June 12, 2024
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June 12, 2024
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Linking Northern and Central NJ, Bronx, Manhattan, Westchester and CT

My family was in Israel to celebrate the holiday of Sukkot this past year. We came, we prayed at the Kotel, toured, walked the streets of Jerusalem, ate an abundance of food, and on October 5, we departed, to spend the second half of the holiday with family in Montreal, leaving our seminary-age daughter behind.

Aside from feeling the horror, the pain, the sadness and fear at the news of October 7, I also had another layer: guilt. Traditional secular marriage vows state, “For better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, for sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, till death do us part.” And I very much felt like in my love for Israel, for the Jewish people, I was violating this sentiment. I was there for the party, and left before the cleanup. I loved Israel in its crown jewel of holiday glory, and wasn’t there for the hard part.

And so on October 9, while simultaneously working to book a ticket for my daughter to come home from her dwindling seminary, I also began to look for flights for myself to Israel, calling strangers, seeking an opportunity to do anything possible to help. I had lofty dreams of leaving life behind in the United States, where time would maybe stand still in my absence, affording me the opportunity to work the land, serve food to the army, or even just wash some dishes, for as long as I needed to rectify the gnawing guilt in my heart, for as long as they needed me to rebuild the brokenness of the nation, until the hostages came home. But I didn’t make it then, armed with a long list of excuses, and I did what I could here, to feel like I was contributing somehow, as my idealism evaporated.

As the weeks and months dragged by, I yearned to personally experience the volunteer opportunities I had written about, to meet the heroes and thank them for their contributions, large and small, because every little kernel of effort was an integral part of Israel’s recovery. But I also wanted to just be there, to feel like I belonged, like I breathed their air, cried their tears, stood in solidarity, and added to their happiness. I wanted to show up in empathy. To taste their pain, to hold it in my hands and say, “I’m with you. I understand,” even though I never fully will. But maybe in doing so, in carrying their sadness within me, distributing small parcels of it to us visitors, their pain will be made a little less.

I am certain many who live in exile would echo these very sentiments, that living outside of Israel hurts even more now. It hurts because we can’t be there. We are detached, excluded. We come to volunteer, maybe to ease our own longing, our own guilt, and also to help those in need, yet we still don’t belong, though we desperately want to. We are like spectators to the situation, and I suppose we deserve that. We chose this life by not choosing to make aliyah; we chose this otherness. But, each loss is our loss, too. Our loss of not being there, of not fully taking root and holding on as we should. Our loss of not being able to sit shoulder-to-shoulder every day, of not being able to make our lives pause so we can widen our grasps, and hold more tears in our hands. Our loss as we watch people being shattered, of families being splintered, from across the ocean, from a WhatsApp group or an Instagram page. Our collective losses, as a nation, are innumerable.

As I stood at the Nova Festival site in mid-March, finally experiencing the raw reality, not from a screen or another person’s story, but walking the sandy expanse with my own two feet, I knew that I would never grasp the fullness of the tragedy. I would never know all of the stories behind the faces in the memorial posters, would never visit all of the broken families … and all families are broken. I leave behind a piece of myself, myself the spectator, the exiled, who watches from a distance in the bleachers, waving her flag, and so very much yearns to be in the show. That piece is an anchor, drawing me home, a morsel of the eased guilt, a drop in the pool of tears, a shadow in the praying crowd. Each visit, each act of kindness, pulling me closer and closer to my vow of love, for better or for worse.


Sarah Abenaim is a writer and life coach living with her husband and kids. She can be reached via her website www.sarahabenaim.com or via email, [email protected].

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