Friday, July 28, 2006

Day 6: Sderot, Kiryat Gat and Jerusalem

Sderot, Kiryat Gat and Jerusalem

Wednesday: July 26, 2006

My student Yonah Berman and I were looking forward to a calmer day as we drove south to Sderot. What we didn’t realize was that what awaited us was a day filled with tremendous anxiety and pain.

On the way down south we stopped at the temporary home of former Gush Katif residents, Matti and Aliza Yifrach. Last summer I stayed with them for a week in Netzer Hazani during the last days before Israel’s pullout from Gaza. Right after they were taken out of their home, the Yifrachs moved with many other Netzer refugees to Hispin in the Golan. Today they explained to me that because they had gone to Hispin in an effort to keep their community together, and refused the government’s offer of immediate temporary housing, the authorities are now denying them the “caravilla” offered to other former Gush Katif residents. At the end of August they have to be out of their temporary home and have nowhere to go.

As we entered Sderot, we could immediately recognize a small town in the midst of significant trauma. Hand-lettered signs hung in the square in front of the modest municipality building read: “We wish to sleep in peace.” Another sign read: “Through this war we’ve been forgotten,” and still another one read: “It is not fair to ask that children, women and the elderly be heroes.”

We met with Oren, Sderot’s assistant mayor and soon were joined by a group of US Conservative rabbis who had come to express support. The meeting once again brought home the reality that all of our people are in this struggle together, whatever our affiliations, commitments or backgrounds. I embraced many of my rabbinic colleagues whom I knew from the States.

The story that Oren told us was one of significant poverty and unemployment in Sderot. He reached out, asking his guests to help however we could.

We were taken to a small hill just outside the city and shown how just down the road, a few hundred yards away lies Beit Hanoun the launching pad for the Kassam rockets that are a constant backdrop to life in Sderot. In the midst of his briefing, Yakov, the head of security for Sderot, suddenly said, “I have to run, Kassams have landed in a nearby village.”

Yakov allowed us to jump into his van as he raced up and down hills at tremendous speed to get to the targeted area. By the time we arrived, a number of other security officers were already there, examining the rocket and assessing the damage.

As we moved to leave the area, Yakov got word that another Kassam had been fired at the same time, and yet another one had hit the Sderot cemetery. All at once I felt like I was in some kind of army command post as Yakov juggled calls on 3 or 4 cell phones while keeping one ear cocked to the voices crackling over the walkie-talkie as he received updates of incoming. All told, 6 rockets fell in the one hour we were together.

“Life isn’t normal here,” Yakov said as his wife called to check up on him. “There are no kids on our streets during the day as parents have taken them oit of townare afraid for them to be outdoors.” Yakov is right; a town without children is a town without a soul.

And yet, there were glimmers of normal life unfolding. As we passed another security officer who was racing around, he recognized Yakov and stopped his truck. The two men chatted and suddenly the man smiled as he lifted up a car seat carrying his infant child. Yakov asked why he had brought him along. “My wife is out of the house and I had no choice,” he answered.

Sderot does seem to have a semblance of normalcy not seen in the north. There are pedestrians in the streets and most stores are open. Unfortunately, Sderot has become used to the Kassams. It’s become part of the way of life here and life goes on. Ein breira—there’s no choice.

With so much attention rightfully being paid to the north, it’s too easy to forget that right on the border with Gaza, things are dangerous too. People have been killed and maimed by Kassams.

As we left the town a security person told us that he had received a beeper message that 10-14 soldiers had been killed in Southern Lebanon. My heart sank thinking of these young heroes, imagining how they fell and how they breathed their last breath, and the pain, the unbearable pain of their parents notified of their deaths.

We listened closely to the radio as we left Sderot. There was no mention of any dead. I wondered if maybe the report was wrong and quickly called the secuiryt officer. He said no, the soldiers are gone, but the country can’t be officially notified until the families are informed.

In the midst of the national disasters, one cannot forget personal relationships. We stopped for a short while in Kiryat Gat to see Marcia Levine whom I knew from Riverdale. She was a woman who wondered into the boiler room of the Whitehall Building that housed the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale in its very early days. Marcia fell in love with Israel. She went on to make aliya 25 years ago and raised a beautiful family here.

As we sat there, I had the powerful realization that today I have lived exactly as long as my mother lived. 62 years, 1 month and 2 days. Coincidentally, it was through Marcia that I was able to see my mother for the last time in her life. Marcia’s parents invited me to Israel to perform her wedding and it was then I saw Ima, who lived in Israel, for the last time. Even in the most stressful times there are still personal moments that are very deep.

Back in Jerusalem we went to see my dear friends, Natan and Avital Sharansky. We felt great joy seeing them but the mood was somber as no one could get out of their mind the young lives that had been lost.

This war may have no name, but it is a war, a very difficult one and for Israel to overcome there will tragically be many more losses.

There was a time in 1967 when Israel was surrounded by enemy nation states. Egypt in the south, Jordan and Syria in the east, and Lebanon in the north. Now, it’s Islamic fundamentalist terrorists that surround us. They are fighters who are not afraid to die; in fact they want to die because to them, death is glory. This is a Milchama Hakadmon— now we’re fighting the front line of the war. It’s a fight first for Israel’s very existence but also for the existence of the free world.

Like all Israelis and Jews everywhere, I feel great pain at the loss of life and suffering of innocent civilians on all sides of this war. But we must remind the world that Israel’s intent is solely to fight the Hezbollah terrorists. When civilians are tragically killed in the fighting, there’s regret and heartache in Israel. Contrast this to Hezbollah intentions, which are to deliberately target civilians, even hospitals, and to rejoice when they do so.

For Am Yisrael the centerpiece of Torah is God’s declaration to our people and all of humankind, “Behold, I have placed before you life and death. Choose Life.” I keep thinking of the soldiers who gave their lives. May their souls and their families and our people be forever blessed.

Introduction: Diary Of Rabbi Avi Weiss' Week Long Trip In Israel
Day 1: Arrival in Tsfat
Day 2: Shabbat in Tsfat
Day 3: Haifa
Day 4: Tiberias and Nahariya
Day 5: Tsfat and Raanana
Day 6: Sderot, Kiryat Gat and Jerusalem
Day 7: Haifa and The Shomron

Diary of Rabbi Avi Weiss' Return Trip To Israel--Following the Ceasefire

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