24 November. Dateline: Ashkelon

The overarching theme of this very sad, yet ultimately emotionally uplifting day was Achdut. The group started the day in Tel Aviv. In a change from the original itinerary, a change that was actually announced by the rabbi in shul on Shabbat, instead of driving straight to the South, we drove to Har Nof. 

The generally chatty group became more and more somber as we were nearing our destination. We entered the town to be "greeted" by the large, black-bordered death notices of the four keddoshim that covered all walls. We filed off the van, silent, nervous (what does one say?), misty-eyed. Because of the way that the funeral arrangements were made, the Twersky family had already gotten up from shiva. So, we divided into small groups and visited the Kupinsky, Goldberg and Levine families. 

It was the last day of the families' shiva and Rabbi Robinson gave us strict instructions to respect their privacy, not bombard them with questions since they were no doubt exhausted, but if, and only if, spoken to, we should convey the heart-felt sympathy of the entire kehila and, if possible, to ask them what message they have for our us and for American Jews in general.

And so, we filed in, slowly, tentatively, and nervously. What happened next was astounding. We were greeted with a mixture of curiosity, warmth and gratitude. And, yes, by a bit of playing Jewish geography. Even after having been visited by hundreds (possibly, thousands) of visitors, the mourners thanked us for coming. And, even though we met with the three families separately, they all conveyed the same message, which they uttered in nearly identical words. They were moved and comforted by the achdut that emerged from this unspeakable tragedy. 

They had been visited by Jews of all religious affiliations, and no religious affiliations, they had been visited by Jews from all over the country and from countless other countries. As one mourner put it, in the days after the massacre, the streets were filled like on Purim, but the faces were like Tisha B'Av. Their message for us is simple: It should not take another such tragedy to bring us together. What we need is ahavat hinam, unconditional love for one another. There were, to be sure, tears, but what was most forthcoming was a sense of resilience; this will not stop us, we will always remember our beloved departed, but we will continue in our ways.

What that meant was in full display in our very next stop as we moved from the shiva houses to the Beit Midrash of Kehilat Bnei Torah. What was almost surreal was how normal everything looked. The blood had been washed off the floor and walls. The cries and screams of people being stabbed, hacked, and shot just a few days earlier in the very place that we were standing, had been replaced by the sing-song sounds of chavurot learning. Only the bullet holes in the door bore silent witness that this was no ordinary study hall. 

Our next stop was no less ordinary. There we met Doron. Through sheer happenstance, his newly acquired plot of land was close to the staging area of troops mobilized before entering Gaza to fight in Operation Protective Shield. No longer able to serve in the army due to wounds sustained in earlier wars, he nonetheless wanted to do something to help the soldiers. And so, when he noticed the overwhelming response that his kids got from handing out glasses of cold lemonade to thirsty soldiers, an idea was born. 

A Facebook posting offered hot meals, and use of showers in his own house for the asking. Responses followed: soldiers were willing to take Doron up on his offer. And, ordinary Israelis offered Doron food and toiletries to distribute. TV coverage and social media helped spread the message. Soon, a whole army of volunteers was mobilized to grill meat (the camp is strictly kosher), make salads, cut hair and even provide massages to the warrior. Companies donated tons of supplies. Over 100,000 meals were served in the course of the war. 

Of course the IDF feeds the hayalim. What Doron and his volunteers offer, though, was a hot meal instead of cold army rations to be eaten out of a can, and a warm embrace and a nation's profound gratitude. And, since soldiers continue to serve in the area surrounding Gaza, Doron's free "restaurant" is still open, soldiers still come in, as do volunteers.

Our last two stops for the day -- both of which involved variations on the theme of achdut included visiting an army troop of Bedouins who serve, completely voluntarily, in the army (unlike ordinary Israelis and Druze who have compulsory service). Hakarat ha'tov: Hundreds of Arabs from nearby villages paid shiva visits to the bereaved families in Har Nof.

We also met with members of the One Heart (Lev Ehad) organization which, over the course of the war, served as a volunteer/beneficiary matching service for everything, from helping mothers by simply playing with (and comforting) small children and giving their mothers a break while their fathers were mobilized, to delivering thousands of food packages and medications to the elderly who otherwise would not have the strength to make a mad 30 second dash for the nearest shelter once the Red Alert were sounded. We were humbled and inspired by this completely voluntary, self-run civilian army, just as we were by all the people that we met on this long, sad, yet uplifting day. And, Baruch Hashem, our prayers are still being answered: it is still raining in Israel.

Wed, January 17 2018 1 Shevat 5778