The Yoms

Seven months ago, our world shattered. No one knew which direction we were going to go, or what we should do next. Anger. Sorrow. Fear. Pain. Not much room for Optimism, or Hope. With broken hearts, we had to keep moving, to start from a defensive point. In Israel, it started with regaining control of the invaded areas by Hamas. Here, it was protecting our Jewish communities, and fellow congregants, supporting those who needed it. Then, we moved to offense, in Israel, the war initiated bringing back the hostages and restoring security. Here, it was to start condemning all those who forgot who we are. It’s a difficult battle, with multiple fronts.

Who would have thought that seven months later, we’d still be knee deep in these troubling times? With ongoing war and public statements that smell like Europe of 1930. When I started thinking about how we’re going to commemorate Israel this year, I had a hard time. I couldn’t even plan a week ahead, nonetheless months. I questioned how can we celebrate Israel this year, with all this pain, all this sorrow — not even starting to mention the 133 hostages.

It comes with a price. I tend to break more often. Some songs move me to tears, and I am not always positive. A few days after the October 7th attack, we held a community vigil and I said that even when it’s dark, we have to keep walking. That is still true. We pray that our children will never have to go to the army, but they will. We pray that they will never hear another missile alarm siren again, but they will. We pray our families will be safe. They’re not. But we have to keep walking, to believe that things can get better, and they will, eventually.

With broken legs, we get back up. With tear-soaked eyes, we look ahead. With a heavy heart, we start walking. And we move forward, one step at a time. Like with grief, we embrace the pain, understand that we lost people we love, and we need to continue to live.

For Yom Ha’Atzmaut (Israel Independence Day) it’s the same. We remember those we lost, and we are grateful for their sacrifice. We’ll celebrate the fact that we are here, alive, with our country and our freedom, and also the price we pay for that.

Gam Ve’Gam (this and that). This year we’ll say, “They are trying to get rid of us. Many have tried before. They will not succeed. Yom Ha’Atzmaut is officially a Jewish holiday.”

Am Israel Chai

My Solidarity Trip to Israel: An Experience Unlike Any Others

Hello and Shalom, my name is Helen Taubman. I was practically born at the JCC, having been in the first 3 year old preschool class when the doors opened in 1989.  I am now an early childhood educator in Pozez JCC’s Early Childhood Learning Center for the past seven years. Recently, my family and I took an inspiring trip to Israel to lend our support. Although we have been to Israel many times before, this was an experience unlike any others. It is important to me to share our story.

The week-long solidarity trip was organized by the Chabad Jewish Learning Institute (JLI). We traveled with a group of 170 people from all over the US and Canada. This was the largest solidarity mission to Israel since the dark days of October 7th. We went to strengthen those in Israel in this time of war… they strengthened us even more. Israel needs our full-throated support now more than ever, economically, spiritually and emotionally, and we were proud to oblige. 

For us, this trip represented both the highs and the lows of the current wartime situation.

It was with difficulty that we: 

  • Heard from hostage families and families of those who were brutally and cruelly murdered by Hamas terrorists on October 7th, as well as from heroic soldiers and first responders who helped save hundreds of lives on that horrible day and for days immediately afterwards.
  • Went to the Nova Festival site and K’far Aza to witness what remains of a modern-day pogrom that few civilized people could imagine.
  • Traveled twice to Har Herzl (Israel’s equivalent of Arlington National Cemetery) to pay tribute to recently fallen soldiers and those from past wars, and we attended the solemn funeral of Sgt. Illai Tzair, a 20-year-old soldier who lost his life in Gaza protecting Israel and its people.
  • Paid a shiva call on the widow of Yossi Herskovitz, a 44-year-old school principal and father of five who insisted on going into harm’s way in the army even though he was exempt based on his age and parental status.  He gave the ultimate sacrifice for the Jewish people, and we honor him.
  • Visited Hostage Square in Tel Aviv to see what grieving families have created as they wait and pray for their loved ones to return. More than 130 hostages are still enslaved in tunnels by Hamas, from babies to grandparents, with no word to their families or reports on their condition.
  • Visited the Shura army base, which was turned into a morgue on those dark October days, a place where volunteers performed tahara and ensured decent Jewish burials for hundreds of soldiers and civilians.
  • Visited brave wounded soldiers at the Sheba Tel Hashomer rehab hospital and gave them gifts and wishes for a complete healing.

These were often somber visits, but they renewed and strengthened my bond with the Jewish people and the land and people of Israel. Especially after we returned and Passover arrived, I was able to see the deeper meaning of so much of our liturgy and traditions, including the much quoted verse from the Hagadah “Vehi Sheamda … Not in one generation but in every generation they rise up to destroy us.”  As a result of this visit, I am more determined than ever to support and defend our collective homeland, the State of Israel.  

The trip also provided moments of joy and pride as our group:

  • Packed lunches for soldiers and wrote notes of thanks and encouragement that went into each lunch bag.
  • Celebrated in Hebron with the Jewish community and baked challahs for the soldiers who protect us.
  • Happily witnessed a bar mitzvah at the Kotel of a boy whose family had to flee the north of Israel due to Hezbollah/Iranian rocket attacks. We enjoyed a dinner celebrating his bar mitzvah in the evening, along with celebrating the bat mitzvah of a girl whose father, a police officer, was murdered on October 7 defending Sderot.
  • Visited the new Magen David Adom National Blood Bank. This high-tech building is a modern miracle of Israeli ingenuity funded in large part by American philanthropists Bernie Marcus and Sheldon Adelson.
  • Got our hands dirty picking kolrabi (a root vegetable) with Leket, an organization that runs food banks and provides meals to those in Israel who are in need.
  • Hung mezuzot at an army base two miles from Gaza, and sponsored and cooked a barbeque for hundreds of combat soldiers, complete with live music. We gave those soldiers the cards and notes that ECLC children and Pozez JCC community members had written. (Thank you to those who wrote cards, as every soldier appreciated them and smiled.)
     

We are so blessed to have been able to go to Israel and to do so many mitzvot, to give and receive strength and encouragement. It was wonderful to see Israelis of all stripes volunteering and working together, even in tragic times like these, to care for one another and to ensure victory over cruel adversaries. 

Am Yisrael Chai. עם ישראל חי!

May: Celebrating JAHM & Commemorating The Yoms

When I turn the calendar page to May, I typically think of beautiful flowers, Mother’s Day, and Memorial Day. For Jews, the month of May holds added significance. First, it is Jewish American Heritage Month (JAHM), and second, it often contains several important days on the Jewish calendar – what we refer to as The Yoms.  

This May, three “Yoms” take place within ten days of each other…Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day),Yom HaZikron (Israel Memorial Day), and Yom HaAtzmaut (Israel Independence Day) — between May 5th and May 14th. They are even more relevant and poignant this year because of the attack on October 7thwhich left devasting death, injury, and destruction, a horrific hostage situation, and led to war between Israel and Hamas. Going into its 7th month, the war has led to growing antisemitism in the U.S. and around the world.

Focusing on Yom HaShoah, which began at sundown today (Sunday, May 5th) and will continue through sundown on Monday, we take a moment to recognize the six million Jews murdered in the Holocaust by the Nazis and their collaborators, as well as the Jewish resistance that took place in that period. The first official Yom HaShoah commemorations took place in 1951, and the observance of the day was anchored in a law passed by the Israeli Knesset in 1959.

This solemn holiday is marked with observances where names of those who perished in the Holocaust are read, testimonies of Holocaust Survivors are shared, memorial prayers are spoken and special memorial candles – usually yellow candles – are lit. Locally, the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington holds an Annual Yom HaShoah Commemoration Program virtually on Zoom. This year’s observance, held this afternoon, was in memory of those lost, in honor of those who survived and their families, andto provide a forum for the community to come together to reflect and strengthen our resolve at a difficult time of unprecedented antisemitism on college campuses. No doubt, it was a meaningful event for many, and reminds us to never forget.

The Adult Department of the Pozez JCC is presenting a virtual educational program in conjunction with Yom HaShoah on Monday, May 6 at 2pm. The program, “Battles Over the Holocaust: Polish-Jewish Memory Wars,” features Dr. Zachary Mazur, Senior Historian at the POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw. Join us for this complimentary program to learn more about how Jews and Poles have very different recollections of the events that occurred in Poland during WWII. Click here for more details including registration: https://thej.org/event/battles-over-the-holocaust-polish-jewish-memory-wars-featuring-dr-zachary-mazur/

In addition, the J is offering a very special program made possible by a Federation grant:  Zikaron BaSalon (Memories in the Living Room). Families in Northern Virginia are invited to host a meaningful discussion in their homes any weekend during the month of May. Each Zikaron BaSalon gathering will be unique – reflecting diverse perspectives and personal reflections on the Holocaust and its lessons. It is an excellent opportunity to educate family, friends, and neighbors on the Holocaust. For more information, click here.

Judaism teaches us to constantly learn and question, as well as to live an ethical life that is led by our shared values (middot). One value that comes to my mind daily is gratitude (Hakarat HaTov). As I was thinking of a positive way to end this somewhat somber blog, I came across an email from Chai Mitzvah, an organization that promotes Jewish community and learning. Their newsletter, Chai-lites, reminded me that expressing the middah of gratitude does not mean ignoring that there is pain and hardship in the world. It means working hard and making a daily effort to see that along with the difficulty there is good in life and in history that is worth appreciating. So, during Jewish American Heritage Month, let’s celebrate the many accomplishments of Jews in the US and say, “L’Chayim” – to life!

The Day I Started Wearing My Mogen David

Until now, I’ve never worn a Jewish symbol in public. I don’t wear a Kippah, I don’t have a necklace with my name in Hebrew, not even a Star of David jewelry. I never felt like I needed it. Or more broadly, never felt the need the express my Jewish identity physically. Before I came here, I thought a lot about what to wear. What should I do, that will send a clear message about all the different identities I am holding. Mizrachi, Ashkenazi, Israeli, my love for books and mythologies, my taste in music, my heritage. I am always thinking about what first impression people will have of me. None of those involved Jewishness.  

In Israel, the Jewish is the public space. I believed that if you do put on a Jewish symbol, it reflects your level of faith. How strong are your beliefs. And I am not a religious person, quite the opposite. And like me, so are many other Israelis. We feel like Judaism is for religious people, and we have other worlds. But since I joined the Shlichut, I started a journey. Changing the way I view Judaism, changing the place Judaism holds in me.  

And then October happened. And then Antisemitism rose. At first, I felt attacked. My Israeli identity was being attacked; my Jewish identity was attacked. I heard suggestions not to show any Jewish signs, not to provoke, not to stand out. I didn’t follow. I saw many others showing proudly their Jewish and Israeli identity, each one in its own way. I felt more than just Israeli, I felt Jewish. And I wanted to make sure no one was missing that piece. Davka, out of spite. Just because. 

And then a thought came to mind. I felt more complete. Not because I believe there’s a higher power, that’s a different conversation. I felt like I was looking back and seeing 3000 thousand years of history, each one growing through a different challenge. Gam Ze Ya’avor, this too shall pass. From one to another, each one of us is facing our own trauma. And that collective wisdom, of how to act better as a community, to act better as individuals, is making us stronger, more resilient.  

I didn’t believe in phrases like “Am Israel Chai,” now it brings me to tears. I didn’t used to wear a Mogen David, now I wear it wherever I go. Things are changing, or maybe it’s because I am getting closer to 30 and introspective. Who knows. It is a question I will think about for a long time to come. 

 In the meantime, let’s focus on another Jewish holiday where somebody tried to get rid of the Jewish people and didn’t succeed, and celebrate it the only way we know… with food, wine, and company.  And pray that all the hostages, and everybody else, are safe and back in their homes.  

Chag Purim Sameach! 

Not Just Another Trip to Israel

How was your trip?” Such a simple question, but as I have discovered since returning from Israel, almost impossible for me to answer. This was my Bar Mitzvah trip, my thirteenth time visiting Israel, and my first time in more than seven years. I had been yearning to return since my last planned trip was Covid-cancelled in 2020, but life always seemed to get in the way. After October 7th, I felt a stronger pull to visit than I had ever felt before, and at the same time, for the first time, I also felt trepidation. Would it feel different? Would it be different?

More than the place, I missed the people. Two people in particular, who I’ve known for twenty years, but who I think of as family, my “brother” Shaul Zohar and my “son” Yonathan Hefetz. For me, no trip to Israel is complete without spending time with these two special men, so when JCCA put together its extraordinary Leadership Solidarity Mission to Israel, I knew that I would be going, and extending my visit.

Shaul and his wife Karin live in the north of Israel in Kiryat Shemona (KS). Shaul’s parents moved to Israel from Iran in 1959, so Shaul has lived in KS his entire life. Karin is originally from Holland, and moved to Israel without knowing a word of Hebrew. They have four children, three of whom I have known their entire lives: Chen (23), Shi (19), Shir (17) and Or (15). In other words, a typical Israeli family.

My usual “home away from home” in Israel is the “zimmer” at Shaul’s house. Not this trip. This time, I stayed with Shaul and Karin in Club Hotel Tiberias, the formerly closed hotel which was hastily refurbished and reopened to accommodate more than 800 evacuees from KS. While many evacuees have since found alternative places to stay, there were still more than 300 at the Club Hotel when I arrived on Friday afternoon. Shaul and Karin share a two-room suite with Or, two of their cats, and their bird. Chen and Shir share another suite with their other two cats and their rabbit, and Shi is deployed at a base in the Golan Heights. We welcomed Shabbat in their room, with wine, a roll, and song, and then headed to dinner in a dining hall filled with evacuees: children, elders, and everyone in between. I have spent so many Shabbat evenings with the Zohar family, but this was like no other.

Shabbat morning we toured the north, enjoying the lush beauty of the Golan Heights and Hula Valley. We picked up Shi at the base and took her out for lunch – it was so strange to see her in uniform. We drove close to KS, but as I promised my wife Marcia, we did not venture into the evacuated area. After three months in Tiberias, the family is bracing for many more. After Havdalah back in the hotel room, we headed to the dining hall for another communal dinner, and then Shaul and I took a long walk together. We talked well into the night, and ended the long day with a long hug.

Sunday morning Shaul drove me to Tel Aviv, and after more hugs, we said l’hitraot and I checked into the beautiful David Kempinski Hotel. More and more hugs as friends and colleagues arrived at the hotel to begin an emotional roller coaster ride together. I began to think of this trip as a solidarity mission sandwich. Nestled between brief visits with my dear friends was an itinerary like no other I have ever experienced or imagined. I know that the details are readily available, so I will confine my writing to highlights, takeaways, and reflections. The mission was overwhelming, exhausting, and inspiring. The source of inspiration was the Israeli people that we met, their resilience, determination and perhaps most extraordinarily, their hope for the future. It was clear from everything that we did and saw that October 7th was a game changer, a pivotal moment in history, and that Israel, the Jewish people and the world would never be the same.

For me, Tuesday was by far the most difficult day, as we traveled to the Gaza Envelope. On the bus, we were joined by Middle East strategic intelligence analyst, Avi Melamed. Avi provided what was for me an illuminating and terrifying tutorial on Hamas, Hezbollah, and other Iranian proxies, describing what he called “Iran’s Hegemonic Vision,” and the implications for Israel and the Jewish people, the entire Middle East, and beyond. We then saw first-hand the manifestation of that vision as we visited Sderot, Ofakim, Kibbutz Nir Oz, and the site of the NOVA Festival which was transformed into a killing field. It is hard to describe the feeling I had as we walked through the makeshift memorial to those who were beaten, raped, killed, or taken hostage that day. I have only felt that way once before in my life, and that was when visiting Auschwitz.

So where does the hope come from? We finished the day sharing BBQ with an IDF unit. We visited with the soldiers, heard about their lives and experiences, shared a few laughs, handshakes and even some hugs. We are, after all, family. At this moment, I understood the idea of Jewish Peoplehood on a very different level than ever before. It wasn’t an intellectual understanding; it was deeper and more personal. We were thanking them, and they we thanking us. That’s right – They were thanking us! They understood why we were there, and it meant something to them. It gave them strength. I don’t know if Israeli and Diaspora Jews have been this close, and mutually dependent, since 1948.

As we wrapped up our mission over dinner in Jerusalem, we all reflected on our experiences together. We are so fortunate to be part of the JCC movement. This group of dedicated, insightful, and inspiring leaders shared their most intimate thoughts, and once again brought light to what could have been a very dark trip. As we headed towards our buses, one heading to the airport and the other back to the hotel in Tel Aviv, everyone was hugging. Some of us were already close to others in the group, but after our shared experience, we were truly bonded. I climbed onto the hotel bound bus, ready to begin the final phase of my trip.

Upon arrival at the hotel, I was welcomed with a bear hug from my dear friend Yonathan. We went into the hotel for a drink and a quick catch-up before he took me to my new hotel, the Brown Brun Hotel in Tel Aviv. Once again, I was the rare tourist among a hotel full of refugees, this time from Kibbutz Erez. It seemed like the perfect bookend of hotel experiences during this surreal visit to Israel.

Two days with Yonathan and his wife Chen was just what I needed after the intensity of the solidarity mission. We had Shabbat dinner with Yonathan’s parents, played tennis (Yonathan was the Israeli junior champion when he was 17), went to amazing restaurants and walked through Tel Aviv markets, neighborhoods and along the beach. Other than a visit to Hostage Square, my time with Yonathan and Chen seemed almost normal. We talked about life, family, jobs, and yes, war and politics. How do Israelis do this? Live their lives in the midst of war? Rabbi Doron Perez speaks of “Gam v. Gam,” but that is a discussion for another time.

After an extraordinary dinner at Claro (Yonathan’s lifelong friend is the chef), I was off to the airport for my flight home. When Yonathan dropped me off, and we shared one last hug, I knew that my relationship to Israel had changed. I will never again let seven years pass between visits. This is my homeland. These are my people. I want to dig deeper into my Israeli roots, meet family who I have never met, but I know are there. I yearn for a peaceful future for Israel, even as I understand that we have a long, challenging, and dangerous road ahead. 

Nobody gives better hugs than Israelis. For this, and many other reasons, I am hopeful.

Am Yisrael Chai!

A living bridge to Israel: Being a shaliach after Oct. 7

Shlichim — Hebrew for “emissaries” — have long served as faces and voices of Israel. Stationed in Jewish communities worldwide, they play the role of cultural ambassador, helping people connect with Israel through conversations and experiences.

Oct. 7 upended their lives and their jobs. 

With Israel dominating the headlines, shlichim have been thrust into a new, emotionally charged role: helping their communities grieve as they process their own grief.

Dean Bagdadi, who recently finished his first year as the shaliach at Pozez JCC in Northern Virginia, said people need to hear from an Israeli who is “hurting but still going.”

“Collectively, as a Jewish community, we’re processing grief,” Bagdadi said. “And when you’re experiencing grief, everything is valid. Anger. Resentment. Frustration. Denial. Everything goes.”

Among the 360-some shlichim in America, every single one of them knows someone who was murdered, kidnapped, or injured by Hamas terrorists on Oct. 7. Bagdadi is friends with one of the hostages, Noa Argamani, who is from his hometown of Be’er Sheva in Southern Israel. 

To ensure Noa and the other hostages are not forgotten, he and his coworkers hung a large poster with their pictures in the lobby of Pozez JCC.

“We can’t forget that families are missing their loved ones, who are alive but not safe,” Bagdadi said. “This is an open wound.”

To provide support, Bagdadi has helped Pozez JCC organize meaningful gatherings, including a vigil with 1,600 locals. He also moderated a panel discussion with four survivors of Oct. 7, drawing a crowd of roughly 340 people.

Michelle Pearlstein, who serves as Development Director of Pozez JCC, said this high level of engagement has impacted a broad spectrum of people, who have found Bagdadi to be a calm, knowledgeable voice on Israel.

“Dean has been a source of strength, comfort, and a trusted resource for so many people, including those who are already connected but were in search of a little piece of Israel right in our community,” Pearlstein said.

Bagdadi has also been creating informal spaces where people can just ask questions, addressing a communal ache to understand the complexities of Israel. The 28 year old has met with adult groups at every synagogue in the area and led a one-hour Israel crash course for teens, among other engagement efforts. 

“What do we do now? How do we show up for Israel? How do we support our Jewish community here in Northern Virginia? How do we combat antisemitism? There were so many questions to be answered, and people needed and deserved spaces where they could safely ask those questions,” Bagdadi said.

And he is well equipped to answer them. Bagdadi has been leaning heavily on his degree in political science from Ben-Gurion University, political nonprofit experience, and his personal Israel story.

While his efforts are making an impact in Northern Virginia, he carries the weight of being an ocean away from home. 

As Israel was plunged into war, Bagdadi was called to serve as a reservist commander, having formerly served as a logistics officer in the Israel Defense Forces. He was also called by the Jewish Agency for Israel, which runs the shlichim program, to support Northern Virginia, home of the largest Jewish population in the Washington, D.C. region.

Bagdadi had to make a choice: go or stay.

“Where would I be more valuable? Israel or Northern Virginia? All the pressure was on me to make that decision. And on a daily basis, I’m making the decision to stay,” Bagdadi said. “Right now, I feel like I’m more valuable here because I’m connecting people in Northern Virginia to Israel during a complicated and complex time.”

Former Pozez JCC President Scott Brown said there has never been a stronger need for an Israeli person, program, and presence. Northern Virginians need a shaliach like Bagdadi, who can help them know, wrestle with, and love Israel.

“Dean Bagdadi has been an enormous community resource,” Brown said. “He has stepped up and in, like the soldier he is. He has done it with amazing professionalism, sensitivity and strength.” 

Pozez JCC Board Member Ryan Gardiner said Bagdadi has galvanized the community, and he is continuing to do so.

“Dean understands the importance of keeping our community not just engaged but informed, active, and connected to Israel, “ Gardiner said. “His advocacy work and engagement with us at both the individual and group level remains vital to maintaining Israel’s centrality to our community in Northern Virginia.”

As Bagdadi enters his second year as a shaliach, he is continuing to build community around Israel engagement. The goal to connect with others remains the same, even though the “how” has changed.

“Before Oct. 7, we were building community. After Oct. 7, we are still building community,” Bagdadi said. “So much has changed, but strengthening our community and making sure that Israel is a big, valuable part of it remains the same.”

This Moment in Time

Dear family, friends, community here in Northern Virginia, around the US, and throughout the world. I’ve been reposting and sharing messages of desperation, anger, solidarity, and hope on social media from friends and organizations because I wasn’t ready to put into the ether, my own thoughts about this moment in time. Perhaps I’m still not ready, but can’t stay silent any more.

In the early months of the pandemic, I recall feeling that the word “unprecedented” had evolved into white noise as it was written and spoken in every communication referring to what was taking place around the world. Yet, in the beginning, that was the perfect word to describe the impact of Covid on people, hospitals, communities, and economies the world over.

Like many of you, the lens from which I view the world forever changed on Saturday, October 7, 2023. And now, I’m asking myself, will the words “horrific,” “terrifying,” and  “unimaginable horrors” also become white noise? As the images coming out of Israel are viewed on digital screens, whether handheld or larger, will the world become desensitized to the atrocities on display? Will it seem like it is just another Arab-Israeli conflict that’s “over there” and “not my problem”? Is human decency not our problem?

This moment is not about Pro-Israel or Pro-Palestine, there will be time for that. This is about Pro-Humanity. Anti-Terror. This moment is about supporting those who are willing to risk their lives to fight in the name of peace, security and acceptance.

My father, Al Fuchsman (z”l) passed away two weeks ago. In our community, he was well respected and is being remembered for his lifelong commitments to three pillars: Family, Tikkun Olam (Repairing the World), and Justice for All. What would he say now when all three are so deeply impacted in this moment? I find myself wondering if his untimely passing was actually timely so he can lend a helping hand from above. Perhaps he was meant for greater work than he could accomplish here on Earth. I’d like to believe that.

Many Jews and Israelis are being asked if they are okay. Likely, they are not. I am not. But, as a people, we are resilient and are individually, and as groups, finding ways to feel that we are doing something, anything, to help change the trajectory that we are on. The Pozez JCC is a place for belonging – where people of all backgrounds, identities, religious beliefs, and political affiliations can gather in harmony. On Thursday, October 12, more than 1,600 community members came together in solidarity for Israel and for each other. It was a moving evening and the feeling of connection and Peoplehood was palpable. The J will continue to provide and to share opportunities for healing and action over the coming days, months, and years as we lean deeply into our role as a community connector. (I invite you to see this page for what can be done now to Stand with Israel and click here to view the vigil).

I hope that however you are impacted by this historic moment in which we find ourselves, that you have the support and sense of commUNITY needed to move from darkness to light and hope you join me in praying for our friends and family in Israel and for a time of peace, security, and acceptance for all.

B’shalom, Laura 

No title can fit the horrors

We just returned to the U.S. a few days ago from Israel. We missed this community and had a lot to share about our visit there. But the last few days have been a waking nightmare. We have friends who’ve been killed, kidnapped, wounded or unsafe. Everyone does.

A tragedy on a massive scale happened on October 7th. A coordinated attack initiated at 6am by Hamas, sent to butcher as many Jewish people as possible. Attacked by land, sea and air, a joined invasion of more than 3,000 rockets and hundreds of armed terrorists towards the cities of Israel’s south. It began at the army bases, murdering everyone they passed, then to cities. Going from one house to another, butchering entire families, torturing them and dragging them screaming back to Gaza. Men, women, children, elderly and infants. All. The last time so many Jewish people were killed on the same day was during the Holocaust. Israel hasn’t experienced this terror since the Yom Kippur war, exactly 50 years ago.

We are heartbroken and devastated. We are worried sick and have been glued to the screen since it started. Israel is caught off guard, and we are still counting casualties. Hamas is taking pride in that, publishing videos and pictures of the victims as trophies. Families had to find out their loved ones have been killed or kidnapped from videos on social media. This war crime being committed against citizens has one target alone – to eliminate the Jewish people and to destroy the state of Israel. Jews and Arabs alike were killed that day, every soul that was in their way. And that goes both for the citizens of Israel and the Palestinians who are the residents of Gaza who refuse to obey Hamas. No one is safe.

And the only thing I could think of, is whether to stay and continue my role as Shaliach here or go back to the reserves and fight. This is a decision I am not yet ready to make, and doing something, anything, helps me to cope. But there are some heroic moments to take pride in. There have been people fighting bravely to save their friends, families, neighbors… and some have paid the ultimate price. Not just soldiers, people. Children. The IDF is at 150% capacity, every single person who can fight has volunteered. And we will win, whatever it takes.

I’m sure I am not the only one. We gathered yesterday to mourn together. Pray, light candles, and talk about what we can do to help. And there is a lot. Israel is still figuring out what is needed, and we are doing our best to understand them and share them with you. Together, as a community, supporting each other, and our families in Israel, we will win. Am Yisrael Chai.

Stay safe.

My Shnekel: High Holidays – High Emotions

Last year, Rotem and I moved here, to Fairfax, for this Shlichut chapter. Today, exactly a year later, we are spending the same Rosh Hashanah back in Israel, surrounded by family and friends. And for some reason, even though we are home, we are still missing home. Even though it’s only been a year, we settled in and got used to it. In the passing year, we missed our family and friends back in Israel, and now that we’re here, a little part of us misses the home there, across the pond. Strange feeling, attachment, and what you eventually find yourself attached to. But it does tell you a lot about the place, how welcoming everyone was, and how lovely the community is, that after only one year we’re already missing it.

But let’s not focus on that. I want to share with you a little bit about the High holidays in Israel, and how they compare to the US. Think about a place where being Jewish makes you the majority. The resting day of the week is Shabbat, and everyone gets a day off during High holidays. School is off, shops are closed, so there’s very few options for those who don’t celebrate the holidays. On Yom Kippur itself, roads, even highways, are empty. Israel TV isn’t transmitting on that day, no radio either. Kids drive around on bikes, rolling down highways. That is definitely something a person must experience at least once.

How does that make sense, in a country where the majority of its population is secular? According to the central bureau of statistics, 2022, 75% of Israel’s citizens identify as Jewish. Out of that, 45% of them identify as secular, the largest group. 25% identify as traditional, 16% as very religious and 14% as Haredi (Ultra-Orthodox). Maybe the tides have shifted, but that has been the case for quite a while now. How does it make sense, that a religious country (a Jewish state for the Jewish people) that has a favorable religion, with a majority of the secular population, still have that level of participation in religious ceremonies? It’s probably odd to someone not from Israel to imagine. Or, if you’d never visited Israel as well.

To me, the missing link here, is the growing notion that Jewish isn’t just a religious belief. In Israel, and to an extent in the US as well, Judaism is also an ethnicity, a culture. And the one in Israel has evolved to a national narrative. You don’t celebrate Rosh Hashanah just because you believe it’s the beginning of the Jewish year. You do so also because that’s an Israeli thing to do. It’s because you’re expected to participate as a member of the society.  And with the current political climate that pushes toward polarization and divides the democratic and the Jewish, it’s also rupturing the social fabric that has been constructed, since it’s relying on both.

Or maybe, it is that crucial debate we kept postponing for so long. Maybe we’ve finally hit the point where we must make a resolution that will eventually dictate the guidelines to balance those two conflicting natures. I keep saying that the Jewish Agency is paying me to remain Optimistic. But in this case, after spending a few weeks here in Israel, I’m more optimistic than ever.

My Shnekel (My POV): Our Home Across the Pond

Who would have thought that it’s already been a year, and that September is already around the corner?! With Chagim, end of summer, and visiting home, September is going to be a very, very interesting time. 

September is a busy month as it is. My wife, Rotem, and I are already struggling with deciding where to go when we return to Israel, what to do, and who to visit… yet, there is still something magical about it. And then, there’s the preparations for Rosh Hashanah, family gathering from all over, and the new year celebrations. Now, add doing this as part of a short visit to Israel! Oy vey! Don’t you worry though, because we got married and moved to another country in two months… we’ve got this and we’re excited! Excited to visit home, to see all the family and friends who’ve been waiting for us, and of course, the food! Vegetables with flavor! Finally!

It’s also odd, the feeling of going back to where you grew up, only now as a visitor. That you’re there for a few weeks, trying to do everything, to accomplish as much as possible, and then, to again leave it behind for a while. Like taking a deep breath before diving back in. Too big of a breath and your lungs collapse, too little is not enough.

But at the same time, it’s so chaotic. It’s hard not to wonder how the passing year will shadow a year renowned as one of the most chaotic and divisive ones. Will there be protests? Has something changed drastically? How different will it look? In addition, September is filled with crucial political events, all of them happening while we’re there. I’ve been keeping up very closely with the happening, reporting, and covering as much as I could, but I wasn’t there, not in the flesh.

I’ve talked a lot about the polarity we’ve been experiencing here and there. About the ever-growing gap that divides us, making it harder to see each other. And I worry. I worry that my family will not act the same. That there will be no discussions around the Shabbat table. That whenever it will come to our shared future, it would be better to avoid that conversation. I worry that our rage and discontent will make it impossible. I cannot ignore that concern, but it’s not the only thing I am thinking of. 

A lot of different thoughts roam my mind in preparation for next month and our visit home. Excitement, concern, worry, homesickness, all of them mixed. Last year, we spent the high holidays here, in Virginia, as new arrivals. A year went by, we’ve settled in, and have gotten used to it. Now, it feels like it might be similar there, as tourists in our own hometown. And it’s not just about politics. A year gone by, people changed, events happened, and we weren’t there. But we’re still excited and grateful. We’re grateful for the opportunity to go back, even for a short visit. We’ve missed our families dearly. Even more so, we’ve missed our home dearly, our home across the pond.

Shanna Tova and Happy High Holidays!