Before I left for Israel last month, there was already a war raging. The ground offensive in Gaza had begun two days before I boarded my flight to Tel Aviv. Before my trip, I would wake up and run to my phone to check the news and find out what happened during the day in Israel, while I was asleep in the United States. Before my trip, I would jump at the “red alerts” the new app on my phone sounded every time a rocket was fired into Ashkelon, Ashdod, Be’er Sheva, Tel Aviv and other cities. There were already the photos and Facebook posts, articles and headlines, and the growing lists of IDF soldiers and Palestinians whose lives had been cut short.
More than a week has now passed since I returned from my trip to Israel with the Rabbinical Assembly, and I have returned to the cycle of trying to stay close to what is going on in that distant land that feels so close. I am back with my family, back at my desk, back to normal. In many ways, everything is exactly as it was before my trip. And yet, nothing is the same.
Nothing is the same because now when I close my eyes I can see Gaza on the horizon, plumes of black smoke rising over her neighborhoods. I can smell the warm air of Sderot, hear the incessant buzzing of aerial drones and feel the residual tightening of my body. It is not the same, because I can see my cousin’s face change as she answers her phone and finds out that a classmate of one of her children was just killed in Gaza. Its not the same because I can see the faces of the children of Kehilat Netzach Yisrael in Ashkelon light up as Amichai Lau-Lavie joins them at summer camp spinning tales of courage from the Torah. Camp is a story underground in the congregations’ bomb shelter.
As I wrote that last line my phone lit up: “Red Alert now, Rockets Attack: Ashkelon.”
Ashkelon. Everything is different now because when I read that line, I know what the siren in Ashkelon sounds like.
Recently, Amy Klein wrote in Haaretz that she finds herself feeling alone as a liberal U.S. Jew during this difficult time. “Is there a way to prove to other Jews that we love Israel too, even though we disagree with its policy in Gaza?” is the question she posed.
I completely relate to what Klein was writing about. I cringe as I watch other liberal Jews in my Facebook feed announce that they are “done apologizing for Israel,” and have their article called “courageous” and proudly shared by the same people who post videos of Hamas terrorists as they “meet their end.” There have been moments when I, too, wanted to crawl under a rock, or stay on my couch.
But I have a better idea. Rather than staying home, get on a plane and go visit Israel. Rather than lamenting that you have no one left with whom to talk, talk to some Israelis - of all stripes. Visit the summer camps in bomb shelters, visit the wounded in Soroka Medical Center, visit the dead on Mount Herzl.
You don’t have to be a rabbi or a J Street leader to do this. If you have the means, you can just get on a plane. Imagine the scene of hundreds or thousands of liberal American Jews visiting Israel precisely at this time. Imagine the statement it would make, both in support of our sisters and brothers who are suffering during this time of war and to all of those liberal Jews out there who feel so very hopeless. If you spend your days thinking about Israel, thinking about Gaza, suffering at the thought of further violence, lamenting the presence of war in the Holy Land; then you are in this until the end. No matter how hard you try, you just cannot stay on your couch.
So rather than heading to Facebook, head to Tel Aviv. Rather than having dinner alone, have dinner in Jerusalem. Rather than worrying from afar, worry from close by. To quote a friend: “Get to know Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, a kibbutz in the north, the cinema scene, the Arava Institute, study in Israeli yeshivot, learn to speak Hebrew, and tell me this isn’t worth it.” It is worth your energy, worth your worry, and worth your money and time.
Liberal Jews, get on a plane.
Rabbi Jonah Geffen lives and writes in New York City.