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Rabbi's Israel War Reports

 

Below are the daily thoughts by Rabbi Blau on his visit to Israel during the difficult and tragic war following the 7th of October attacks in southern Israel. All letters are listed with newest first.

11.16.23

 

Dear Members,

 

I am writing to you from the airport at the end of a physically and emotionally draining trip that was incredibly meaningful and ultimately inspiring. We began the day with a painful reminder of the dangers that our brothers and sisters in Israel face daily as there was a terrorist attack on the road towards Efrat – right by the tunnels – which was the very road we intended to travel on. The soldiers on duty noticed that something was awry and when they stopped the suspicious car the terrorists came out with their guns blazing. Fortunately, they were quickly neutralized preventing a terrible tragedy (as they then discovered an array of weapons and fake Israeli uniforms inn the car) but it was at a heavy price as one brave solider was killed and others were wounded. May all of them be healed fully and quickly.

 

Our plans had to be altered and instead of meeting a group of talented educators who work in different roles at Ohr Torah Stone, we had an extended session with Rabbi Kenny Brander who shared with us the difficult challenges that these principals, and his entire organization faces. How do you deal with the need for increased security? How do you support your graduates who are in the army? How do you deal with the fact that so many of your students and staff have close connections to someone who was recently killed? These are but some of the questions that he, and all yeshivot and midrashot are facing during these unique times. One of his staff members, Rabbi Ohad Tahorlev, joined our discussion and described the incredible sensitivity that the army exhibits when dealing with the passing of soldiers. He noted that he feels a lifelong responsibility and connection to the families of these heroes who died “al kiddush Hashem”.

 

From there we paid a shiva visit and participated in the escorting of one has died to his burial and we got to experience how these events are not just personal but really national expressions of mourning. In both instances the deceased was a soldier who had fallen in battle. In the former case, we waited on a long line to be menachem (comfort) his elderly parents, and were amazed when his father comforted us. He quoted the seforim that we should learn each day and above all noted that we must respect all Jews regardless of their religiosity, affiliation, and political views. In the latter situation, the soldier was a young man and the streets were lined with people paying their final respects. In an unusual occurrence the family got out of the van that was transporting them and were embraced by their community. The father, with pain in his voice, said that his son was “a gibbor” before shouting “Am Yisrael Chai”. The family, and all those gathered, sang Hatikva and Ani Ma’amin; it was a powerful moment.

 

We then went to the Vert Hotel for two purposes: The first was to speak to the displaced residents Sedorot who are housed there indefinitely, and the second was to watch an incredible play designed to help children deal with the traumatic experiences that they went through. (Some of them were in safe rooms for days straight and saw sights that no children should see.) The latter event was extremely well done and it was heartwarming to see the childrens’ reactions during the play. To illustrate how small the Jewish world is, the head of this acting group and one of the lead actresses were the father and brother of our own Bat Sherut – Michal Lubar. Meeting the people of Sedorot, mostly women as the majority of the husbands are presently in the army, was particularly poignant as they told us their personal stories. While they are being well taken care of in the hotel, they have lost their independence, do not how long they will be there, and want to return home but must now overcome their shattered sense of security.

 

Finally, we ended the day, and the trip, by meeting with the parents of Adi Vital- Kaploun who was killed on Oct. 7th. There was an addition layer of meaning to this session as Adi was the niece of our dear colleague Rabbi Reuven Tradburks who organized our entire trip. Hearing about this exceptional woman and the manner in which she was murdered was heartbreaking, as there is a power to knowing the stories of the individual victims. The story of how her two small children survived is an incredible tale but it deserves a letter all its own. The strength of her parents and her mother’s decision to mark the shloshim by singing Hatikva emphasizing the phrase that we will be “am chafshi b’artzeinu” was a moving conclusion to this three day whirlwind.

 

I look forward to seeing you all over Shabbat and sharing more of this transformative experience.

 

11.15.23

Dear Members, I am writing this note on the way back from an army base near Gaza as one of the most emotionally powerfully days of my life comes to a close. Today we saw harrowing sights that shook us to our core as we saw, firsthand, the horrific destruction inflicted upon us by our enemies and heard not only from family members who lost loved ones, but spoke to survivors of these terrible atrocities. At the other end of the emotional spectrum we saw the truly unbelievable resolve of Am Yisrael and felt the energy of our brave soldiers as they are poised to fight against evil. There is no way to fully do justice to some of the stories that we heard today. Each individual tales deserves a letter (if not a book) of its own, but I will try to capture the essence of our experience in this limited format. Starting in chronological order, as we were waiting for our bus to arrive we saw all the inhabitants of Kfar Maimon (a small moshav) who are staying together as a community in a hotel in Yerushalyim. We heard the miraculous tale of how they were saved on that fateful day of October 7th. From there we went to the Saroka hospital which is where all those injured - civilians and soldiers - were taken after the vicious attacks by Hamas and where, even now, wounded soldiers are brought. Seeing the trauma ward and hearing how they dealt with the tragedies that came their way (their success rate under difficult circumstances was extraordinary) was impressive but spending time with some of the wounded was the moving part of the visit. My group met with one of the heroes of the battle in Sederot who downplayed his own actions while commenting on the miracles that he experienced. The next part of the trip is simply hard to put in words as we went to Kfar Aza and saw scenes that were beyond painful. We saw the burnt houses and the deliberate destruction that our enemies cruelly did to us. We heard how they methodically and savagely tried to wipe out the entire kibbutz. We met with two incredible women who described what they went through on the fateful Shabbat, and we heard how their boyfriend/son gave his life to save his girlfriend. We were amazed by their strength and resolve in the face of what had happened. They asked us to tell their story and let the world know what happened in their peaceful yishuv; a place where the people worked hard to collaborate with their Palestinian neighbors and where terrorists came to kill them just because they were Jews. While that experience was harrowing, our next visit reinforced many of those feelings as went to Ofakim which is one of the cities in the region that was brutally attacked by our enemies. Here too we heard the powerful stories of family members who lost their son, brother and nephew (respectively). We heard how each one of them did acts of heroism that prevented the death count from being higher than it tragically was. We saw the actual places where this battle was fought and where civilians ultimately neutralized the terrorists. Here too the strength and faith of those we spoke with was really inspiring. Finally we went to an army base to spend time with soldiers; to give them chizuk and to draw strength from them as well. We passed through Sederot, a booming city of 36,000 that is now deserted, and arrived at our destination. The incomparable Rav Rimon was there and his talk to the soldiers and the ruach, and dancing, that flowed from his remarks was such a marked contrast to our earlier experiences. You could feel the power of Am Yisrael and it strengthened all of our beliefs that when united we will indeed defeat our enemies. It was a wonderful way to end a challenging day but it really is a microcosm of the history of the Jewish people. We have endured horrors, survived, and ultimately persevered. However, as Rav Rimon pointed out, this time is different because now we finally have an army to defend ourselves. May HaShem help our brave soldiers so that they are successful in their mission and all return safely.

R'Blau

11.14.23

Dear Members,

I am writing to you from Yerushalyim as the first day of my rabbinic mission comes to a close. I want to start by saying that it is a privilege representing our shul, in particular, and American Jewry, generally as each place that I went people knew that I am from Cleveland and part of a delegation from the United States. Today was incredibly meaningful and I will share the highlights of my experience with the full details to follow this Shabbat when I return.

If that was an overall theme to the mission so far it would be a powerful combination of poignancy and inspiration. On the one hand, as much as we are all acutely aware of what is happening in Israel and feel the pain of our brothers and sisters there, actually meeting the families of hostages or attending a shiva visit of a solider who was tragically killed is qualitatively different. On the other hand, in a comparable vein, seeing firsthand the strength and unity of Israelis of all stripes, and hearing about heroism that has both happened and is ongoing, is incredibly moving as well.

I will briefly note four components of today’s schedule: The first was a meeting with leaders of World Mizrachi (who is partnering with the Rabbinical Council of America and RIETS in this venture) where we heard of the almost unbelievable efforts to both care for those who were displaced from the kibbutzim and cities near Gaza, and the intention to rebuild that area and make it stronger and more populated than before. The most powerful part of that session was hearing the words of Rav Doron Perez whose two sons fought nobly on Oct. 7th. One was wounded but has recovered and gotten married, while the second one remains missing and is presumed to be among the captives. Listening to him was both heartbreaking and inspiring; his ability to persevere and continue and some of the thoughts that he shared push me to – in his words – “up my game as well”.

The second component was a trip to Tel Aviv where our focus was on the hostages and the need to “bring them home now”. We saw the headquarters of that movement, spoke with friends and family members of those captives, and met selfless volunteers who are working to accomplish that noble task of bring them back.. Seeing the tents that family members are sleeping in until their loved ones are returned just reinforced the unimaginable pain that they are feeling. At the same time, however, we met talented individuals who have put their own lives on hold and are supporting these families in every conceivable fashion. Jews from all walks of life are united in these efforts which is unique and transformative.

The third component was personally very impactful as we went to the Shura army base where the Rabbanut of Israel does their holy work. I use that word deliberately as this is the place where the bodies of those murdered are identified and prepared for burial. Rav Rubin, and others, explained to us the painstaking details that they engage in to insure “kavod hamet” (the dignity of the deceased). While his descriptions of the volume of bodies they had to identify, and the terrible state that some of the victims were in, was harrowing, the unbelievable efforts they engage in as they care for the deceased was a Kiddush Hashem of the greatest magnitude and reflected the true dignity and sensitivity of Am Yisrael and Medinat Yisrael. We also heard how many soldiers have requested tzizit, how many units have requested both Sifrei Torah and even mezzuzot. The deep spirituality that lies within every Jew is powerfully on display.

Our final component of the day was paying a shiva visit to the parents of Rose Lubin – a lone solider originally from Atlanta, Georgia who was murdered in the old city after fighting heroically to save lives on Oct. 7th. Visiting a family whose child’s life was cut short at a young age in simply tragic but hearing her father speak of his admiration and appreciation of all that his daughter believed in and sacrificed her life for, was beyond moving.

Once again, it is my honor to represent you on this mission and I will send another report tomorrow.

R'Blau

Mon, April 22 2024 14 Nisan 5784