Editor's Note: Rabbi Leonard Gordon returned on Jan. 16 from a mission to Israel sponsored by the Masorti (Conservative) movement. The following is an excerpt from the blog he kept during the trip, which coincided with the war in Gaza.
I am writing at the end of a long day spent close to Gaza. No previous experience I have had in years of travel to Israel prepared me for today, and I know that writing about the experience will tax my ability to navigate how my heart and mind responded to what I saw and heard. Please bear with me.
We began our day in the "homeland security" situation room in Ashkelon. Ashkelon received three Katyusha rockets in 2003, 10 in 2006, seven in 2007, 20 before the war in 2008 and 90 (including larger, more powerful missiles produced in Iran) since the war began. In 2006, the citizens had 12 seconds to find cover after a siren; today, with better homefront security, they have 30 seconds. The missiles are powered by fertilizer and detergent, and they are armed with ball bearings and poison and aimed at the hospital and at civilians -- not at strategic targets like the power station or port.
Mayor Benny Vaknin showed us maps of the city indicating where children live, where the old people are, which houses do and do not have shelters. Sixty percent of the citizens do not live within 30 seconds of a shelter. Many of the elderly -- some Holocaust survivors and others who have been through Israel's wars -- do not leave their homes no matter what happens.
The mayor also spoke of the collaborative projects between himself and two mayors of Gaza City before the Hamas takeover.
We visited the Masorti kehillah, and a member of the community pointed out that, unlike Israelis, no one in Gaza can avoid the bombings by going to a shelter.
At Barzalai Hospital in Ashkelon, we learned that 80 percent of the patients were sent home to keep the hospital free and available to receive mass casualties. Patients come from the battlefield and from missile hits. Patients include Palestinians wounded in the fighting. The hospital spokeswoman referred to the hospital as an "island of sanity" in the region. When a Palestinian child was recently born in the hospital someone asked her: "How do you feel about giving life to the next shahid ('suicide martyr')?" to which she replied, "I am helping give birth to the next president of Palestine who will bring peace."
We then moved from the 30-second zone to the 15-second zone. In front of us on the road, we see smoke rising from Gaza, tanks in formation and dirigibles taking pictures from the sky. A political poster near the road reads: "Without fear at all," and above it is a sign from followers of Rabbi Nahman.
We learn that minutes after we left Ashkelon, two missiles hit.
Then we are at a forward staging area for soldiers about to return to Gaza after 24 hours away from the battle. We talk to them and distribute hats, prayers and candy. We hug and say the prayer for their safety aloud.
In America, we have debated the language of the prayer, but here, all of its words seem just right. This was the context for which it was written. The soldiers cover one another's heads with their hands as a sign of respect. I walk away and call home. I cannot bear what I'm seeing as the kids start rolling in their half-tracks back into Gaza. It is so painful to know what they are about to face, coupled with the damage that is being done.
We have lunch with the IDF spokesman at Kibbutz Alumim, right along the border with Gaza. As at every stop today, we begin with instructions on the location of the shelters. A kibbutz member asks us where we think the story of this war begins: The 1967 Six-Day War? The election of Hamas? One of our group suggests that it started when Abraham failed to make peace between his sons, Isaac and Ishmael.
We then visit Sederot, a near-ghost town that has been under missile attack since 2001.
Mayor Eli Moyal tells us that he felt abandoned until the war. He says that 70 percent of those still in the city are under psychological care of some sort. We are joined by Israel's deputy foreign minister, Majalli Whbee, who is Druze, an Israeli Arab. The mayor tells us that the secret to ending the conflict is both sides realizing that all people are made in the image of God.
As we drive home, I get a call: There was a missile attack in Sederot. We return safely to Jerusalem, not having heard even a siren all day.
Leonard Gordon serves as rabbi at Germantown Jewish Centre in West Mount Airy. He also chairs the Rabbinical Assembly Social Action Committee, and the Conservative Movement's Commission on Social Justice and Public Policy. The full blog of his trip can be found at: rabbilenny.blogspot.com.