Friday, November 23, 2012

Thanksgiving in Jerusalem

One week ago, I was making plans with my family to attend Thanksgiving at my father's New York home.  Yet on Wednesday afternoon, on the eve of Thanksgiving, I was on a plane bound for Tel Aviv on a tour of solidarity together with the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations.

When we arrived, we learned that a ceasefire had been declared between Israel and Hamas, ending the eight-day-long Operation Pillar of Defense, the IDF’s impressive counter-offensive to the rocket assault from Gaza.

The first phase of the ceasefire brought with it a watchful, tense quiet. In the spirit of Thanksgiving, I was grateful for the relative calm, the absence of sirens, the tenuous and possibly temporary peace.

Mindful of these blessings, we embarked upon our tour, heading to Ashkelon to visit with its mayor in the city’s bomb shelter. Since Operation Cast Lead, Ashkelon has suffered from rocket fire on a constant basis. Indeed, more than 200 rockets have fallen on this, Israel’s 10th largest city. We learned of the damage inflicted to schools and residential building. Fulfilling the mitzvah of bikur cholim, we visited injured civilians and soldiers in the local hospital.

From Ashkelon, we went to Beersheva where we also visited its injured and learned of the new normal in southern Israeli hospitals -- moving critical patients to safe rooms, stopping all non-emergent surgeries, preparing for wounded soldiers, civilians and yes, Palestinians. 

In both cities, we heard much of the same story: sadness, fear, cynicism that this ceasefire will hold, that normalcy will ever be restored.

The purpose of the on-going rocket assault from Gaza is not to take out Israel’s ports or major facilities but to disrupt daily life and perpetuate a campaign of terror against civilians.  Ashkelon, for instance is home to one of Israel's main power plants and the world's largest desalination plants. Strategic targets, yet the missiles are not aimed in their direction.  Judging by the damage, they are aimed at the most vulnerable: children, the elderly, patients in hospitals.  Since the second intifada, this has been the Palestinian strategy.

Back in Jerusalem, we met with Israeli President Shimon Peres for briefings.

My remarkable day concluded at the Fuchsberg Center for a moving and uplifting Thanksgiving dinner that included 210 people: this year's participants in our Nativ program, Nativ alumi, family and friends. This dinner, at USCJ's Fuchsberg Center, is a much-anticipated annual event and people do not miss it for anything, except for military service, though we were lucky to have a few soldiers able to join us.  One reservist show up in his IDF uniform. Our current group of 80 students family members lend great spirit to our gathering, which included A Capella singing and a video in which participants gave statements of what they are thankful for.

This morning, among several speakers we met with Arnon Mantver, the director of JDC Israel and learned about the work JDC is doing to help people affected by war. This important meeting highlighted some of the benefits of our partnership with Jewish Federations of North America and the Union of Reform Judaism.

It enabled me to understand, in an up close and personal way, the important ways in which our funding is helping Israeli civilians cope with the existential threat they face on a daily basis, whether by working with children to counteract the stress, anxiety and fear of being in shelters, providing food, medicine and supplies to the disabled and elderly, helping make what is broken whole.

I am filled with pride when I note the many ways in which the Conservative and Masorti movement is a partner in delivering these important social services.

I did not undertake this Thanksgiving weekend trip to Israel lightly; it was upsetting to leave my family, especially at this time. But once in Israel, I was overwhelmed by how thankful everyone was for our visit and inspired by the solidarity of the Jewish People. In crisis, we relearn an important message: we are one. Our group included a wide range of North American Jewish leaders from United Synagogue to the Union for Reform Judaism to the Orthodox Union to the Jewish Federations of North America and other Zionist groups.

As I go into Shabbat, my feelings are mixed. My American optimism wants to believe that Operation Pillar of Defense will ensure a bright and safe future for Israel, now and forever. The spirit of American thanksgiving still resides in me; reminding me of the innumerable blessings of being a Jew, of having a Jewish State in my lifetime.  

This week's Parshah, Vayetze, contains the story of the Sulam – Jacob’s Ladder. Jacobs dream of a ladder connecting Heaven and Earth, with angels going up and down. The significance of the angels originating from earth and rising to heaven is a metaphor for the human quest for sanctity. When we act with holiness in care for others, we become God’s angels.

I saw angels ascending and descending during my solidarity tour of Israel.

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