I really can’t adequately express how meaningful it’s been since last weekend to have so many friends and colleagues, from all corners of the country, check in with us expressing profound concern over how we’re faring during these trying times for Israel and Jewish people, not only in the States, but all over the world.
Some have done so because of my position as a synagogue president but most just because I’m a Jew and they care. Thank you so much. Every week in synagogue we pray for peace in Israel and the world. Sadly, in my lifetime that prayer will never be answered. In many ways we may be further away than ever. However, with all the evil across the globe, it’s beyond comforting to know there is so much sincerity and affection for each other with each lousy terroristic chapter that continues to be written.
Yes, it’s a difficult time to be Jewish. There has been a heaviness this past week that is hard to describe. If you’re Jewish you know the feeling.
Our Temple Sinai leadership here in Las Vegas had to carefully juggle sensitivity and security issues to give our congregants room to mourn, room to pray and a vehicle for healing. I got an inspiring phone call on Thursday from Congresswoman Susie Lee, who represents our district in the House of Representatives. She said, “If there’s anything I can do to help you or any of the Temple Sinai members, please let me know. Be assured we will do everything we can in Washington to make sure Israel has what it needs to defend itself.”
Friday night, despite unfounded national warnings of terroristic concerns, a large turnout gathered at temple for our weekly Shabbat evening service which was proceeded by an open congregational conversation that was meaningful, moving, and therapeutic. We exchanged thoughts, sentiments and ideas before our Rabbi, Ilana Baden, engaged us in prayer. While it was only the beginning of a very long process towards healing, it was the start we all needed.
Before Andi and I went on our first visit to Israel in June, over and over again we heard variations of “aren’t you concerned about safety?” And my answer, never hesitating, was “no.” In fact, during our ten days in Israel never once did we feel compromised. Jewish Nevada, our trip sponsor and organizer, in coordination with Israeli tour company Kenes Tours, had all the pieces in place for our peace of mind. Security personnel were with us every time we left the hotel for a planned outing or excursion. Our security accompaniment was exactly what you would expect an Israeli security type to be: chiseled, observant, limited conversation save for a clipped yes or no; the physical ability to twist someone into a pretzel with or without salt, and if they dared to uncharacteristically smile, a Tylenol was needed to alleviate the facial pain. Every one of us felt very confident and secure.
However, nothing could have prepared Israeli security, tourists or residents from the Hamas attacks last weekend — it was expertly coordinated on ground, air and sea. What made it so effective was the absolute secrecy in which it was planned and executed. Not a whisper, not a leak, much like our 9/11. Total surprise and shock. A former United States Department of Defense official said, “… the only thing surprising about these surprise attacks is they are still a surprise.” Those who assert Israel was off its game or distracted by domestic unrest with judicial reform or anything of the like would also have to rationalize it’s impossible to defend against something you don’t know is coming. Later, rather than sooner, this mess will be another footnote in Israel’s amazing history. Getting there will be a long road. In the meantime it will be years, maybe close to a decade, before the economy and tourism industry in Israel recovers, if it ever does.
Spending time the last few days replaying our spring visit to Israel and all our wonderful experiences and memories we enjoyed, there were two excursions we didn’t take that I wish we had. Now, in light of the past week, I absolutely wish we had.
One of the mornings we split up into three buses all going to different sites for different activities. Because my injury-prone wife was still in one piece, she decided to continue to tempt fate and opted to rappel the face of the Machtesh Ramon crater in the Negev Desert. This time prayers were answered, and she came back up in the same shape in which she started. No scars. None of the odds-makers saw that happening. Rappelling at my age, much like swimming laps in the Dead Sea, is a younger man’s game so I opted for what I thought was the safety of 4×4 off-road riding through the expanse of that same crater. Little did I realize, with all the rocks and boulders, it would be like navigating pot holes on the Cross Bronx Expressway only at a much faster speed than typical New York traffic would allow. I should have gone rappelling.
Now, I wish we would have joined that morning’s excursion to the Western Negev and the Otef Azza region in Gaza, the same location that was one of the avenues the terrorists used to break through fencing to access Israel.
Jonathan Tuzman, from our group, was there and told me the other day, “Now the whole experience has become surreal. You could see clearly through the fencing from one side to the other; Hamas was probably watching our every movement. We got a tour of the tunnels between Gaza and Israel; when we asked about the practicality of use of the tunnels we were told that was no longer the way any war would be conducted, which undoubtedly led to part of the surprise attack.
“From where we were on the Israeli side,” Tuzman continued, “we could see multiple tanks that were camouflaged behind trees and not easily visible from behind the Gaza fencing. It was chilling to hear this is where part of the attack was commenced as it was so quiet when we were there only a few months earlier.”
Marc Andrews was also with the group and remembered, “When we got to Gaza we had to sit on the bus for a while until Israeli soldiers met us with automatic weapons as a safeguard before we could get off. We never felt unsafe or compromised. We had time to look around and I remember being very impressed with Israel’s advanced irrigation system and all the fruits and vegetables that were being grown. On the Hamas side, all the irrigation was torn up and replaced by watch towers. If I could paint a picture, we came down a long dirt road and on either side were Israeli tanks that we were told stayed there to maintain stability.”
The second part of the do-over for me would have been two days later when part of our group went into the West Bank and Palestinian Territories in the city of Ramallah, the de facto administrative capital of the State of Palestine. Instead, Andi and I opted for a tour of Tel Aviv. Very bad decision.
Tuzman, Andrews and the rest had a visit with a member of the Palestinian Authority, the driving force behind the PLO. Our group was told not to identify themselves as Jews. Andrews said, “The PLO lectured for about an hour, most of it complaining about Israel. He inferred Israel took everything they could from the Palestinians leaving them with nothing.” Tuzman recalls the PLO member pontificating that their problem wasn’t with the Jews but with Israel. Considering 74% of Israel is Jewish, it’s like someone saying they have no problem with Americans, just with the United States.
Now four months later this incredible trip has turned into a present-day nightmare. I’m not proud to share this but up until about a year ago I had no great desire to visit Israel. Shame on me. Perhaps my newly-found synagogue involvement was a catalyst to finally go. However, when we got back home I bragged about how wonderful the trip was but said it was a one and done. Saw and experienced everything we wanted. There was no need to return.
It’s incredibly similar to the feeling I had after visiting Africa, particularly Botswana in 2016. It was wonderful but been there, done that, time to move on. But because of the wonderful memories Andi and I had of the Africa visit, the people, hospitality and the customs, we made plans to go back and see everything we missed. That was six years later, last August, and were really delighted we did.
Lord willing Israel and the world will get past this. Maybe one day, long after I’m gone and wiser heads prevail among the youth of today or maybe their offspring, this world can coexist as one in harmony. It’s a long shot but one that can keep that candle of hope burning.
Now with Israel under siege and our recollection of the land, history and most importantly the people and peoplehood of our heritage and religion, that same Botswana feeling has returned about Israel. One day we’ll be back to celebrate a stronger, safer and more vibrant homeland.
Of that, I have no doubt.