Not Afraid of the Long Road: Reflections on a Solidarity Mission

February 13, 2024

by Rabbi Ezra Seligsohn (YCT ‘17)

At the end of January, I led a small delegation of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah representatives on a three day solidarity mission to Israel. Making this visit was both risky and ambitious. The risk was not existential as we never experienced any danger, but rather spiritual in nature: who were we to show up at this moment? In a country that just faced the worst pogrom in modern times and is fighting the longest war in its history, is a small American group welcomed or an imposition? And we were ambitious: could our presence be meaningful, even helpful, and not merely self-indulgent?

Overcoming the Distance

The primary impetus to travel was the sense of distance that we were experiencing in Diaspora. Yes, each member of our cohort had access to 24-hour-news and regular communication with family and friends in Israel, but we were not able to give hugs from afar, or look into our brothers’ and sisters’ eyes and say: “we see you.” The gap was not only physical, as we also had the awareness that we were now in a different day-to-day world than Israelis, more than ever before. Israelis went through a direct catastrophic loss, and were continually living with the reality of hostages, military operations, and air-raid sirens, while we in America could comfortably mobilize at our convenience to donate money and supplies, call our elected representatives, post on social media, and pray.

The gulf felt and continues to feel so large, that only by showing up could it be potentially bridged. It was at least worth a try.

Our highly concentrated trip consisted of some “hands-on” components: We picked kohlrabi in the fields of Rishon Litzion with Leket Israel (the National Foodbank), and organized supplies, washed dishes, and served food to soldiers at Tzomet Shuva, where three brothers had set up a one-stop shop waypoint for those serving in and around Gaza.

We also had the opportunity to learn from various YCT affiliated Rabbis and their holy work in Israel in general and during this war, including: Rabba Anat Sharbat, who grounds Kikar Chatufim (hostage square) in Tel Aviv with weekly Kabbalat Shabbat and Havdalah, and ministers to the abductee’s families; Rabbi Mishael Zion (YCT ‘11), a founder of Rikmah—YCT’s Israeli Rabbi training program— who’s rabbinate and community-centered leadership initiatives in Jerusalem continue to evolve; and Rabbanit Yafit Clymer – co-head of Rikmah, who is both a spiritual leader and the mother of four IDF soldiers. We spent our final night with Rabbi Sharon and Avital Shalom, community leaders in Kiryat Gat, who have sleeplessly ensured that the individuals and towns in the Gaza envelope are cared for and have both basic and spiritual needs met.

Present in Grief

While we were generously enriched by these Rabbinic leaders, it was the encounters and visits and tears shared with individuals and families who were confronting unbearable loss that continues to reverberate in our hearts. A few portraits:

Doron, the “adopted-father” of lone-soldier and Tenafly native Edan Alexander who for the last 4 months has been held hostage in Gaza. We met Doron as he wheeled himself around hostage square with Edan’s picture on both sides of his shirt, taped all around his motorized scooter, raising awareness about Edan’s plight. He wearily expressed his resolve and grief in advocating for Edan – he saw him as his own child – while navigating the bureaucracy of not being a blood-relative.

Irit, mother of eight, who lost her husband Haim a few weeks after October 7th to suicide. Haim had been a happy-go-lucky, master-educator bus driver, beloved by students and parents alike, who heroically shuttled survivors of the Be’eri massacre to safety amidst the fighting. Irit welcomed us into her home with fruit for Tu B’shvat, with honest and joyful and painful memories, and with warm songs, prayer, and hope.

David, father of twenty three year old Uriel Silberman of Nechalim who was killed in combat in Gaza. He drew us close at Shiva for his son, and spoke of Uriel’s love and talent as a cook, how his fellow chayalim divulged the way Uriel could even elevate army rations into a delectable meal, and how he would perform magic tricks, just to bring joy to those around him.

The family and friends of Yuval Lopez, a Peruvian immigrant, father of three from K’far Tapuach. We stood shoulder to shoulder with thousands, including his entire tank unit, as he was laid to rest on Har Herzl late one rainy evening.

Strengthened by Resilience

Amidst the cries of pain and yearnings for loved ones – other themes came to the fore: the deep resilience, the laughter surrounding happy memories, and the dedication of those lost towards a shared mission and purpose of holding on to the security and safety of the Jewish people in the State of Israel.

And yet, we did not only encounter Jews.

In one of the most striking moments of our trip, we visited the shiva-like memorial tent for Ahmad Abu Latif, an Israeli Bedouin soldier killed together with 20 fellow members of Tzahal—the deadliest day for Israelis since October 7th. We drove to the largest Bedouin city of Rahat, just outside of Beer Sheva, and sat with his parents. After being served cardamom-infused coffee and fresh dates, we learned how Ahmad was a security guard at Ben Gurion University, and had stubbornly asserted himself back into Miluim when the war broke out.

Ahmad took life seriously, had a generous smile – and modeled a vision for the land of Israel. In a Facebook post in the aftermath of October 7th he wrote that regardless of religion or ethnicity: “L’kulanu Oto Goral – we all share the same fate.” There was a wisdom and truth being expressed here, which was salient through our trip – Israel as a people and nation were not merely stuck together, they were embracing one another as they carried forward after October 7th.

Rav Avi reinforced this message for us when he joined us for a day of our mission. Particularly at Soroka hospital and at the Shuva junction, he demonstrated for us, as he always does, that we are all one family – sharing a fate and destiny, but also a song and a hug, and a laugh and a smile, and one last hug. It was truly an honor to spend even a few hours with him, gaining a brief glimpse into his last four months of offering support and chizuk to soldiers and grief-stricken families alike — offering his special brand of passionate Ahavat Yisrael.

The Land Cries Out

In the planning for, and even throughout the mission – there was a reckoning with the critique of “disaster tourism.” Were we just here as voyeurs, outsiders ogling at another’s tragedy? This fear was felt most strongly as we approached Re’im, the site of the Nova festival, where hundreds of Israelis were murdered. As far as we knew, there weren’t going to be any survivors or family members to console or with whom to connect. Rabbi Aryeh Leifert (YCT ‘06), our coordinator and guide throughout the trip, offered the significant framing of “bearing witness” – we were here to see with our own eyes, to document, to be able to bring home to our families and communities and the larger world the harsh realities of what occurred on this soil.

What was so palpable upon arrival was the beauty and openness of the space: lush plains, an airy forest, a serene, magical location. Now it has become a makeshift memorial, photographs of those killed and taken hostage, signs, and plants and flowers to recall the young lives that were snuffed out. Even the airy forest brought along a horrid realization: in this place, there was nowhere to hide.

A Midrash found in Yalkut Shemoni on Parashat Bo, originally drawn from Kohelet Rabbah, describes how everything created for human beings was also created for the land. It lists various land-personifications from throughout Tanach: including that the land has a head, eyes, ears, mouth, arms, bellybutton, thighs, and legs, and that the land eats, drinks, rages, gets drunk, throws up & gives birth. In this vein, I believe we were also in Re’im to offer consolation and comfort to the land itself. The land has its own memories, its own pain, its own disaster-ridden consciousness, and we were showing up for a shiva-visit of sorts. What occurred here was horrific and traumatic, and we were there to say to the land, “we are with you in your pain.”

Did we succeed in our mission? Ultimately, while it became clear that the trauma that Israel has undergone and continues to experience on a daily basis was even greater than we imagined, we could still show up and say, we are here with you. We may not understand or appreciate the depths of what you are experiencing, but we are nonetheless here, building a bridge, reaching out, and coming close, as best as we can.

Not Afraid of the Long Road

One final note. On the plane home, I heard the echoes of a song we sang at Irit’s home, based on a passage from Rav Kook: “Am Hanetzach Lo Mefached Miderech Arukah – The eternal people are not afraid of the long road,” and reverberations of the phrase Ahmad shared: L’kulanu Oto Goral – our fates are intertwined. Together with Israelis, Jews from around the world have rallied together to address the immediate crises and concerns of these last months. Soldiers have sacrificed their lives to eradicate Hamas and return the hostages, and civilians have stepped up in countless ways to support the home front. While we crossed the Atlantic back to America, these phrases brought into stark relief that while we were so beautifully focused on these acute responses and reactions to October 7th, we were also putting aside attention to the much longer road ahead. Regardless of what anyone may wish, the Jewish people’s and Israel’s fates are also tied together with that of the Palestinians. God’s land must be convulsing with the excruciating pain of these last months and of this past century of conflict – and I pray that as we support our brothers and sisters, God also gives us the strength to blaze stronger, more permanent paths towards a livable future, for the eternal people are not afraid of the long road.

Much gratitude to the Yeshiva and particularly to Rabbi Yonah Berman (YCT ‘07) for organizing and supporting the trip. 

Mission Photos
  • Not Afraid of the Long Road: Reflections on YCT's Solidarity Mission to Israel by Rabbi Ezra Seligsohn (YCT ‘17)
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