June 13, 2024
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June 13, 2024
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An Open Letter to Those Visiting Israel

Dearest fellow visitors to Israel,

One of the more popular refrains I have heard from people considering going to Israel during these challenging times is something along the lines of: “Does it really make a difference if I come? Aren’t I just in the way? Does my presence or my volunteering really matter or make a difference? Are Israelis just humoring the visiting Americans and making them feel good about coming?

Having been to Israel twice since October 7 and with another trip planned, I can tell you based on my personal experiences, the answer to whether or not to go is an unequivocal and resounding yes. Yes, our visits matter. Yes, our showing up while Israel is in a war means something. No, it doesn’t begin to compare and isn’t in the same universe as the extraordinary sacrifices of the most ordinary Israelis during this time. But our trips, our support, our barbecues, our gifts, our hugs and our genuine expressions of love and support are not mere photo ops or empty gestures, they are demonstrations of love, loyalty, connection, they mean something to our brothers and sisters in Israel, and they mean even more for us.

As I head back to Israel I am trying to process and think about different pointers I have heard from friends there about sensitivities that are critical for us to have when visiting. I have heard from them that at times, even those with the best intentions and who certainly mean no harm might not be fully mindful of how something we say or do will land or be received. The following is not to God-forbid judge but simply to share what I have heard, what I am thinking about and what I will try to be mindful of on my trip:

 

Don’t Just Show Up or Walk In

Wanting to visit army bases, hospitals, displaced communities and family and friends is beautiful. However, it must be about them, not us, on their schedule, not ours, when convenient and appropriate for them, not when works best for us. Don’t just show up or walk into a hospital room, a base or someone’s home. Communicate, coordinate and only come if it will indeed contribute.

 

Sharing Resources and Gifts

Remarkably, North American Jewry raised $1 billion for Israel in the first month of the war through major organizations entrusted with allocating it in prioritized and transparent ways. Additionally, on organized missions and individual trips, monies have been generously given to help bereaved families, displaced communities, and injured soldiers in a small way. Many have brought toys and gifts to bring a bit of joy to children or women whose husbands have been called up.

It is important to be mindful of the best way to distribute money and gifts. How can it be done in a way that doesn’t make others feel like a chesed project or like they are needy, indigent or underprivileged? Should it be distributed directly or through someone on the ground more connected to the recipients? Can it be given privately or modestly and not with fanfare or attention?

 

Pictures and Videos

The experiences and people you meet will certainly move you to take pictures and videos, whether for yourself or to share with others. But there are critical considerations to keep in mind. Is this person or is this group of people comfortable being photographed or videoed? Should they even be asked and put on the spot, or only if they offer? Instead of taking or sharing a video from the sidelines as a spectator, can we engage someone and ask if they have a message they want to share? Would we want to be the subject of someone’s “this is what we just did for Israelis” Instagram post or would we prefer to be asked if we want to communicate the context and share a message? The heroic people of Israel, soldiers in uniform, army bases, and certainly scenes of destruction or devastation – these aren’t photo ops or tourist attractions. Take a picture to tell a story or advance a cause, but do so mindfully and sensitively.

 

Personal Connections And Relationships

Instead of watching as a tourist, can we engage directly, maybe break into small groups to genuinely share, listen, and connect? Instead of, or in addition to, capturing a presentation that we may record and share on WhatsApp or elsewhere online, can we disconnect to connect in a way that communicates showing up, that conveys empathy, love and listening?

 

Ordinary People in Extraordinary Times

We must keep in mind throughout our visit that everyone we meet, those displaced, farming, injured, fighting, on their own at home, volunteering, almost all of them are really just regular people who have been thrown into the middle of a crazy time that they themselves are still processing. They are not objects of our chavaya, they are real people, with real feelings, real experiences, real worries, concerns. Can we relate and speak in genuine ways, in normal tones? Our brothers and sisters are not museum pieces, they are not a piece of history, they are not here so that our kids can have an educational experience or we can have an amazing and meaningful chavaya. They are not part of a photo op or a vacation memory. We are coming because we are Jews who care about our fellow Jews and we just want to connect to what they are experiencing and we can tell them how we are feeling.

 

This Isn’t Over Yet

Be mindful that these trips are not to see, pay witness to or help with a situation that is over. This is not a modern version of March of the Living or Heritage Trip. We are very much still in this war and we don’t know when it will be over. The war is not a closed event, something that happened in the past. It’s something that people are very much still living every day, will continue to be living after you leave, and it must not be related to as something that was. At Shabbos tables, around family, friends and strangers, don’t take anything for granted, be careful and sensitive how you speak, what you speak about, and before whom you are speaking.

 

Not Just an Itinerary

The daily life of every Israeli has been impacted since October 7 with no clear end date. From significant interruptions to businesses and universities, to the fear that a husband, father, son or brother won’t return home, life has been turned upside down. Israelis are just trying to cope and manage their day-to-day. Most haven’t gotten to go see Be’eri, or visit hospitals or displaced people at hotels, they haven’t made a barbecue at an army base or been briefed by politicians or military. They are genuinely happy that Americans are coming to visit, show support and that we care. We must be careful not to commercialize or sterilize our loving trips to connect with our greater family and turn them into a tourist experience, a great “war trip” experience. The itinerary should not distract or blind us to the love, kindness, support we can show the cab driver, the makolet owner, the restaurant server, and our family and friends who have made aliyah. The purpose of our trip is not the collage we can create, the photobook we will produce, or the video we can compile. It is the people we will connect with, the love we can share, the energy we can contribute to. Our trip should be informed not only by what we want to do, but how we are needed and where we can be of most service.

 

Comfort In, Dump Out

No matter how little you slept on the flight, how exhausting the itinerary is, don’t tell a soldier who hasn’t slept or a mother caring for a home all alone how tired you are. If seeing or experiencing something is emotionally difficult or draining, don’t process or seek comfort from those who are more closely connected or bearing the brunt of this war. Be mindful to only comfort in and dump out.

 

Caring and Compassionate, Not Condescending

Find a way to be caring and compassionate without being pitying or condescending. It is hard enough to be thrust into a difficult situation, being made to feel like a nebuch, weak or helpless makes it worse.

The penultimate plague on Egypt was choshech, darkness. We have all lived through blackouts or woken in the middle of the night to a dark room while trying to find our way to the light or door. What was so devastating about this plague that it deserved to be placed right before the final blow of makas bechoros? The Chidushei HaRim explains homiletically. Light is the capacity to know that there are other people in the world and that life is not just about us. Darkness falls when we turn exclusively inward and live a life of egocentricity. When we care only about ourselves, our interests, our success, our needs, our happiness, we are cloaked in darkness.

When the Torah describes darkness it says: V’lo ra’u ish es achiv, no person could see his brother. Says the Chidushei HaRim, when you live life without even seeing the person next to you, you are covered in darkness and you are blind to what life is really all about. Being trapped in a life of self-centeredness, only caring about yourself and not helping or even seeing others around you, is a life of darkness, it results in pain and suffering like a plague.

It is wonderful to go to Israel anytime, it is particularly meaningful to go during this time. As you plan your trip, as you experience each visit and interaction, simply ask yourself, if you were in the other position, how would you want to be related to, spoken to and thought about.

Let us all go selflessly, not selfishly, let’s dispel all the darkness and contribute enormous light.


Rabbi Efrem Goldberg is the spiritual leader of the Boca Raton Synagogue.

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