December 8, 2023
More than 2,000 years ago, our ancestors stood in the midst of the wreckage of the ruined, desecrated Temple and began cleaning and rebuilding immediately. Maybe not right away with brooms and dustpans (or whatever they used at that time), but with their intention, from an unimaginable strength of spirit within them, to do so. Imagine the despair of witnessing the place where you gather, to connect with your people and to the divine (and I believe that it is through our relationships with others that we find and connect with the divine) being destroyed by people who want you and all you hold sacred to die, to die out. But there was an ember so defiant within our ancestors that it simply could not be destroyed. A flame remained, which kindled the broken shards around it, and lit up the rebuilding and rededication and re-sanctifying of the holy place. Today, as we sing throughout Hanukkah “Mi Yimaelel Gevurot Yisrael” – who can retell the strong and heroic deeds of the people Israel – we are living through another such moment. Unbelievable darkness, despair and destruction on October 7th and since, and an ember that has been kept alive and growing since that time as the people of Israel, and the people Israel, begin to rebuild.
On Tuesday, November 28th, I sat in an unlikely classroom (and perhaps one could even call it a kind of a sanctuary – a holy place.) With a group of rabbis and heads of Jewish Day Schools, organized by the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, I had traveled to the Judean Desert to Masada, the famous National Park on which are the ruins of King Herod’s Palace, King of Judea under Roman Rule, and the site of the Jewish resistance to the romans in 72-73 CE. We traveled to this site not to hike up to see a beautiful sunset and reflect on the heroism of our ancestors, but actually to witness the bravery of present-day Jews, our Israeli siblings from Kibbutz Sa’ad, who are currently going to a makeshift school in this building simply because the resourceful Israelis who have rallied to support the displaced were able to find space for them there, close to the hotels in which they are currently being housed in the region. The approximately 900 members of Kibbutz Sa’ad are being housed, along with 200,000 displaced Israels from Kibbutzim and towns in the South of Israel, wherever space can be found. Almost overnight, their fellow Israelis rallied to help them rebuild some rhythms of life, now and for an untold period of time, very far from normal. Israelis from a variety of backgrounds and places throughout the country came together to create schools for the tens of thousands of children displaced from home and school, and I found myself on this day sitting with a group of 7th grade girls from Kibbutz Sa’ad. I noticed an array of painted rocks set on the windowsill of their “classroom,” some saying “B’yachad Nenatzeach” (Together, we will be victorious) or “Am Yisrael Chai” – the Jewish People Lives. But one in particular caught my eye. There in a child’s lettering surrounding a beautiful painting of a tree, were the words “Nashuv veh’Nivneh” – We will return and we will rebuild. (see photo below)
The laughter and typical middle school antics of dozens of students echoed throughout their unlikely classroom and hallways of their temporary “school,” but when I sat down with these students and they shared their stories and their spirits with me, they were anything but typical. Shiri spoke first, in rapid-fire Hebrew (they were supposed to speak with us in English, as it was their “English class period,” but it became immediately clear that they had so much they wanted to tell us, it was best to let them do it in their native tongue. This was a theme throughout my four day volunteer mission to Israel – the survivors of October 7th and the war that has followed want so much to be heard, and, heartbreakingly, to be believed. They see the denial of the atrocities of the 10/7 massacres (which began almost immediately, and despite countless videos from the terrorists themselves), they hear the deafening silence of much of the world, and what I didn’t realize until this trip was that before we showed up to be with them and to bear witness, they didn’t know that our hearts are with them, the 7 million Jews and the 2 million Arab Israeli citizens of this tiny, traumatized, and resilient nation, that our hearts and prayers are with the hostages still held in Gaza.) So, Shiri and her friends Shachar and Ori wanted to tell me about their experience. Their Kibbutz, by a fluke of the timing of the terrorists and the communication the Kibbutz received from neighboring Kibbutzim, and how many weapons they had to defend themselves, did not suffer many losses. But many of their members went immediately to help their neighboring Kibbutz Be’eri, and so people like the lovely older couple who ran the makolet (small grocery shop) at Kibbutz Sa’ad, were murdered or injured. Shiri and her friends told me with a smile of her memories of the shopkeeper, going back to earliest childhood. I breathed a sigh of relief, thinking and hoping that these girls had been spared more horror, but then one by one they recounted in detail their connections to others who had been murdered, abducted, or gravely injured. Whether it was the cousin of a friend, or the friend of an uncle, each one of them knew someone, and most striking, they knew in detail the nature of the injury. As part of processing the trauma of that day, they recounted the path of the bullet that went through their friend’s cousin’s neck, and that he had miraculously survived. Details no children should know. They told me of a two week old baby they knew that had been saved when her parents placed her on a windowsill and the rest of the house was burned down; they told me of their connection to the young American olah (immigrant to Israel), Rose Lubin, age 21, who had been killed in a stabbing attack while on duty as a border police officer in Jerusalem.
These girls’ eyes still shone with the lightness of childhood, but it was clear that it was only together, as friends and classmates and families and a family of families (their Kibbutz community), was the light strong enough to outshine the darkness of what they had witnessed and were now enduring as refugees in their own country. Shiri told me that her Bat Mitzvah had been scheduled for a couple of weeks after 10/7, and with their lives turned upside down, and so much devastation everywhere, she and her family originally assumed this would not happen. Shiri told me in great detail how everyone helped to make sure she was still able to deliver her dvar torah, to find her a dress to wear as she couldn’t take hers when she fled from her kibbutz, that the manager of the hotel which is now their home devoted himself to making sure she had a party. The gratitude flowed from her as abundantly and strongly as her words. She was amazed at the way her community had come together to help. She went on to ask me if I’d like to see something she’d made out of clay – some furniture from her kibbutz. She brought out small white pieces and told me in detail about each of them. “Here is my bed – with my giant stuffed dog on top of it. And over here is the real dog that comes to visit us on the Kibbutz. And here is my refrigerator. FULL of delicious food.” “You miss home,” I said to her. “Yes, she nodded. I can’t wait to go home.”
The Kibbutz movement was founded on the strength of community – of people helping people. Many of those who founded or lived on the Kibbutzim that were destroyed or nearly so in what is known as Otef Azza (the Gaza envelope) were dedicated to helping not only their fellow kibbutz members but also those who lived across the Gaza border – people such as Oded and Yocheved Lipshitz, founders of Kibbutz Nir Oz, peace activists who regularly drove Gazans to receive needed medical care in hospitals throughout Israel, and were abducted from their home on 10/7. “Otef” also means “Embrace,” and that’s also the name of a donation center in Jerusalem built (again, almost overnight by ordinary civilians after 10/7) to take in and distribute donations for displaced Israelis who are living in hotels.
After speaking with Shiri, Shachar and Ori, after visiting one of the dozens of “civilian command centers” dedicated to receiving and distributing donations to civilians and to soldiers who need basic supplies (after 10 months of the greatest internal divisions in Israeli history, with protests every week both in Israel and here in the diaspora, the country is so unified against this unprecedented existential threat that thousands more soldiers came home from abroad to serve, and the military is under-supplied), after visiting Tomer and Yosef, two soldiers gravely wounded in Gaza now recovering at Hadassah-Ein Kerem hospital, who received us, American rabbis visiting them unexpectedly, with so much grace and gratitude that we were bowled over and almost embarrassed by it – they were thanking us?) I understood in a new way a deep truth about our people: Like our ancestors who stood amidst the wreckage of the ancient Temple destroyed and desecrated by the Greeks and said “we will build again,” we can only do this together, as one light lights another, and the light grows until at last we have again a place for our people, our people which is one defiant and bright light shining against the darkness of the forces of destruction.
At any given moment, not every one of us will be able to find and grow and share the light, the strength, the courage to keep despair at bay and move forward. Each of us will have moments of feeling only the darkness (like Joseph in the pit, in this week’s parashah of Vayeshev). But all around us are others with light to share, and at any given time, as long as one ember remains, we can shine the light. During my short and incredibly meaningful trip to Israel, I witnessed not only trauma (including hearing from survivors of the massacre at Kibbutz Holit), but also an undimmable desire to connect, to reach out, to take in support to give support, and to express gratitude. Everyone I met in Israel expressed profound gratitude that our group had simply shown up. Everyone from wounded soldiers to cafe owners to middle schoolers said “thank you so much for coming.” After my conversation with the seventh grade girls, as I got up to leave, Shachar said “Kef l’daber” – it was fun to talk to you. I said that it was wonderful to speak to her, and that I wanted her to know that we American Jews support them and think about them and pray for them and love them. “Really?” she said, as a bright smile spread across her face.
Today our group received a message from Rabbi Tamar Elad-Applebaum, one of the leaders in the “Rabbanut Yisraelit” (Israeli non-Orthodox, pluralistic rabbinate – the group with which we toured and volunteered). This was one of dozens of thank-you messages that has appeared in our group chat during and since the trip. It reads (Rabbi Tamar and her family had just received a Shabbat dinner gifted to her by our group): “We were stunned and overwhelmed with gratitude as we received what you sent us for Shabbat…I wasn’t sure if I had any light left in me and how we would enter Shabbat Hanukkah. Feeling your love, from afar but so very close, filled us all with the deepest gratitude.” One of the educational leaders we learned from on our trip, Zip Winston, wrote to us “Your decision to come to Israel during these times was uplifting and an outstanding act of love. Your active participation and solidarity brought light to all those you met and witnessed.”
Of all that I was privileged to witness throughout Israel during my four day trip, I keep coming back to the experience of meeting Yosef, a young soldier gravely wounded in Gaza – not expected to survive, then not expected to keep his left leg, and now able to sit up and even to stand, as of only a couple of days before we met him. As my colleague Rabbi Adam Kligfeld wrote of this visit with Yosef: “He could not stop thanking us for coming. And showing love. I have no idea what his academic degrees may be, but he speaks naturally as a soldier-philosopher. He talked to us about the beautiful unity of the Jewish people. “We are one body. One soul.” He says that his platoon is staffed by the widest array of types of Israelis. And the widest array of people have come to visit him in the hospital.” He kept saying that we are one family, one people, and that gives him strength.
Signs throughout Israel, from everywhere from the El Al boarding pass to the buses to the banks, say “Am Echad b’Lev Echad” (One people with one heart) or “B’yachad Nenatzeach” (Together we will be victorious) or “Am Yisrael Chai” the People Israel Lives”). Witnessing the unfathomable strength, the vast infrastructure of physical, emotional, and spiritual support that has been built by Israeli civilians, the insistence to keep sharing, keep supporting, keep connecting, that I saw in the eyes and heard in the voices of survivors, of parents and relatives of hostages, of wounded soldiers, of the hundreds who joined in prayer and song as we led them at Kikar Chatufim (“Hostages Square,” in Tel Aviv), testified that our people continues to insist on life. We will continue to insist upon the strength of relationships and community and peoplehood – to uphold these as our sacred values even when faced with forces of death and despair. Hanukkah, with its stubborn insistence on light and on the sanctity of life and community, has never felt more resonant.
I look forward to sharing more of my reflections and photographs from my Rabbinic Volunteer Solidarity Mission to Israel on Friday, December 15th at our Erev Shabbat service (and during many other times in the weeks to come). I hope you can join me then, and hope to see you tonight for Shabbat Hanukkah b’Yachad.
Here is a wonderful resource for learning and reflection for each night of Hanukkah this year, created by the Shalom Hartman Institute.
Shabbat Shalom and Happy, Light-Filled Hanukkah – Chag Urim Sameach.
Rabbi Audrey Marcus Berkman