While tweets and headlines from and about Israel continue to reflect very real concerns on the ground, here's what I need to share, having landed in Tel Aviv just a few hours ago.
As I sit on a tour bus with rabbinic colleagues from around the U.S., receiving updates from AIPAC staff and tour guides, my cheeks are wet from the tears that poured uncontrollably from my eyes when I saw my sister and brother-in-law at Ben Gurion Airport. This isn't only a statement of my love for my immediate family. It is an explosion of my heart, to see Jewish life and love and hope and determination.
Yes, 150 missiles were fired from Gaza into Israel last night. Yes, 40,000 Israeli reservists were called up today. Yes, when I saw the skyline of Tel Aviv, I realized that I had been holding my breath for fear that it wouldn't be there when we arrived.
BUT -- I also know that I am here as a Jew, as a Zionist, as an American Jewish Faith Leader who is part of the unfolding of Jewish history in our home.
I witness burned out cars from the 1948 War of Independence. My bus drives by the towns where Eyal z"l, Gil-Ad z"l, and Naftali z"l lived, the city of Modi'in where they are now buried, cars filled with Israelis, some of whom believe peace is possible and a mandate, some of whom believe it is an impossibility, a few of whom see Jewish security as separate from shared peace.
My job is to stand, speak, breathe, mourn, teach, preach, cry, scream, laugh, agitate, and celebrate as part of it all, to do what I can -- which means what I must -- to add life and holiness and meaning to this messy mix of which I am an impassioned, grateful part.
I am here because I am called to be here. I am home. I wouldn't be anywhere else.
Within an hour of landing, we received our first briefing on the current situation in Israel. Only a few hours later, everything has changed.
This mission was designed as a progressive rabbinic mission. We were to visit Israeli and Palestinian human rights activists tomorrow, engaging in serious conversation about "the balance," as Yossi Klein Halevi phrased it so eloquently during dinner tonight, "between the need to retain our humanity and the need to protect ourselves." Well, as of this evening, the theoretical conversation is over. I am sitting with fellow rabbis in Jerusalem during a red alert. We were guided into the staircases of our hotel lobby when the siren went off, and then hotel staff distributed instructions for what we should do in case of another air raid siren. This is our new "normal" tonight.
Once that moment passed, the hotel lobby became a mass of status-updating and family-contacting. I shared with my colleague Rabbi Dan Cohen a moment of impromptu pastoral counseling for a family of tourists from Colombia and Miami, asking us, "can you please tell us what's happening" with eyes that spoke a fear and vulnerability they were only visiting but that Israel knows all too well. This vignette pales, though, when compared to a call my brother-in-law-to-be received from a neighbor, who was waiting in a bomb shelter with her two small small children, and didn't know if it was safe to come out yet.
Friends, the theoretical conversations are powerful and significant. They are also radically far from the reality on the ground. As Halevi shared tonight, in a conversation that feels like it happened years ago already, the last few years of relative quiet for Israel have now come to an abrupt end. In one hour tonight, rockets were fired from Gaza, reaching Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Herzelia, and Binyamin. As of this writing, 117 rockets have struck Israel in the past 24 hours & an additional 29 were intercepted by the Iron Dome. Millions of Israelis, from Haifa to Be'er Sheva, are under threat and must be ready to take shelter within 90 seconds.
(For those seeking the comfort of a small miracle, one rocket from Gaza exploded next to an Ashdod event hall hosting multiple weddings, and there were no casualties.)
My innocence was lost some time ago, but portions I've been desperately clinging to have been torn at yet again. When the terrorist kidnapping and murdering of three Israeli boys was met by the Palestinian Authority handing out treats in celebration and the Jewish terrorist kidnapping and burning alive of a Palestinian teen was met by global Israeli and Jewish condemnation, my hope for imminent peace evaporated. Theoretical constructs for reconciliation being bandied about on social media are good (and less-good) theories. Tonight, yet again, is the end of theory.
Tonight I sat in shock with rabbinic colleagues who came to Israel to amplify the progressive Jewish values that define us as a People, values we seek to amplify in our homeland. We will never abandon those sacred principles. As Halevi reminded us, they are the crucial balance to what we experienced first hand tonight: the urgent need to keep our People safe in the face of real threats to our very existence.
There can be a severe disconnect between the many conversations that take place in the abstract and the immediate reality on the ground in Israel. Back home in Berkeley, this often occurs in what I've come to feel is the "extreme-sport" of fierce anti-Israel rhetoric being met by the defensive posture taken by the Jewish community. That defensive posture ignores the necessity of Israel's military response to terrorism. Jewish tradition teaches that the true measure of might ("gevurah") is restraint, to which I bear testimony tonight. Hamas, part of the Palestinian Unity government, positions its rocket launchers in civilian population centers because it knows Israel's historical restraint from firing at civilians. Halevi pointed out that, since 2000, Hamas has shifted its tactics: instead of a war against the Israeli army, it is conducting war against Israeli civilians. Israel's restraint is sorely tested, time after time, bus after bus, hotel Pesach Seders, youth discos, coffee houses and kidnapped and murdered teenagers. Israel's restraint in the face of terror is simply incalculable.
That Israel has not unleashed its power beyond defensive tactics is important to know, share, and applaud. I'd do more of that, if I weren't so shell-shocked from hiding tonight in a bomb shelter with scared friends and strangers, Jews and others, residents and tourists. We all felt like children, wondering if it was safe to come out yet.
While I pray that Israel continues to demonstrate the sacred strength of restraint, I stand in solidarity tonight with residents throughout Israel knowing that our national safety will tragically demand more than readiness from the 40,000 reservists called up today.
I am leading an Israel trip from my shul this June (2015). I've never been more determined to bring our family together, to be strong and stand together. I am glad I'm here. How can I be far from my family when it is under threat?
This is where I belong. With my family. With my People. Am Yisrael Chai. The People of Israel Lives.
Pray for peace, friends.
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