April 14, 2024
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Israel During Crisis: Finding Unity in Darkness

Despite the fact that the tragic events of Simchat Torah, Oct. 7 introduced such pain and sorrow to the Jewish people, the outpouring of love, support and action from Jews all over the world has been unparalleled. The Jewish people have responded, as Jews often do, with a question: “How?” “How can I help?” “How can I make a difference?”

In Israel, the nation has come together in a way that has not been seen in decades. There is no doubt in my mind that if I were to ask anyone to put pen to paper (or finger to keyboard) and compile a list of the chesed and giving opportunities they encountered last week, they could easily list 20, 30, even 50 stories of volunteerism and love. There seems to be no limit to the incredible and heartwarming stories of amazing acts of kindness and unity. Three examples of chesed particularly stand out in my mind from last week:

First, hundreds of Jews have returned to Israel to respond to the call for reservists and to see how they can help their brothers and sisters. Within Israel, so many of those not called up to join the army have sought ways to aid in Israel’s defense in any way they can. I just read an amazing story posted by an IDF commander: Upon being permitted to send some chayalim out for a short break to visit their families, he approached one of the men and said, “Go home to your wife and kids. Take a break for a day and come back tomorrow.”

The soldier responded, “My wife and kids are fine. I’m fine. We’re doing ok. Put me at the bottom of the list and give that guy over there the break, not me.” The commander went to the man he had pointed to, and that chayal responded, “I don’t need to go. I’m a single guy, with no wife or kids waiting for me. Put me at the bottom of the list. That guy over there has a family, offer him the chance to go home.” Each soldier the commander approached responded in the same way. In his post, the commander shared that the soldiers’ response reminded him of the midrash that describes two brothers who loved each other so much that they kept adding crops to the other one’s pile. As the midrash goes, the space between the brothers’ fields is the place where the Beit Hamikdash was built.

The second example features the incredible hospitality of the Jewish people. Entire communities are making dinners for the mothers and children whose husbands and fathers have joined the reserves. So many companies have made it their business to get delicious food to the soldiers on the front lines. Several non-kosher restaurants even went to the trouble of making their kitchens kosher so that they could prepare food for both religious and non-religious soldiers. People have opened their homes to take in evacuees from the north and south. Many living overseas have also lent their apartments to evacuees. I’ve heard of contractors giving entire projects of almost finished houses to those in need of places to stay. People from surrounding cities have come to clean and prepare these homes so that they are move-in ready. Many organizations have also equipped dwellings with furniture and appliances so that people can live there comfortably until stability returns to Israel.

The third example highlighting the Jewish people’s support is the hundreds of volunteers who have tied thousands of pairs of camouflaged tzizit for soldiers. Volunteers young and old, from all walks of life and religious affiliations — from ultra to Modern Orthodox — have gathered in yeshivot and synagogues all over Israel to tie thousands of tzitzit to meet the demand of soldiers — some of whom have likely never wore tzitzit before, or at least not recently — who wish to wear tzitzit as part of their uniform.

There are so many more stories to tell; the chesed has truly been endless.

Last week, on behalf of the OU worldwide, I made various stops all over the country as a show of support to our fellow Jews. I attended numerous funerals, including those held by families who had lost two sons. I visited families of lone soldiers who have come to Israel to sit shiva, and advisors from our OU Israel Youth Centers who lost loved ones. I tried to be there for so many of our brothers and sisters who need us now.

One of the most impactful acts of chesed that I witnessed was at Har Herzl. People have set up booths to distribute as many free sandwiches, drinks and snacks as they can to gravesite visitors. Thousands upon thousands of people are coming every single hour to attend funerals and pay their respects, and these teenagers and adults are making sure that everyone has something to eat. Just giving and giving. It was truly a beautiful sight to see.

OU Board of Directors Senior Vice President Henry Orlinksy and I drove to Rosh HaAyin this week to offer condolences to my friend Yair Gabay, who lost his sister in Sderot last week. Yair works as an advisor for the OU Israel Youth Center in Kiryat Gat, and he attended our Makom Balev Youth Center in Sderot since he was in seventh grade. He shared that his family had decided not to sit shiva in their house in Sderot because the many people who wanted to attend would have had to sit in their bomb shelter much of the time. Instead, the family went to his aunt’s house in Rosh HaAyin. Yair also relayed that within hours, the entire community had arranged places for them to relocate to and provided them with everything they could possibly need to ensure they would be as comfortable as possible, even in such a horrible situation. The chesed meant so much to them.

Each time I hear another story about the tremendous chesed occurring now, I feel like looking up and saying, “God, look at the nation of Israel. Look at who we are. This is surely us at our best. Don’t look at how divided we sometimes were in the past or how much we protested against each other. These chesed stories represent our real selves. This is really us, together, united as one.”

I hope and pray that we can hold onto these amazing feelings of unity and remember how much we care for one another, even after we emerge victorious. These stories of chesed, kindness and charity represent our true selves. This is who we are.

The displays of brotherhood are also providing the chayalim and victims’ families with unimaginable strength during these difficult times. Last week I met with youth in the south to offer both emotional and physical support from the OU family in Israel and abroad. They were incredibly touched when I told them that their brothers and sisters from around the world — people whom they have never met before and most probably never will meet — are here for them in solidarity.

This past Shabbat, I led Mussaf in shul. When we reached the prayer for God to protect Israel and our soldiers, it took me five times as long as it normally would to get through it. I completely broke down at the tefillah for God to return those in captivity. God willing, we will see them home, reunited with their families very soon.

Am Yisrael Chai!


Rabbi Avi Berman is the OU Israel (Orthodox Union Israel) executive director.

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