Whether Jews in the Diaspora personally agree or disagree with what Israel does or does not do, it is a fact that Israel was, is, and always will be a home for all Jews.
By Margalit Rosenthal
Thursday night. I’m out in Jerusalem on Ben Yehuda Street. My Birthright Israel LA Way group is busy dancing and unwinding at Tza’atzua (Toy Bar), purposely led there because it essentially also functions as a bomb shelter – safety is our number one priority. But I head off on my own for a bit, determined to do some personal shopping at my favorite store Mishkan and have my semi-annual mix-in frozen yogurt at Katzefet.
But Mishkan is closed. There are more police than usual. There are batches of armed, active-duty soldiers. This doesn’t feel like last summer. This feels like the Israel I knew in summer 2002, during the Second Intifada. The Israel in 2006, during the Second Lebanon War. Tense. Emotional.
I arrived in Israel on July 15 with my co-staff and 28 out of the usual 40 participants. We were determined to have a good time, to learn, and to demonstrate through our actions how Israel continues to live despite conflict. Throughout the next 10 days, we never heard a siren. We kept up with the news, made sure our group was well-informed and had the opportunity to ask questions, to reflect, and to talk with the six young Israelis who were part of our group the entire time we were there. Throughout the 10 days, I was distracted. Caught between facilitating an impactful experience and dealing with issues coming up in the office in LA. Caught between communicating with my family and being spontaneously interviewed by The New York Times. Caught between my personal emotions and the need to make sure all 34 participants were present and were paying attention to our tour guide.
While we toured Israel and assured participants (and their parents) that we were safe, my mind wandered. This Israel was tense. Tense like 2002 when I was on Ramah Seminar and we were not allowed to leave our living compound. Like 2002, when there was a suicide bombing in a restaurant or a bus at least weekly, and people were afraid to leave their homes. Like 2002, when just days after my family and I had Shabbat dinner in Jerusalem with our friend Marla Bennett, she was killed in a terrorist attack at the Frank Sinatra cafeteria at the Rothberg International School of Hebrew University. July 31, 2002; zichrono l’vracha, may her memory be a blessing.
We visited Masada and the Dead Sea, and my mind wandered to 2006, when I was staffing USY Pilgrimage and a second war with Lebanon erupted. 2006, when my college boyfriend called to tell me his friend Michael Levin was killed. Tense like 2006, when I took some of my teens to Michael’s funeral alongside thousands of others, and saw his twin sister, who I went to college with, standing beside her grieving family. August 1, 2006; zichrono l’vracha, may his memory be a blessing.
People are asking me how my trip was. It was intense, awesome, and powerful. But I was distracted. Not by safety or security, but by memories and experiences that bubbled to the surface. People ask me if it is safe to go. You will be safe. I felt safe. As a group, we heard no sirens. We did not run to shelters.
I stayed a few days after the trip on my own between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. I sought shelter twice in Tel Aviv, my friend who I was staying with texting me to make sure I was okay. I walked along the beach to Yaffo afterwards, visited some shops where I was essentially the only tourist to be seen.
On my last day, I had the humbling experience of visiting Soroka hospital near Be’er Sheva and Barzilai hospital in Ashkelon with other Federation professionals, organized by the LA Federation’s Senior VP in Israel, Aaron Goldberg. We brought care packages put together by the children at Beit Issie Shapiro, a Federation partner in Israel that works with children with special needs. We visited the Situation Room at Soroka and learned of the operating rooms that stood empty because they weren’t secure enough if a rocket were to hit. We heard about the babies in the NICU that had to be moved to another facility because the ceiling was made of glass (to let in the sunlight, which is believed to have health benefits for the infants). We saw the trauma rooms that were equipped to perform on-the-spot surgery for wounded soldiers whose lives may depend on whether or not they received care within minutes of arrival. We walked through the ICU.
The ICU housed soldiers who were so severely wounded that they were unconscious, some under medically induced comas. Young men covered completely with blankets and bandages, perhaps only their young faces visible. Perhaps only with tubes visible. Families stood by their sides, holding their hands, sitting, praying. Some with smiles on their faces, that their son or brother still had a heart beat to be monitored. I have been in my fair share of hospitals, and I have never seen anything like this. One soldier with a leg injury told us he “was not injured in the war;” he was injured – twice – as he ran to shelter. Another young man survived when a grenade in a Hamas tunnel failed to explode. His two fellow soldiers who were with him were not as lucky.
I have never seen visitors like I saw at Soroka and Barzilai. Family, friends, strangers, and professional athletes crowded the halls and bedrooms of soldiers. Piles of snacks, candy, Israeli flags, and goodies covered every surface. We joked that what they really would need was a dentist. Letters and drawings from children hung on every wall. An Israeli “American football” team with their American coach posed for pictures in their yellow jerseys. An Israeli Judo champion made the rounds wishing refuah shlema to those who were awake to hear him.
These are the people of this war. The taxi driver who picked me up and immediately says these are “yamim lo tovim, yamim kashim,” bad days, hard days. The tour guides, shopkeepers, falafel fryers who yell that they don’t want this war. My friend who I invite to Jerusalem to meet me on Ben Yehuda Street, who responds that he can’t, because he’s in Gaza. When he is allowed back home for the weekend, he shows me pictures I’m probably not supposed to see.
People ask me if I’m relieved and happy to be home. I am conflicted. I am not an Israeli citizen, and neither are my parents. I did not serve in the IDF, I do not regularly keep up with the intricacies of Israeli politics. I have no legal obligation to be there when times are rough. Yet, as I told my group at Har Herzl after we read Yehuda Amichai’s poem “Tourists:” We do not have the luxury of being tourists. While it may sound trite, I truly believe it is more important to be in Israel now than in times of peace. That is what love is, that is what home is. Making it through the challenges and coming out better because of them. And whether Jews in the Diaspora personally agree or disagree with what Israel does or does not do, it is a fact that Israel was, is, and always will be a home for all Jews. That is why it was created, to give Jews a country where they will always be free, will always be emancipated and treated as full citizens, where Jews will always have the right to self-determination. It is a land created not for the benefit of who was already living there, but for the benefit of those who may want to, or have to, live there in the future.
So, is it safe to go? Yes. Will it feel the same as it did the last time you were there a year ago? Probably not. But it wouldn’t be a good love story without a complex plot.
Margalit Rosenthal is Senior Director, Birthright Israel Experience, for The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles. She can be reached at MRosenthal@JewishLA.org.