July 23, 2024
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July 23, 2024
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Linking Northern and Central NJ, Bronx, Manhattan, Westchester and CT

The author with Aish Hatorah Rosh Hayeshiva Rav Yitzchak Berkovits.

I entered the famed Aish HaTorah Beit Midrash unaware that I was soon going to encounter the first of numerous inspiring heroes in the days ahead. A mere few hours after touching down in Israel, our small group of friends from Teaneck intentionally launched our visit in the heart of the Old City by being paired with chavrutas in preparation for a late morning private shiur with the Rosh HaYeshiva, Rav Yitzchak Berkovits.

Following a brief introduction, Will Wolfowich and I settled into our seats alongside the aron kodesh, with only a large window separating us and our majestic view of the Kotel. Will demonstrated his mastery of the text as he taught me the Gemara and Rambam with complete clarity. I soon realized that Will was not an ordinary teacher or chavruta as an inspiring story lay just behind his passion for Torah learning.

Will took me back to a different time, to a beachside hostel in sunny San Diego nearly seven years earlier. Will received a phone call from his mother urging him to immediately return home to Toronto as his brother Adam had entered the final hours of his battle with cancer. Moments after Will arrived in his Toronto hospital room, Adam’s neshama departed, setting off a chain of events that would alter Will’s life forever. Upon the urging of a family friend, Will spent the next few days (as it was Pesach, leading to a delayed burial) as his brother’s “shomer” (guardian).

Visiting with Shai Graucher and meeting IDF soldiers moments after leaving Gaza.

 

With the exception of Will’s sister and brother-in-law, Will and most of his family previously had minimal experience with Orthodox Judaism. Will’s sister taught him about Mourner’s Kaddish and the importance of observing shloshim. All Will needed to hear was the lift it would provide his brother’s neshama and Will was all in.

In the ensuing months Will felt the pintele yid inside come alive as he started to make his way to his sister and brother-in-law each Shabbat. Shabbat observance led to a trip on Birthright which led to a stay at Aish HaTorah. Fast forward seven years, a good haircut and wardrobe change later and Will is now married, learning (and teaching) full time in Aish HaTorah and building a true bayit ne’eman b’Yisrael.

The IDF Rabbinate’s Shura Army Base was where we met the most inspiring “malachim” who expressed remarkable appreciation for having the “zechut” to prepare and escort the holy neshamot of the victims of the Oct. 7 massacre as well as the fallen kedoshim of the IDF as they leave this world.

Visiting Ohr Someach.

 

Later that afternoon we met another ordinary hero in Eli Wechsler (originally from Teaneck). Like so many others in Israel, Eli dropped everything after Oct. 7 and now spends his days preparing meals and traveling to army bases across the country to meet soldiers’ every need. We joined Eli as he delivered 40 pairs of new army boots to one base and barbecue dinner to several others right on the Lebanon border.

A late night roadside dinner delivery to soldiers sleeping alongside their tanks on the border prompted a request that our bus driver turn off the headlights in order not to reveal the tank positions to the enemy, which definitely underscored the constant dangers that the heroic IDF soldiers are faced with.

Following an early morning vasikin (sunrise) davening at Ma’arat HaMachpelah in Hebron, the next day was highlighted by a visit to Tel Hashomer Hospital to visit soldiers who had been injured in battle. Among the incredible stories we heard was from a religious dentist in reserves who, along with a team of fellow dentists, reported to the Shura army base where they were tasked with the brutally challenging job of performing identifications on fallen soldiers.

Informed that the army had intelligence regarding several hostages buried in a mass grave in Gaza, the team of dentists joined a special IDF unit in secretly going deep behind enemy lines to find and identify these fallen hostages. Late in the mission the dentist took a missile to his leg, resulting in an injury he was now recovering from. Like virtually all other injured soldiers we met that day, his greatest regret was not being able to immediately rejoin his unit in Gaza.

Visiting Kibbutz Be’eri.

 

The following memorable day began with a tour of Sderot and the Sderot Yeshiva before joining Shai Graucher in the Gaza Envelope. Shai and his team have been the epitome of chesed of the highest order, raising an astounding sum of tzedaka (a credit to Am Yisrael!) and traveling Israel daily to provide for the needs, simcha and comfort of soldiers, their families, widows, orphans and anyone in need.

Our group sponsored a large barbecue for IDF soldiers at the Golani lookout point, a large field alongside the dirt road leading directly into Gaza, less than a mile away. IDF military vehicles carrying soldiers coming directly from missions inside Gaza continuously pulled up, providing us with the privilege of hugging, dancing with, feeding and thanking them. The mesirus nefesh (selfless self-sacrifice) of the young soldiers was deeply impactful.

We then visited Kibbutz Be’eri and witnessed firsthand the haunting sights and smells that remain from the horrific carnage. Seeing the burnt out houses, charred personal mementos and belongings that remain, as well as the spray painted signs outside houses left by the heroes of Zaka (the organization that conducts true chesed shel emet in searching disaster sites for remains and ensuring proper burial). elicited a flow of tears.

Our emotional strings were further tugged when we listened to, cried with and sang with a young man who lived in the kibbutz and shared his emotional story of the events of Oct. 7 and the deaths of several of his immediate family members. We concluded with a heartfelt visit to Re’im, the now well-known site of the massacre that took place at the Nova music festival.

The author with his sons and with Teaneck’s own Arik Nagel of the IDF’s Golani Brigade (center) and Shai Graucher.

 

The remaining days of our trip were spent visiting yeshivot learning with and from some of the most well-known Torah personalities, including from the world of international Jewish outreach. Bookending our trip with Torah learning and interacting with Jewish souls heroically reshaping their lives along the paths of their personal Jewish journeys was immensely uplifting.

Inspired by a country and a people completely and selflessly devoted heart and soul to Torat Yisrael, Am Yisrael and Medinat Yisrael, I was reminded of the words of former Alabama Gov. Bob Riley who once said: “Hard times don’t create heroes. It is during the hard times when the ‘hero’ within us is revealed.”

The author and his son at Kibbutz Be’eri.

 

Daniel Gibber giving a shiur at Yeshivat Shaalvim.

 

A destroyed home at Kibbutz Be’eri.
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