Monday, December 11, 2023

Report From Israel - Day One: November 27, 2023

REPORT FROM ISRAEL - DAY ONE — November 27, 2023


Dear Friends,

I am participating this week on a mission in Israel sponsored by the Union of Reform Judaism (URJ), the American Reform Zionist Association (ARZA), and ARZENU - the International Reform Zionist representative to the World Zionist Organization (WZO). Our group is a delegation of Rabbis and Reform Jewish leaders from around the world. Our goal in traveling during this difficult time is to bear witness to the events happening in Israel and Gaza, learn as much as we can about the situation, and bring a message of solidarity from our home communities. After a long day of travel yesterday, we began our journey today. I hope to be able to share my experiences with you every day of the trip – but I can’t promise that I will be successful.  Our itinerary is ambitious and doesn’t provide a lot of free time.  Also – jet lag is real…but I will do my best.

 Today was a cold a rainy day in Israel. We had hoped to be able to assist in agriculture – picking oranges to help gather crops that normally would be harvested by Israelis and/or foreign or Palestinian laborers- -but the weather prevented this from happening.  Many of the foreign workers left after the October 7th attacks and some (not all) of the Palestinian sector has dried up. Kibbutzim and moshavim (agricultural settlements) are in need of volunteers due to the fact that many members are currently serving in the IDF on reserve duty. Israelis from all walks of life are currently volunteering to harvest these essential crops.

Instead of working in the fields, we made two stops:  One at a Beduin Village near Beer Sheva called Kfar Huna, and the other was kibbutz Dorot, in the Gaza Envelope. 

(Kher Albaz - Kfar Huna)

At Kfar Hura, we met with a remarkable leader of the beduin community named Kher Albaz. Mr Albas is the co-founder of the “Arab-Jewish Center for Equality, Empowerment and Cooperation (AJEEC). The other founder was Vivian Singer – one of the victims of the Hamas Pogrom on October 7th.  Vivian was a remarkable peace activist who, along with her Arab partners worked tirelessly to implement a vision of a safer, more humane world.

While in Kfar Hura, we learned about the bravery of many Bedouin who risked their lives to save young Jews at the music-festival. They shared their loyalty to the State of Israel – despite the deep social, educational and economic disparities that current exist. We learned that many Bedouin were killed by Hamas rockets – especially those is so-called “unrecognized communities” - largely due to the fact that the Government of Israel had not provided them with proper bomb shelters and safe rooms.

We learned about the poverty and their subsequent rise in unemployment and poverty – resulting n crime and violence – that plague many Bedouin communities throughout the region. We saw first hand how AJEEC trains men and women in basic first aid and helps provide educational and recreational outlets for children in order to break these unhealthy cycles.

Kher Albaz also shared how he is working to create a “shared society” in Israel – not a place of “co-existence.” He is a proud Israeli citizen and wants to raise awareness of the plight of the Bedouin.


(At Kibbutz Dorot)

Kibbutz Dorot is located only 3 kilometers from several communities that were attacked in the Hamas pogrom on October 7th.  Most of the kibbutz lies empty today.  Most of the able-bodied men under the age of 40 are serving in the IDF. All of the mothers and children have been evacuated and are staying in hotels and guest houses around the country (more on this later). We were able to speak to two members of the kibbutz – Yael and Sharon as well as Rabbi Yael Vurgan – the Reform Spiritual leader of the Shaar HaNegev  Regional council, which includes kibbutz Dorot and several of the communities decimated by the brutal Hamas attacks.

They all painted a very bleak picture of life post October 7th. Rabbi Vurgan spoke of how she has been officiating at funerals, visiting families whose loved ones were murdered, injured or kidnapped. The overall feeling they described was of loneliness and betrayal.  Sharon and Yael were involved with a remarkable program called “Road to Recovery” – founded by a visionary activist, Vivian Singer. They would drive Palestinian patients from Gaza to and from hospitals in Israel so that they could receive medical attention. As some of you may have heard, Vivian Singer was murdered by Hamas on October 7th.

The despair in their voices and faces was palpable. They felt betrayed by the Palestinians to whom they had reached out and with whom they thought they had partners for peace in the future. They also felt betrayed by the Army and the Israeli Government whose failures to prevent this horrific attack, and whose delay in responding was catastrophic.

They also felt abandoned by international political Left with whom they thought they had partners in working to create a better world. The pro-Hamas, anti-Zionist and anti-Semitic chants and actions that fill the internet and the airways have helped to increase their sense of isolation.

The kibbutz itself had an eery character to it. It was deadly silent. Toys lay abandoned on well groomed lawns. The only sounds we heard were the roar of Jets taking off from a nearby airbase. There were no tractors, cars or factory noises – as one would normally hear on a kibbutz. There were no children – only elders who did not want to leave their homes.

The best way to describe the feeling of our visit can be described as visiting a house of mourning. The fatigue and grief on all of their faces was palpable. They appreciated our visit, our messages of support and our hugs, but it was clear that the trauma that impacts their lives will remain part of their souls for the rest of their lives.

 Finally, I want to say a word about the hotel in which we are staying in Jerusalem – the Dan Panorama. The organizers of our trip were very deliberate in their choice of hotels. It is not a fancy or luxurious place, but it was chosen – not because of its cost, but rather because it is currently home to several families who have been evacuated from their home community of Sderot. Everywhere you look you see children and parents, grandparents and relatives camped out in the lobby.  These are not the usual patrons of Jerusalem hotels.  There are very few tourists.  Most of the foreigners in Israel came from their home communities to volunteer or show their solidarity.  Seeing these families trying to create a sense of normalcy in the midst of chaos is truly remarkable. While there were other, more luxurious places in which we could have stayed, our trip organizers correctly chose to reject any hotel that  refused to take in refugees.

There is a lot more that I could write – but it is getting late and we have a full day tomorrow.

As I sit in my room, all of Israel is anxiously awaiting news of the next group of hostages to be freed. We also have heard news that the pause in fighting will be extended a few more days. While we give thanks for the glimpses of hope and freedom that these hostage exchanges represent – we still are fervently praying for those who are still in captivity.

With prayers for peace, I am, L’Shalom

Rabbi Joseph R. Black


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