Letters from Israel: Day 1 with Rabbi Jonathan Aaron

Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills

Right now, we are on a bus heading down to the “Gaza Envelope” in Israel, the area that borders Israel and Gaza where the attacks took place. I wanted to share three moments that happened yesterday in Jerusalem and Rishon Letzion near Tel Aviv.

Upon arrival, I went to dinner with friends and a guest, a woman named Sharon, who is a guide for trips to Israel (a friend of a friend). It was an emotional conversation about what she has endured on and since October 7. There was one thing that she said that really caught my attention, and I’ve been thinking about it ever since. We were discussing the effects of the attack on the Israeli psyche, and someone mentioned that the whole country was suffering from PTSD. She replied, “I wish we were suffering from PTSD, that would mean that this was all in the “past.” It solidified the answer of our driver from the airport. When I asked him how he was feeling, he answered with one word – “sad.” The trauma of this war and of the events in October are happening NOW. I felt like no matter how long I stay here, no matter how much I read about what’s going on here – I sleep safely in my home in Los Angeles without fear of my existence. Here, every day is another day of war and survival.

That was reiterated the next afternoon, when we drove down to Rishon Letzion, a suburban area east of Tel Aviv, where we joined with Leket Yisrael, a food sourcing organization that collects the extra food from hotels and the military and their own farms for those who are hungry in Israel. Since the war, their goals have changed. Now, they provide raw vegetables to the hotels and the military from the farms they have all over Israel. It is not a government organization, but privately subsidized, and uses volunteers from all over the world to help. We spent a couple of hours pulling the vegetable kohlrabi from the earth and collecting them in large bins. We farmed three rows of kohlrabi, extremely satisfying (although I’m not giving up my day job). All of the sudden, the sirens sounded, and there we were in the middle of an open farm. We were asked to lay down on our stomachs and put our hands over our heads until the sirens stopped. We lay on the ground as we hear the Iron Dome explode the missiles that were heading towards Tel Aviv. There were no injuries from those missiles. When the sirens stopped…we went back to picking kohlrabi from the ground. That’s life in Israel – the sirens interrupt life…you do what you need to do…and then go back to your life. It’s humbling.

Lastly, we had the opportunity to hear from Yossi Klein HaLevi, an Israeli thinker, journalist, and writer who has been working with The Hartman Institute here in Jerusalem for years. He has especially been involved in Arab-Israeli conversations through Hartman (he indicated that many of those friendships through that collaboration have stopped due to this war). He has so many interesting things to say about what’s happening here in Israel. At this moment I will only share a couple of his insights. The first thing that really caught my mind is that that October 7 may have been the end of Zionism as we knew it. It used to be that outside of Israel was the most dangerous for the Jewish people, and that Zionism was the idea that Israel – the Jewish state – was the safest place in the world for Jews. October 7 shattered that idea, and that this war was actually to restore the covenant of the people with the government and with the armed forces. He stressed that this is an “existential war” for Israel. Not that Israel will be destroyed if it doesn’t defeat Hamas (which he says must be done – and 90% of the country agrees with that), but that if Israel doesn’t win this war, it may slowly begin the process of destruction. He does have hope, however, that after the war, a new government will come into power that will help to create more safety for Israel, and a place for the Palestinians to operate separately, but safely. The most curious thing he told us was that here in Israel they don’t see or spend much time thinking about the Gazans situation in Gaza, and that discussion of proportionality is light…the reason for that is that he said – “the people in the army are us, our children, and we know how we raised them, to be moral human beings.” The assumption here is that even the army is acting within the morality of Jewish values.