By Rabbi Levi Slonim
“Rabbi, how was the trip?”
No matter how many times I have been asked this question since I returned from our 18-hour trip to Israel, I continue to struggle with how to respond.
I struggle because I can’t quite find the right words to properly respond to this question.
“Powerful,” “amazing” and “inspiring”: those are all true.
But it was also devastating and painful to see the realities on the ground.
“Challenging,” “scary” and “hurtful” are also real emotions felt by all.
But that didn’t take away the moments of incredible pride, support and positivity we felt along the way.
When thinking of how best to describe our trip – in fact, more broadly speaking: this unique time we find ourselves in, unprecedented in modern history – I could not think of a better term than “it was the best of times, it was the worst of times.”
Nothing we could have imagined could prepare us for what we saw and experienced.
As one of the participants who met up with us once we were on the ground – a Binghamton University parent currently living in Israel – reflected, “While I’ve been sitting and watching the news from my apartment just kilometers away, it was only when meeting with grieving families and seeing the eyes of the children in the shelters that I could begin to grasp what happened.”
We have all been to funerals. But to complete the minyan for the end-of-shiva graveside ceremony not for one, but two parents who left their family orphaned at the same time, is not by any means typical.
In Ashkelon, they have 30 seconds to take cover when the sirens signal an incoming rocket sound. Those not fortunate enough to live in a home with a safe room: what are they to do in the middle of the night? The city has opened “public shelters” for these families to move into.
For close to a month and counting these families have been living in these dingy basement shelters so they can survive.
One area of devastation getting less attention is the plight of families of people “unaccounted for.” We visited with a family that had just started sitting shiva three days prior (two and a half weeks following October 7) because it was only then that the bodies of their father and brother had been identified!
So many families like this one are living in a particular limbo hell that is unfathomable. The human heart is not conditioned to respond to such suffering and pain (and we only saw the tip of the iceberg – not having been to the actual sites of the attacks).
Then there were the high moments. Moments of deep emotion and elevation of spirit that cannot be “staged” or predicted. Some of the most powerful moments I have experienced in my life.
Take IDF Captain Ofir Dahari, for example. The courage and dedication that man has to his people – Am Yisrael – is indescribable. Nothing could have prepared us for the 10 minutes we spent with him in his room at Assuta Hospital in Ashdod.
Battling with Hamas terrorists who had taken over the police station in Sderot for two hours was not enough. When he heard the terrorists were attempting to infiltrate the nearby Kibbutz Nir Am, he and his men headed there. For hours, they fought off 37 terrorists, who ultimately failed to infiltrate the village. It was there that Dahari was hit by a sniper three times; two men in his unit were killed in the firefight.
Had it not been for his bravery and self-sacrifice, these terrorists would have entered the kibbutz and massacred, and taken hostage, hundreds of civilian men, women and children living there.
While we thought we were paying a visit to “cheer him up,” it was being in his presence that brought us all to a whole different state of mind: To see the look of appreciation in the eyes of the soldiers at the army base just miles from Gaza as they were crowding around the tables with all the items we brought them. To see the pride, confidence and perseverance they projected as we danced and sang together. To see the twinkle in the eyes of the children (and the tears in the eyes of their moms) as we gave them sweets and age-appropriate toys to keep them busy and play with.
As one Israeli we met with put it: “I feel that your group came here for 18 hours with an electric shock and did CPR on a lot of people you met and talked to.”
It was 2,380 years ago when the grandfather of Hamas – Haman – approached King Ahasuerus with his evil plan to annihilate every Jewish man, woman and child. He said, “Yeshno am echad mefuzar umeforad bein haamim bechol medinot malchutecha.” (“There is a certain [one] people scattered and separate among the peoples throughout all the provinces of your kingdom.”)
At a Purim farbrengen in 1987, the Rebbe (Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson) explained how in that very same sentence where Haman presented his evil plan, he hinted at our greatest weapon and secret to survival: we may be “scattered and separate throughout the provinces” but we are “am echad” – one people. In fact, the Rebbe spent his entire life hammering home this message of our one-ness, of our unity – our interconnectedness, the way in which we affect each other, deeply.
I cannot think of a time in my life when I have felt and seen that more than throughout the past month; this trip being an intense, incredible expression and embodiment of this tent.
As one of the participants expressed himself: “Just sitting back and watching all of this in America wasn’t enough… it’s something I needed to do. I didn’t know any of these people we met, but we’re ‘one body’ in all of this.”
The mission was comprised of members of all ages: students in their first year of college, alumni in various places in life, parents – including a parent of a student who graduated 12years ago, who is today a grandparent. We all came from different backgrounds and places in life. Members of the mission were chosen by raffle from hundreds of students, alumni, parents and local community members who participated in the raffle. The group indeed represented the members of the raffle and hundreds more who partnered in the financial costs of the trip and vital support of all kinds that were distributed to soldiers and civilians throughout the trip.
While our connection to Chabad of Binghamton was the external factor that connected us, throughout the trip we quickly understood that there was something much deeper that connected us: We knew we could do more. And if we could do more, we had to do more.
So, why did we lead a trip to Israel in a time of war, at a time when people are looking to leave? For the same reason that when a person’s arm is hurting, they rely on their other arm to do what they must and provide them with support.
Because that’s who we are: One people; one body.