned, impromptu appeals on our buses, tens of thousands of dollars were raised in an instant; funds immediately sent to specific army units for specific provisions and equipment; funds that may help save precious lives or even just make the difficult job a bit easier. When you are here, it makes perfect sense.
I wonder now, as our trip nears its end, how I could have questioned at all. I should have known better.
When your home is in danger, you come home. It’s where you need to be; to feel, to witness, to understand, and, above all, in your own small way, to help.
Rabbi Shmuel Goldin has served as spiritual leader of Congregation Ahavath Torah in Englewood, New Jersey, since 1984.