Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Day 3: Kiryat Shmona and Tsfat

Kiryat Shmona and Tsfat

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Today would have been my mother’s 85th birthday. She died at 62, much too young. I wondered what she would have said about the war. I thought of the time when a group of thugs came into the summer camp my parents owned (Camp Aishel) and tried to attack some of the girls in their bunks. I tried to talk them out of it and refused to confront them. Sometimes, Imma told me, you have to stand up for your rights, and hit back.

Early morning, we traveled to Kiryat Shmona, the city hardest hit by Hezbollah rockets, having received 25% of all the Katyushas. Miraculously there were no fatalities. Just 24 hours after the ceasefire, things were slowly coming back to normal. Cars were moving; people were already rebuilding their stores.

We sat with Mayor Chaim Barbevai, around whom there had been some controversy, but he struck us as well connected with the amcha. What we learned in Kiryat Shmona is that the government supplies the funds to rebuild structures. The question is how fast that money will become available. No doubt that a tremendous amount of private funds, however, will still be needed for the social and psychological intervention required to get the city back to normal.

Kiryat Shmona was familiar to me as I had been there in 1993 for a week when there was a wave of Katyusha bombings. I spent Shabbat with Yossi Chimi who was running for mayor back then. Yossi dropped out of politics when a rocket seriously injured his wife Chani in the late 90s. Yossi owns the largest factory in Kiryat Shmona, employing 140 people. Part of the factory lies in ruins. He is savvy and smart, exuding the confidence of a company CEO. Despite the devastation and damage, Yossi intends to rebuild and continue his successful business. As we spoke, his son walked in and explained that, having just finished his army service, he was going to tour parts of South America, as many young Israelis do. “I have every intention to then come back to Kiryat Shmona, and make a difference.” “It’s not for you, it’s too limited,” replied Yossi. “No, it’s my home,” insisted the son. Here, it’s the reverse of the normal situation where parents want children to stay in the hometown and the young people can’t wait to leave.

We visited some of the poorer areas with donated toys to give out. As we walked through the streets people jumped us. “Give them to us! If you give them to the municipality to distribute, we will never see them.” There is division amongst the people here concerning the integrity of the local government.

We visited the Kiryat Shmona Hesder Yeshiva. The hills behind the yeshiva are all charred but the yeshiva itself stands untouched. The yeshiva students led by their rabbi Tzfania Drori remained throughout the war, and the Yeshiva was used as a base for IDF troops. There is a genuine feeling of gratefulness to the yeshiva for all it has done in distributing foods and offering relief to those who remained in the shelters.

On the way from Kiryat Shmona to Tsfat we encountered scores of soldiers in rows of tanks lined up along the roadside. It was eerie, as we walked from our cars towards the tanks, wondering if the soldiers would welcome or rebuff our approach. We were quickly surrounded by chayalim eager to talk. Amongst them was Amiad who told me he was a graduate of my brother Mordechai’s school in Margate, New Jersey. Mordechai and his wife Debbie are lovers of Israel. Their three youngest sons served in Tzahal. No doubt, Amiad, his student, would make him proud.

Soldier after soldier asked if there is really support in the US, do American Jews really care? Too many soldiers told us of moments when the right hand of the IDF didn’t know what the left was doing. There were reports of not enough food, no clear strategy, equipment failures. One soldier pointed out that when soldiers reached the Litani River, Hezbollah started to shoot from the other side. I’m not a military person but one gets a sense that the heroes in this war were these soldiers, not those planning strategy.

Yonah Berman, who served in an IDF tank unit before starting his rabbinic studies, crawled into one of the tanks, pulling Jason along. They gave away Pokemons and the happy soldiers attached them to their uniforms and tank barrels. I was just happy to be standing with scores of Israeli soldiers, the holiest Jews on the face of the earth.

A car came screeching to a halt and someone jumped out and yelled, “Rabbi!” It was Martin Taub from New York, father of Natalie and father in law of Davidi Jonas. He was traveling though the North with friends looking for soldiers, telling them how proud he was of them and bringing them gifts. That is what Martin does these days. Many think that there’s little individuals can do here, but people like Martin show that everyone can play a role. Words and gestures of support go a long way. From my perspective, this is not the time to intellectualize or philosophize about the war, that can come later. Now is the time to be there. I reflected on the line from Barnyard, a children’s movie Toby and I had taken our grandchildren to see. “A good leader is not the strongest or the smartest, but the one who cares the most.”

Everywhere in the North we felt the withdrawal. Tanks moving south; soldiers happy to be heading home. But there’s sadness that victory is not complete. The original objectives have not been achieved. The abducted soldiers have not been returned, Hezbollah has not been disarmed, and the threat of further attacks hangs in the air.

We stopped at Kfar Giladi where 12 reservists were killed in front of the kibbutz cemetery. Some have suggested they were negligent for not having taken cover when the siren sounded. Maybe. I reflected on how men, most of them married and with children, left their families and work to give of themselves to Medinat Yisrael. Today, the place of the devastation is peaceful and yet we knew that a tragedy had befallen Israel here.

In Tsfat that evening, the Sieff hospital seemed more or less back to normal. The shattered glass had been fixed. Only a few soldiers remained. One of them, a Druze named Hamdan asked us to get the word out that the Druze who serve in the IDF must also be supported. Lying in the Tsfat hospital was Yusuf, a Christian who had been wounded by katyusha shrapnel outside his home in Metullah. He had served for many years in the Southern Lebanese Army. He spoke of the close relationship between Christians and Jews. Yusuf’s father who was in the SLA for 25 years, was also there. He seemed distant, withdrawn until Jason approached him. Speaking fluent Arabic, Jason brought a smile to his face.

At Livnot u’Lehibanot in Tsfat there was a gathering to honor soldiers and volunteers who had been here throughout the war. We told the group that they were part of a symphony that helped Israel in its time of need. They were part of Israel’s larger army.

Looking out over the hills of Tsfat late that evening, it seemed so peaceful. I reflected on the idea that the topography of a country reflects its psyche. Here in Israel there is little twilight. The sun sets and minutes later it is dark. This evokes the contrasting moods that churn through Israel. Two weeks ago we were at war; the day before the ceasefire, 240 Katyushas fell on the north and then in an instant, quiet.

Despite the Hezbollah threat looming over the horizon, there is no denying the peace and silence and respite from the rocket fire. There is such a thirst for any semblance of peace here, that Israel seems willing to embrace that peace, even for a short time.

Day 1: Arrival and Visiting the Family of Daniel Gomez
Day 2: Rambam Hospital, Greenberg Unveiling and Gomez Funeral
Day 3: Kiryat Shmona and Tsfat
Day 4: Maalot and Goldwasser Family in Nahariya
Day 5: A Wedding in Jerusalem
Days 6-8: Shabbat and Departure

Diary of Rabbi Avi Weiss' Trip to Israel During the War

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