One People United

One People United

By: Rabbi Joshua Ben-Gideon Posted: November 18, 2023

Shalom Friends. I feel an incredible debt of gratitude to you for sending me on This Shlichut (mission) to Eretz Yisrael, Medinat Yisrael and Am Yisrael – the land, the nation and the people of Israel. I feel an incredible responsibility to share with you as much of my experience as possible. Because you sent me. And because it is just that important.

This morning I am going to share with you some experiences and thoughts around the word Achdut. Achdut means unity. Achdut and its many variations, like Yachad, Echad, are on the lips of Israelis when they describe what it feels like to be in Israel right now. We are one people. We are one nation. It is normal to expect that in the midst of a national trauma like Israel is experiencing right now that the people would pull together. Something more is going on.

Monday morning I landed in a very different Israel than I spent three weeks in around Pesach earlier this year. Then Israel was in the midst of weekly protests against the government. In that Israel 150,000 people gathered spontaneously to protest when the Prime Minister tried to fire the Defense Minister. That Israel is gone. Where will Israeli society be when this war is over? Who can say for sure. One of the lessons of this time must be to continue to strengthen our unity and to dedicate ourselves to remaining unified once peace returns.

How we will do so is unknown to us at this time. We have no way of knowing which tensions will emerge that challenge us to honor our differences as we give more weight to what we share. We have focused on our individual identities for so long, dreaming up ever more specific labels to describe just what kind of Jew each of us is. Egalitarian, Observant, Cultural, Spiritual, Tikun Olam, Orthodox, and on and on. For too long we have fetishized these labels. In the past I described myself as a traditional, egalitarian, observant Jew. I am removing any labels `I may have placed before Jew in the past. Whatever your labels are, I invite you to join me in removing any labels you may have used. Now I am a Jew. Now we are all simply Jews. I tend to daven in certain places, eat in particular restaurants, and shop in certain stores. Those are actions I take to fulfill my being a Jew. But I am a Jew, simply a Jew. Like you.

That is the feeling I got speaking to Israelis of all backgrounds, traditions and commitments. You and me, we are each just a Jew. Our message to the survivors, the soldiers, and the people on the street we met was just this. We are with you, you are not alone. Each in their own way responded, Damn Straight! It’s you and its us.

Though I walked through the valley of the shadow of death a number of times this past week, I have never felt as directly connected to Israelis. So while it was a very difficult and challenging trip emotionally, it was also an empowering and uplifting experience too. And now I want to share with you a few of those stories.

The first is really three stories around one much larger story. What I call A Tale of Two Twins. The story does not begin with the twins, but instead with their uncle. I am leaving off names because this will be available on YouTube and I do not want there to be any possibility that someone could use this video for evil purposes. We met their uncle on Monday at the Kibbutz Movement Center in Tel-Aviv which turned itself into a center for families with kidnapped or missing members.

His parents helped establish the Kibbutz. He and all of his siblings grew up on K’far Aza. In fact, most had returned with spouses and now have ten children between them. To look at him, you think you are looking at some sort of farmer/warrior. Although he was a bit larger, people said we looked like we could be brothers or cousins. He told us of that morning, when they awoke to the sounds of sirens, so everyone went to their safe rooms. But this is K’far Aza, and Hamas or Islamic Jihad launch rockets all of the time. Running to the safe room and waiting 10 minutes for the all-clear is a regular occurrence.

Like a New Yorker who becomes inured to some of the exotic encounters one experiences in the city–on the streets or in the subway, these kibbutzniks became inured to the routine of hearing the siren, run to the safe room, wait for the all clear – then go back about your business. Which is why his sister, in her house with her husband and twin ten-month-old boys, didn’t think twice about leaving the safe room for a few minutes to fetch bottles and clean diapers. But that cost her her life. Hamas Terrorists murdered her in her kitchen. And shortly after, they murdered her husband as well.

They let the twins, crying for their parents, live. They let them live because they had a disgusting plan to use them as a trap. A number of brave kibbutzniks and soldiers were killed trying to save them. The element of grace out of this horror is that after 30 hours, the twins were rescued. Their uncle told us he was not sure if the family would return to K’far Aza – who could expect them to know that at this point?—but that they would live together, and the twins would be adopted and raised as their own children by one aunt and uncle. And all of them family would take care of them.

It won’t surprise you to know what we were all on the verge of tears. This father and uncle’s bravery and vulnerability in sharing his story supporting us as we tried to support him. After we hugged and told him that he and his family are not, and will never be alone. That we all stand with them and the members of our congregations stand with them, and will be with them. We could only say what we felt. And when we witnessed his emotional response on his face, we knew we had said the right thing.

We had only been in Israel for a half of a day, and already we had been moved to tears a few times. Because of the situation, any trip itinerary has to be flexible so we had no way to know that the next day, by chance, we would actually meet the twins. We were invited to Kibbutz Shefayim north of Herzilya which is where a number of refugees are making their temporary homes, including as it were, many surviving members of K’far Aza.

As we made our way to a large classroom to hear from two survivors of October 7th – one a 13-year-old girl with a poise and maturity far beyond her years, we saw these two, adorable twin boys toddling around, with an aunt on either side. Our cooing and awing at their adorableness suddenly awakened to the fact that these were those twins. The weight of the world on the aunts’ faces contrasted starkly with the lightness and joy on these adorable boy’s faces and told us these were the two sisters of the twins murdered mother.

We witnessed in person the idea of Hillary Rodham’s Book It Takes a Village. K’far literaly means village. We witnessed not just the family, but the entire village come together to care for one another and to care for the most vulnerable among them. Then we listened to the stories of survival of two other members of the K’far and heard from the director of the newly formed foundation to care for and rebuild K’far Aza. As it happens, he is the son of one of our Masorti colleagues. As a community, we will consider if supporting this community through dislocation to rebuilding is a task we are up to.

The next day we found out that K’far Aza was not done with us. We had planned to visit Kibbutz Be’iri, but Tzahal closed it off and redirected us to K’far Aza, so on Wednesday we were given a tour of the K’far by three young members of the community. They told us about the 200-300 terrorists who stormed through the gate of the kibbutz. And they showed us where friends had been killed. Where an Arab EMT who thought that as an Arabic speaking Muslim would be safe was slaughtered because he was on the wrong side of the fence. And they showed us the twins’ home.

Standing there amidst all of the destruction, I had the image of these two boys in my mind. The contrast was quite powerful. I don’t know if this family will return. It would be unfair to expect them to know. I do know that K’far Aza will be rebuilt – as I do one of our tour guides said – as a Gan Eden – Garden of Eden. I do know that our responsibility is to help care for this family and all the others displaced by the massacre, just as it will be our responsibility to help them rebuild their communities. I know this from the lessons our Torah teaches us. And I saw this in the way the twins’ family came together to care for them. Their aunts, uncles and cousins will be the little village it will take to raise them. We are the village it will take to help return the communities and displaced Israelis to their homes.

The Jewish people have faced destruction and the need to rebuild before. Each time we rebuild we live out the Torah’s command וּבָֽחַרְתָּ֙ בַּחַיִּ֔ים to “choose life” in Devarim 30:19. Psalm 126, which so many of us know from singing it before Birkat Hamazon on Shabbat and holidays, celebrates our people’s first return to Eretz Yisrael from exile in Babylonia. שִׁ֗יר הַֽמַּ֫עֲל֥וֹת בְּשׁ֣וּב יְ֭הֹוָה אֶת־שִׁיבַ֣ת צִיּ֑וֹן הָ֝יִ֗ינוּ כְּחֹלְמִֽים׃ אָ֤ז יִמָּלֵ֪א שְׂח֡וֹק פִּינוּ֮ וּלְשׁוֹנֵ֢נוּ רִ֫נָּ֥ה  “A Poem on Ascending. When the Lord brought back the captivity of Żiyyon, we were like people in a dream. Our mouth was filled with laughter, and our tongue with singing…” Facing times like this one the Jewish people choose life. When we rebuild, we do so with visions of happiness and joy in our future. We face the loss and destruction and ask ourselves How can the future be better? What must we do to build the world we want for our children and grandchildren?

This moment is full of so many challenging emotions. At the beginning of our parasha, Rivka expresses a feeling and a thought we have all probably had at some point in the past eight weeks. When pregnant with the twins Eisav and Ya’akov, as they seem to struggle within her womb, Rivka famously asks, Im Ken, Lamah Zeh Anochi, if this struggle is going to be so difficult, why me? Like Rivka, if we are not taking care of our children, if we are not setting ourselves on the right path for their sake, what is our purpose? Our purpose is to build and sustain the unity of the Jewish people so that the world these twins inherit, the world our own children and grandchildren inherit is one of Jewish spiritual strength and commitment to one another. Otherwise we might ask, Lamah Ze Anachnu?