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!

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