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Reflections from Israel: Look In Their Eyes || לכבוד התצפיתניות

Updated: Jun 25

When people asked me why I was going to Israel alone, or why I was going at all, the truest answer I had was that I just had to. A shiva call of sorts— a chance to hug my people and my places.  Tonight, I feel a sense of responsibility to the people I spent time with there to reflect back with you my experience. 

And so first, a bit of context to my trip overall.  During the week that I was there, I spent most of my time based in Jerusalem. I had two days staying in Tel Aviv and throughout both parts of those trips I was traveling both north and south. As many of you know, we do have family there, and so an anchor of the trip was simply spending time with my sister-in-law and my niece and nephews, two of whom are in the army, with the youngest graduating high school this month and preparing for his own enlistment in the year ahead.  I also feel really fortunate to have a lot of friends and colleagues there from my time at HUC and who over the years I've met through Josh's work. In addition to a lot of coffee dates and walks and talks. I also spent a full day south in Otef Azza or the Gaza envelope, which I'll talk a little bit more about later and a full day up north in the Afula-Gilboa region, which is our sister or Partnership region through the Jewish Federation and the Jewish agency.

The best way that I can think to help you understand what my experience was like is actually to show something on the screen that is going to be there the whole time and then, as though I am daring you, ask you not to pay attention to it. 

(the photo gallery below played as a slideshow for the duration of the sermon when delivered live)

That is in many ways what my time In Israel was like. I spent a week looking into the eyes of the hostages, looking at the faces of those who have died and trying to put one foot in front of the other and still act as though it was possible to behave normally. Their faces are everywhere. From the moment I landed in Ben-Gurion, the faces of the hostages greeted me. Walking through the arrivals hall, which is lined with all of the posters of the hostages covered with flowers and stickers and messages of hope and prayers that they'll come home, was my first full-body reminder: this is not a normal trip to Israel. I made my first stop at an ATM to get some shekels, and the home screen of the ATM before you even put in your password is pictures of the hostages. You sit in a cafe, you walk through residential neighborhoods, and everywhere you look are stickers and posters and banners and signs.  I don't know how to say it except to say that their faces are everywhere. Absolutely everywhere.

And this experiment that we are doing right now, trying to maintain eye contact with one another while their faces are right next to us is a pretty good representation of what it felt like to be there. 

Throughout my trip, I kept a note open in my iphone where I would write down quick thoughts— something someone said that I wanted to remember, or brief reflections of my own. Even looking back at those notes now, three weeks later, I am struck by how emotionally chaotic my time there really felt.  It felt possible to access brief moments of joy: seeing my youngest nephews’ new photography exhibit on display first at the Israel Museum, a walk through the new and extraordinary National Library of Israel in Jerusalem. Coffee with a friend and colleague, Rabbi Oded Mazor from Kol HaNeshama. A day spent with my friend, and beloved Hevreh tour educator Daniella Geffen. Friday morning brunch with my niece and nephew at my favorite Jerusalem cafe. A Shabbat afternoon swim at Bograshov Beach in Tel Aviv. A reunion with Achiya Ben-Ari, the incredible regional leader of our partnership in Afula-Gilboa. Dinner with Israeli friends who once upon a time had first come to Great Barrington as mishlachat, young Israeli counselors sent to Eisner Camp in the early 2000s. So many glimmers of hope and joy and connection. 

And also: 

This conversation during that walk through the National Library: “It’s like there’s a black cloud over everything. The way civil society came together initially was a source of hope. Now the country feels divided” 

The “real” answer to the question, “how are your kids doing with all of this?”: “You know, I still owe my children a childhood. I am lucky to be able to close the door, and make snacks and sit on the couch and watch a movie with them. But, it’s all so close, and sometimes I just need someone else to cry to”

The conversation with our old Israeli au pair, Noa, who said “I honestly feel kind of hopeless. The West Bank is worse than Gaza and no one is paying attention.” 

The answer to my question “what do you wish people outside of Israel really understood?”: “People don’t realize that now, in addition to the war and the hostages, and the rockets, is that now we have an internal refugee problem. There are tens of thousands people both from the North and the South who were evacuated from their homes on October 8th and still can’t return. These are families now living 4 or 5 or more in a hotel room— people are getting divorced. Kids who were great students are now kids at risk. It's a mess.” 

The conversation with my 21 year old niece, who is a commander in Sataf, an Intelligence Unit: “it just feels like we need peace within and peace with the outside but inside is more important, and even if we want to make peace with those outside, zeh lo talui banu; it isn’t just up to us”

There is a piece of the story of my time there that still sticks out from the puzzle; still not quite fitting into a cohesive understanding of what it all means in this moment, and that is the experience of being down south in Otef Azza.  The day that I spent in the Gaza Envelope is a day that I don’t think I will ever forget, and one that I still don’t have words for. The only thing I can compare it to, is what I imagine it might have looked like to visit Auschwitz or Buchenwald only months after liberation. We drove along the Gaza border, and suddenly, I was there, in the place where just 8 months ago there was terror that defies understanding: Kfar Aza. Mefalsim. Nahal Oz. Kibbutz Beeri.  There is a very real feeling that the blood is still fresh on the ground. 

I can offer you these vignettes:

  • From Route 232, the road where all of those communities are, it is just 3 miles to Gaza. You can see Gaza from the road.  It became clear to me that the people who lived in the Kibbutzim and Moshavim on the border of Gaza are ideological settlers of another kind. They lived there because they believed it was possible to live in peace. They lived there to show that being neighbors is possible. 

  • I had the chance to spend time with Robert Rosenberg, a 78 year old resident of Moshav Sde Nitzan who has lived there at the border since 1974. In the days after October 7, he refused to evacuate, staying instead with the Thai workers who manage his avocado and mango fields. Most striking about my time with him was his recollection of going to the beach with his wife and kids when they were young, in Gaza. That’s just how close it all is. 

  • The terror that the people living there, and those at the Nova Music Festival experienced on October 7 is beyond what our minds are meant to comprehend. Being there and bearing witness was truly an out of body experience; standing in the bomb shelter where Hersh Goldberg Polin was kidnapped from and where his friend Aner Shapira heroically lost his life putting himself between a grenade and his friends. Standing in the field where the music festival happened, now covered in hostage signs and memorials and art, it felt clear to me that at some point, the question will have to be answered: is this place a place that people can call home once again or will it always feel like a memorial site?

My sense is that it is too fresh. Too soon, and still too raw to know what to say about the communities down on the Gaza border. There is a sense that nothing can happen— nothing can change, until all of the hostages are returned home. 

I’ve spoken a little bit about the very full Shabbat that I spent in Israel— beginning in Jerusalem, and ending in Tel Aviv. 

I want to hone in on two very different slogans that I saw over the course of that Shabbat. 

The first said: Kulanu Hatuphim. 

It was on a red T-shirt that many were wearing, that was for sale at the Hostages Families Tent in Jerusalem. 

Kulanu Hatuphim. We are all hostages. 

I understood the intent of the message. I know that for many people in Israel, there is a feeling that they are held hostage at this moment: hostage to a government that is unresponsive to cries for an end to this war and a commitment to bring the hostages home; hostage to war that they never wanted in the first place. 

But there was something about the T-shirt that just didn't sit right with me and I think it's because right now there are still 120 people who are literally hostages; hostages in the bleakest, most literal sense of the word, held against their will in Gaza. How desperately lucky we are that we are not actually all hostages. 

And yet: when I locate myself appropriately on the concentric circles that surround Israeli grief and trauma right now, I know: who am I to say that this is the wrong message. 

And so, message #1: we are all hostages, and it’s complicated.

Message #2 will require a bit more context. 

One of the most poignant and painful moments of my trip was the release of a now infamous video of the five young female soldiers being kidnapped. Those five soldiers had a very specific role in the army, they are called tatspitaniyot, the female plural of the word for observers. Their job was to sit at the border, and watch with unflinching concentration, trained to notice anything out of the ordinary. It is a position held by young women and a position that is always unarmed. Much has been said about the failure to protect them: one was quoted as saying  " We knew this would happen. We warned the higher ups. But they ignored us. They told us that they know better, even though this is our job—we have to know every tree, every tent, every pothole in our section, and especially to know when something unusual is happening. And we do."

On the day that the video was released, there was a lot of build up. The video went live at 6pm that day, and as soon as it was publicly released by the families of the hostages themselves. There was an immediate shift. 

That video laid bare everyone's worst nightmares about how those young women were taken, what the intent of their kidnappers might have been, and only deepened everyone's fears around what might be happening to them now. That was Wednesday. 

By Saturday night, at Hostages Square in Tel Aviv, there was a group of women wearing yellow and holding signs. The signs said things like: 

זה יכול לקרות במשמרת שלי: תצפיתניות למען תצפיתניות 

It could have happened on my shift: observers for the sake of observers”

 פעם תצפיתנית תמיד תצפיתנית. 

Once an observer, always an observer. 

העיניים של המדינה עדיין חטופות בעזה

The eyes of the State are still hostages in Gaza. 

In addition to the many slogans, the group of women held huge posters of the five young observers up high in the air. These were women of all ages, some of them more recently out of the army and some much older. What they had in common was a shared experience when they were 18 and 19 years old: each of them had been tatspitaniyot, having  had the same position in the army as Naama Levy, Agam Berger, Liri Albag, Daniela Gilboa and Karina Ariev. And now they were still watching. Still observing, unflinching in their gaze at a government who appeared unmoved by the plight of those five young women.

Since my return home, I’ve been following those women, former tatspitaniyot themselves. In just three weeks, they’ve become more organized.  They protest each week at Kikar Ha’Hatuphim, Hostages Square in Tel Aviv. They are still dressed in yellow, emblematic of the movement to bring the hostages home, except now, three weeks later, they have printed t-shirts which say “Do not close your eyes until everyone is home” on the front, and “Once an observer, always an observer” on the back.  They’ve become a mini-movement within the movement that is crying and begging and screaming for their  government to bring the hostages home.

Their post last weekend calling for others to join them on Motzei Shabbat at Hostages square featured the five photos of Naama, Agam, Liri, Daniela and Karina, and in bright yellow lettering read: הסתכלו להן בעיניים

Look at them in their eyes. 

And really— I think that’s the message for this moment. 

Like those observers, trained to look; that is what we must continue to do. 

To look at them in their eyes.

To continue to look at the images of all those who remain hostage, even knowing that there's a lot of looking pain in those eyes. 

That is what it is to be in Israel at this moment: to look around, and to find every inch of the public square, both literally and figuratively, covered in the faces of those lost, those missing, and those in captivity. 

I came back with more questions than answers. I don’t have an answer for what we do when we look into the eyes of someone in Gaza who is suffering. I don’t have an answer for what it will mean for this war to end, and how. 

But I do know this: 

The time for a deal is now. 

The time for a political solution rather than a military one is now. 

There is truly greater or urgent mitzvah than to redeem those who are captive, and time is running out. 

And what I have asked you to do for these last 15 minutes— both to look, and to think, and to stay with me here, while your tender hearts are pulled to look at the reality in Israel, is exactly the point: in this moment, we have to try to do both. To not look away, but to keep our hearts connected to the hope and possibility of a better day ahead. 

That remarkable Shabbat that I spent there three weeks ago was bookended by the same song. First, sung at the Hostages Families Tent outside Benjamin Netanyahu’s house in Jerusalem at a pre-Shabbat gathering, and then again during Havdalah at Hostages Square in Tel Aviv. 

A song for this moment, to hold most solemn prayer and wish: 

May it be, may it be,

Please—may it be

All that we seek—may it be.

May it be, may it be,

Please, may it be

All that we seek—may it be. 

(sing Lu Yehi) 

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