From the moment we landed in Ben Gurion Airport, things felt different. The airport was quieter than usual, the signs for the hostages lined the ramp to customs, but the most powerful thing was something that was not tangible; it was something in the air. Last week, I had the honor of joining the Yeshivah of Flatbush on an achdut mission to Israel. While several missions have taken place, ours was the first to bring high school students to Israel in the last month. The fact that we brought nine high school students (grades 10-12), five of whom were accompanied by their parents, was not missed by those we encountered. From the El Al crew to our bus driver, Moshe, so many Israelis we met were impressed and amazed at the willingness to bring high schoolers to Israel during this time.
Without exaggeration, every person we met and every place we went inspired us by allowing us to be part of something bigger than ourselves: the Jewish people, Am Yisrael. Israelis repeatedly thanked us for coming. People in the airport cried (and took pictures) as we dragged our 50 duffel bags of donations through customs. (We barely got through customs.) Numerous Israelis mentioned the figurative hug that they felt they were getting from the American Jewish community. But throughout the trip, the overwhelming feeling was of the connection to Am Yisrael.
This feeling of connection to the people of Israel was highlighted on our second day, when we had the opportunity to meet the members of the community of Shlomit. Shlomit is a small religious yishuv located about 10 miles from Gaza and less than a mile from the border with Egypt. On October 7, after defending their community from the Hamas terrorists, nine men from Shlomit ran to the neighboring community of Pri Gan after a distress call for help came from the town. At Pri Gan, they engaged with the terrorists, saving a family of six. In the subsequent fighting, four members of the community of Shlomit—Uriel Bibi, Aviad Gad Cohen, Reuven Shishportish and Bechor Sweid—were killed. Thanks to those heroes and the other brave fighters from Shlomit, there were no other civilian deaths in Pri Gan or any of the surrounding towns.
The entire Yishuv, of close to 80 families and 350 children, has been relocated for a second time to the Cramim Spa on the outskirts of Jerusalem. It doesn’t take much time to understand the challenges of children staying at a spa for over a month with no infrastructure and facilities for children, but this was compounded by the fact that almost every husband was called up to the reserves. We arrived at Cramim and handed out backpacks filled with some basic school supplies for each child, including a pad of paper, a water bottle, and some markers. On each bag was a small, personalized note from a student at the Yeshivah of Flatbush. It was this small gesture that inspired one of the most exciting reactions. A boy ran over to me and exclaimed, “Look, the bag was sent from Yaakov Sasson from Brooklyn and my name is Yaakov Sasson!”
One of the leaders of the community, Yedidyah Haroush (a former counselor at Camp Lavi), walked over to our rosh yeshiva, Rabbi Joseph Beyda, and asked, “Do you remember me? I beat the Yeshivah of Flatbush in the 2007 Yeshiva League Basketball Championship.” (“Remember” was an understatement. Over lunch they rehashed the entire game.) One of the four widows, Donna Cohen, walked over to one of our teachers, Rabbi Joseph Mizrahi, and asked if he remembered her. She served as the bat sherut at his former school, Barkai Yeshiva, and spent many evenings in his home. We were repeatedly reminded how connected we were to this small community of Shlomit. We left that afternoon feeling inspired and moved. Inspired by the courage and tenacity of these four widows, and moved by their simple faith in Hashem and the importance of the Land of Israel.
Another person who felt the impetus to come to Israel was my younger brother, Eli Sklarin from Miami. Eli and his high school friend Ben Strulowitz directed a lot of time, energy and creativity to support one of their former classmates, Ariel Burstein (Frisch class of 2009), who is currently serving in the reserves right on the Gaza border. Ben and Eli raised close to $10,000 on Instagram to fund a barbecue and other treats for Ariel’s unit.
On my last day in Israel, Eli called me and said, “So many people gave money; they just want to show their love. But now I have some extra money, what should I do?” I responded without thinking twice: “Go to the Hadar Mall right near Cramim and buy toys and ice cream for the children of Shlomit.” Eli went back on Instagram and raised another $4,500 in a matter of hours. Money poured in from people he knew well and people he hardly knew. But the sentiment was the same, people wanted to show the people of Israel that they cared. Eli then went to Toys R Us and the supermarket, and after filling up eight cart loads, he realized that he needed help in getting to the Cramim Spa. So he called old family friends, Shlomo and Orna Goldstaf, to pick him up from the Hadar Mall and drive him to Cramim.
When they arrived at Cramim, they were greeted by nearly 300 children patiently waiting. They cheered for my brother as he unloaded the bags of toys and ice cream. My brother made a short speech in his broken Hebrew, telling the children of Shlomit how much the Jews in America love and care about them. While the kids pounced on the ice cream, the adults stored away toys to be distributed at a later time. One mother commented that this ice cream break of seven minutes was her first rest since October 7.
The community was so touched by my brother’s generosity, that they invited him, Shlomo and Orna to stay for dinner. At dinner, my brother made the rounds, showing the community of Shlomit just how many Jews (and non-Jews) in America gave money to show their love for their community and how eager they were to show they care.
At one point, Shlomo approached my brother and began to cry. He had just realized something. The day prior, Shlomo had attended the brit for his good friend’s grandson, the newborn son of Itai. At the brit, Itai mentioned that he would like to take time before naming his son to remember his best friend, Reuven Shishportish, who lost his life on October 7. Itai said that throughout their lives, Reuven and Itai were inseparable—it was always Reuven and Itai, Itai and Reuven. But now that Reuven is gone, he will need to remember his friend through his newborn son. Itai went on to describe the heroism of his friend Reuven, who was killed while running from the safety of his home in Shlomit to the nearby town of Pri Gan to save others. And that the day of his son’s brit, was the shloshim of his best friend, Reuven.
Shlomo mentioned to Eli that perhaps he was the only one who knew this, since Reuven’s family, the Shishportishs, were busy commemorating the Shloshim for their husband and father. At that moment, with tears streaming down his face, Shlomo approached the Shishportishs and tried to explain the series of events that led him to this point. The Yeshivah of Flatbush meeting the group on Monday, to my brother, Eli, having extra money on Wednesday and looking for a way to donate it. To Eli needing help transporting the toys to Cramim and calling an old friend, Shlomo, to help. To Shlomo, who happened to be a guest at his friend’s grandson’s brit and was fortunate to bear witness to a fitting tribute for a fallen hero from the town of Shlomit by his best friend. To being brought to this moment to tell the Shishportish family the tribute that was given to their husband and son the day prior.
Through the tears shed on our trip we all realized not just how connected we have become, but also how connected we always were.
Rabbi Yigal Sklarin is the associate principal at the Yeshivah of Flatbush Joel Braverman High School.