29 Dec, 2023

VOICES: There are no words but there is still hope – By Brother Rabbi Alan Litwak (UC – Santa Barbara, 1989)

29 Dec, 2023

(Editor’s Note: Brother Rabbi Alan Litwak was a founding father of the Sigma Beta chapter of AEPi at University of California – Santa Barbara. Raised in Northern California, he is a product of the Reform Jewish movement and has served congregations in both Southern and Northern California, as well as Long Island, Manhattan, and Albany, New York. Since 2002 he has held the position of Senior Rabbi at Temple Sinai of North Dade (Florida). The VOICES article below are excerpts from social media posts Rabbi Litwak wrote for his congregation while on a South Florida rabbinical mission to Israel in mid-November.)

I try to visit Israel at least once a year. Most of the time, it is to study, with a little bit of wine and friends thrown in. In mid-November, I arrived with a very different mission: – 1. To serve as an emissary of my community bringing strength and support, prayers and presence to our Israeli brothers and sisters; 2. To be an eyewitness to those who were affected by the October 7 attack and share their stories. These are only a few of the moments and messages.

Within two hours of my arrival, I was at Ichilov Hospital visiting Sheerel Gabay, a 23-year-old American-Israeli friend of my daughter, Yael. Sheerel was at the Nova Festival. When the sirens went off, she and her four friends got in the car, found a bomb shelter and went inside. They were lucky that they were sitting in the back because the people in front were killed by terrorist gunfire. They survived eight grenades being thrown into the shelter. Sheerel was shot in the knee and might have bled to death had it not been for the weight of a woman falling on her and stopping the bleeding. She was rescued seven hours later and has already undergone one surgery and is enduring daily therapies.

Sheerel shared a beautiful thought with me. When I asked if she had found any lessons in her experience, she remarked that, if there is anything that came from this terrible situation, it is the strength of Jewish unity. The deep political, social, racial, and economic divisions that plagued Israel last summer have been set aside.  There is a collective sadness and a collective strength. You can see that on the side of the building, “Together, we will win.”

I spend my life speaking – sermons, counseling, teaching. My first full day was spent with my wife Deborah’s cousins, including Leeor Katz Natanzon (on the right in the photo). On October 7, Leeor’s mother, Efrat, her brother Ravid, her sister Doron (on the left), and her two nieces Raz and Aviv (4 1/2 and 2 1/2) were kidnapped. Efrat was killed by friendly fire from an Israeli helicopter trying to eliminate the terrorists. Leeor had to bury her mother without her siblings. On November 24, Doron, Raz, and Aviv were in the first group of hostages to be released. We were elated, only to have it come crashing down four days later when the family received word that Ravid had been killed. His body remains in Gaza. In moments like this, it is not about what you say; a silent presence can be most powerful.

There is an understanding among parents in Israel. When a child is born in Israel, he/she is “on loan” for 18 years, until they are given over to the Israel Defense Forces. Every parent in Israel knows that there is a price to pay in war. Every day, we saw that price that so many families have paid, upfront and personal.

We had lunch with a group of soldiers who had just returned from five days in Gaza. They are a part of a combat engineering unit and were being given a 12-hour respite. In 2014, during Operation Protective Edge; a member of this unit, Moshe “Moshiko” Dwino was killed in Gaza. Moshiko was remembered by his unit as one who loved to make people happy through food. In his memory, his family created “Fun Truck” – a food truck to serve soldiers. While we ate, his mother, Ruchama, spoke to us, sharing that she finds comfort when soldiers are eating and blessing the food. I have never eaten a hamburger that had more meaning.

Israelis are masters of hope. The title of Israel’s National Anthem is “Hatikvah – The Hope.” The collective pain that hovers around the country is palpable, but everywhere I turned, there were examples of hope and resilience in Israeli society.

We visited Sheba Medical Center, outside of Tel Aviv. Since the war began, the entire Pediatric ICU/CCU was recreated in the hospital’s underground parking garage. This provides families with greater reassurance against rockets. Only in Israel can you see on one side of the corridor, a teenage Jewish boy sitting in his bed and putting on his tefillin. On the other side, a Palestinian infant with her mother. Both receiving equal care in the Newsweek ranked 10th Best Hospital in the World.

The Jewish people often feel alone in the world and, yet, during this time, we have found many allies. Through the Emergency Volunteer Program, eight Miami Beach firefighters spent two weeks embedded in fire stations around Israel. We had dinner with Captains Adonis and David and the rest of the Jerusalem firemen. Adonis spoke about his pride as a Christian to come to support Israel and was visibly moved by the welcome that they received, the tactics that they learned and shared, and the friendships that they created. We all held back the tears. Upon their return to Florida, they raised an Israeli flag over their fire station.

We can – we must — celebrate the little victories, even as we work towards the bigger ones.