The Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia and the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey organized a trip to Israel from Nov. 5-7. Eleven rabbis joined Federation leaders to examine “the needs on the ground,” as a Jewish Federation web post put it.
Seven of the rabbis — Charles Briskin of Shir Ami (Newtown), Shai Cherry of Congregation Adath Jeshurun (Elkins Park), Jason Bonder of Congregation Beth Or (Maple Glen), Jon Cutler of Beth Israel Congregation of Chester County (Chester Springs), David Glanzberg-Krainin of Beth Sholom Synagogue (Elkins Park), Abe Friedman of Temple Beth Zion-Beth Israel (Center City) and Peter Rigler of Temple Sholom in Broomall — were from the Philadelphia area. Several spoke about what they saw.
Briskin, who leads a congregation with more than 500 members, said he saw “regret, resolve and resilience.”
Regret came in the form of an Israeli man who led 30 cars through fields to escape Hamas terrorists. But 12 cars didn’t follow. Those passengers were killed.
“He regretted and lamented the life he was not able to save,” Briskin said.
Resolve manifested in a woman named Daphna, a social worker. Her husband was away serving in the Israel Defense Forces. Her four children were staying with friends and family members. But it was Daphna’s duty to check on young people in the southern region that was attacked.
“Resolve was just the determination for the Israelis that we met just to do everything they can to provide for other people,” the rabbi said.
Resilience was found at the Crowne Plaza in Tel Aviv. More than 200,000 Israelis were displaced during the conflict, and many are staying there, according to Briskin. Volunteers are providing educational programming for kids in the basement.
“We saw kids who appeared to be happy and joyful,” the rabbi said.
Cherry, who guides a community with more than 300 members, had been to Israel before. But this trip was different.
“It was unlike any other time I had been to Israel in the sense of focus and commitment to doing whatever was necessary to win this war, to eliminate Hamas’ ability to terrorize Israelis again and to get our hostages back,” he said.
Cherry saw grandmothers on street corners giving out cookies to soldiers heading south. He witnessed people harvesting fruits. The rabbi observed one person who brought their dog to an evacuation center because the kids loved it.
Friedman, who leads a synagogue with 350 households, said, “There was a sense of being in it together.”
“People wanted to know about my community. Are we OK?” he added.
The start of the college semester in Israel has been delayed, according to Friedman. Many students were called up to the IDF. But many who haven’t still found ways to serve.
They picked food on farms where there weren’t enough workers. They drove around to deliver supplies to people stuck in their homes. They brought groceries to parents with spouses in the army.
“Whatever was needed,” Friedman said.
Every Israeli seemed to have the same message: focus on the hostages.
“Not just in our minds but in front of our elected representatives. We need to keep them in front of the president,” Friedman said. “I came back energized to make sure that a day doesn’t go by that I’m not talking about them.”
Rigler, who guides a congregation with 430 families, said he “saw a country that wants to bring its people home.”
Posters of the hostages hung on billboards and walls.
“Everyone we talked to, that’s what they led with,” Rigler said.
The rabbis met a woman at a hotel in Tel Aviv. She told them how a rocket had fallen on her home in Ashkelon and destroyed it. The family, including her husband and four children, did not know how they would pay to fix it or where they would live.
“She said, ‘What I’m really worried about is freeing the hostages,’” Rigler recalled.
The rabbi returned home and gave a sermon about what he saw the following Friday night. It drew a High Holiday crowd: 275 people in the sanctuary and 160 more online.
Rigler reported that the situation was worse than he could have imagined. He saw rows of burned-out cars and houses with bullet holes in them.
But then he held up a copy of the Talmud and said, “I know we have different opinions on what’s going on. But Israel has a right to exist, and we need to bring the hostages home.”
Over the next week, the congregation contributed $50,000 to the Federation’s effort to build resilience centers in the south. Those centers help people cope with losses and help families return to their homes, according to Rigler.