I was asked to reflect on the mood of the country, after my trip. Considering that I took a less than three-day trip at the end of November, I felt it would exhibit a great deal of hubris to claim that I know what the mood of the country is. So, I sent this to a few friends of mine in Israel to get their comments and thoughts and have them validate what I write here.
Obviously, there has been a tremendous amount of trauma. We witnessed this on our trip. We met with the families of hostages who were suffering so deeply. Thank God, some of the children and mothers of the families we met have been returned to their families. But just because they are home does not mean all is well. There is a trauma there that will never completely leave them and there is much work to do. And currently there are still so many hostages being held.
Hundreds of thousands of people have been displaced from their homes. This takes a huge toll.
We went to the funerals and shiva houses of IDF soldiers, whose stories of bravery and inspirational lives provide us with strength, but whose loss is felt so painfully by the entire country. We visited the injured at Soroka hospital.There are so many injured, physically and mentally. The recovery will not be easy.
We visited kibbutz Kfar Aza, which was attacked on Oct. 7, and where at least 52 people were killed and 17 taken captive. Only a mile from Gaza, many of the homes in the young people’s area of the kibbutz, where the terrorists set up their headquarters, were burned and completely destroyed. This was hard to see. We can only imagine what it was like to experience and what it is like for the residents who can return only to pick through their things and find what is not burned beyond repair.
I understand that in the days after Oct. 7, the country was in a dark place. People were shocked and depressed. How could this happen?
However, within a few days, the country rebounded in a way that is a wonder to behold. There is a resolve and a determination to stand up to Hamas and to fight for the country. There is an across-the-board commitment in the country to fight until Hamas is completely defeated. There is also a spirit of volunteerism that runs from the Chermon to Eilat and everywhere in between. There is a renewed passion for Zionism and love of country. Post-Zionism is so yesterday’s news. There is also a renewed excitement for Judaism and pride in being Jewish. And there is a fire and a spirit in the young generation that has been called to serve. Young people are going off to Gaza and to the north with resolve, bravery, pride and courage. Whomever worried about this generation does so no more. They turn in their cell phones and put on their fatigues and their helmets, and they are a new generation of heroes.
For me, however, the most poignant and perhaps most important shift in the mood of the country has to do with the attitude of Am Yisrael towards each other. For months before Oct. 7, the country was roiled by daily protests. For years before Oct. 7, the country toiled through repeated elections. In the days before Oct. 7, on Yom Kippur even, the streets of Tel Aviv boiled over regarding a prayer service in public. After Oct 7, a seismic shift has taken place, and the people of Israel are united as never before.
Right and left, religious and secular, chareidi and chiloni, sefardim and ashkenazim, white, black, brown, all shades of skin color, Jewish, Christian, and Muslim Israelis are united in their belief in yes, smashing Hamas, but also they are united in being united. Everywhere we went we saw Israeli flags and also banners that said – ‘biyachad nenatzeach’ – together we will be victorious. It was a message I heard from the beginning of my trip to the end.
Rav Doron Perez, head of World Mizrachi, who is waiting every day for news of his son Daniel, taken hostage in October out of his tank, spoke to us on our first day. He emphasized the fact that this achdut, unity, among the people of Israel should not be taken lightly or for granted and that we must do everything we can to preserve it. Rav Yosef Zvi Rimon, the Chief rabbi of Gush Etzion, has become a unifying force for the soldiers, traversing the country to meet with them and to bring them supplies, barbecues and encouragement. He told us he considers his suit jacket to be holy because it has hugged thousands of soldiers. We met with him in a base at Kibbutz Re’im, only kilometers from Gaza.
There, we got together with unit 8-111, which had stopped there to regroup before returning to fight in Gaza. (Tragically, three soldiers who ate with us that night were later killed in battle.) We had a barbecue with them, shared letters from schoolchildren with them, sang and danced with them and sat down to talk with them about our lives. Rav Rimon spoke to us all in the midst of the dancing. He reinforced Rav Perez’s point, saying that we have a unique opportunity now that we should not squander, namely, the incredible unity and sense of brotherhood. He told us how one soldier said to him “Rabbi, before October 7th, I put up walls between us.” Rav Rimon told him, “The press put up walls between us.” The soldier said back “No, I put up walls between us. I would never have spoken with a rabbi before. But now those walls are gone.”
This is not to say that all the differences are gone and forgotten, and this is all a kumbaya moment. The differences will remain. Left-right and religious-secular distinctions are real and debates and discussions over those differences will return. There will certainly be an accounting for the mistakes made before the attack. What we can hope for, and what we can strive for, is keeping the shared sense of purpose and allowing the deep connection between us to remain foremost in our minds. I felt that palpable sense of unity here in Milwaukee when we came together at Shalom, at community programs at CBINT, CBJ, WITS and the JCC, and in a really strong way on our trip together to Washington, D.C.
There may be those who say, “Why does it take a tragedy for us to come together?” This has already been remarked upon by the Talmud (Megillah 14a). “The removing of Achashverosh’s ring (in the Purim story) was more effective (for getting the people to repent) than all the 48 prophets and 7 prophetesses.” But I would say what I said after the Tree of Life murders – that at least during times of trouble we do come together.
Let us be inspired by the unity of the people of Israel and let’s do whatever we can to keep that unity going, here, Israel and everywhere. Beyachad NeNatzeach! Am Yisrael Chai!
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Rabbi Wes Kalmar of Congregation Anshe Sfard Kehillat Torah in Glendale, helped lead a three-day mission of 15 rabbis to Israel with the Rabbinical Council of America, and organized with the help of World Mizrachi.