Israel Matters! – April 2024

Back to Israel

(David Margolis, Guest Columnist)

I was a guest contributor for this column last July where I shared my “Reflections on a First Tour of Israel” following TBS’ May 2023 Israel Trip.  I ended that column with: “On the flight back to the States I knew two things to be true – that I would return to Israel as often as possible, and if I no longer felt safe as a Jew in America I would be welcomed and protected in Israel.  Like Home.”

In August Rabbi Scolnic asked me to speak to the Congregation for the annual Yom Kippur Israel talk about my experience in Israel.  I said I wouldn’t know what to say other than what I had already written for the July Israel Matters column.  He told to just read that piece since few people actually read the Bulletin!

And so, on Yom Kippur, September 25, 2023, I spoke of my experience (I didn’t read that piece) and of my new connection to Israel. I ended my talk much as I had ended that column: “I would return to Israel as often as possible and if I no longer felt safe as a Jew in America I would be welcomed and protected in Israel.” 

And then just twelve days later – October 7, 2023. 

When I spoke those words on Yom Kippur, I had not thought that on October 8th I would wonder – Would I ever return to Israel?  Would I, as a Jew, ever be safe anywhere? Even in Israel?

Over the next couple of months, we all experienced a range of emotions – didn’t we? Outrage. Sadness. Disbelief. Fear. A gutwrenching sense that we were living in 1930’s Germany with waves of anti-Semitism approaching, lapping at our shores, flowing towards our doorposts. I had to shake those thoughts from my head.  Afterall, I was in America. That could never happen here. Or could it? For the first time in my life, I believed it to be true.  It is true. As Dara Horn wrote: People Love Dead Jews.

I felt helpless.  Didn’t we all?  But then my sister, Debbie Epstein called (yes–I have another sister besides Lauren Ortman!). Would I go with her on a Jewish National Fund working mission? JNF had organized 4-day volunteer missions to Israel to fill some of the jobs vacated by Israeli IDF Reservists who had been called up. So, I thought about it for all of two seconds before replying with a resounding YES! When? Details? It was now early December and the thought of traveling to Israel just months since returning last May energized me. I wanted to go NOW, but the soonest we could schedule was for one of the February weeks. So, we registered for the February 11th mission, purchased our El Al airline tickets and waited. I closely followed the news out of Israel, and prayed the mission would not get canceled with an escalation of the war. 

Up until February 11th of this year I had spent all of 13 days of my 67 years in Israel. Yet, in anticipation of this Mission I felt as though I was returning home. The words I wrote and spoke months before were true.

Our flight was out of Newark the night of February 10th.  While at the gate to board we spoke with a young woman in the line in front of us.  We learned she was from New Jersey and had made Aliyah 12 years ago.  She was heading home, anxious to return as she had felt somewhat uneasy during her time in the States visting family.  But then she said she felt sorry for us.  She explained, Israel was now unified against a common enemy, all the past differences were put aside while in America Jews were subject to increasing levels of anti-Semitism.  When we told her of our plans in Israel, she thanked us.  It was the first of the many Thank-You’s we would hear form Israelis over the next several days. Deeply Sincere Thank-You’s.

We landed on Sunday afternoon, February 11th. Upon arriving at Ben Gurion airport, it was obvious the focus in Israel was on the Hostages. That was to be a constant all week.  We then transferred from the airport with several other JNF volunteers to the hotel in Tel Aviv, our base for the week. Then to Dinner. Orientation. And Sleep.

By 7:00 Monday morning we were on our buses for the drive towards the Gaza border to pick lemons in Moshov Shokeda.  We were 100+ strong and we picked lemons for hours.  It was hard work; I never knew lemon trees had thorns nor did they relinquish their fruit so willingly! When we had finished, we had picked over 7 tons of lemons.  Believe me – that’s a lot of lemons.  (I will never complain about the price of lemons in the grocery store again. NEVER!)

We met with the farmer and one of his daughters, the 3rd generation to cultivate this land.  I should mention, as we picked the fruit, we could hear mortar explosions coming from Gaza.  We were then shown one of the many crude explosive devices shot over the past few months onto this land

From Shokeda we traveled to Be’er Sheva to see the re-opened new campus of Muss South High School with funding from JNF.  We spent part of the afternoon in the school gymnasium packing care packages to deliver the next night at dinner with soldiers who would be enjoying an evening off base at the Swords of Iron-The A Team.

After we finished packing 250 boxes, we traveled further south and arrived shortly before dusk at the site of the Re’im Nova Music Festival Massacre.  When we were given our itinerary for the day the night before I knew we were going to the site, but I thought we’d just be driving through the area.  I had not expected that we were going to stop and walk the grounds.  The very moment I stepped off the bus and saw the fields of posters and memorials all around I wept.

I’ve never been to a Death Camp but as I walked these hollowed grounds I wondered if the overwhelming emotions I felt was what it must feel like to stand in Auschwitz-Birkenau.  But here we were just 4 months removed from the massacre. I turned around and around and could see there had been nowhere for the 364 to run – no safe shelter from the Hamas savages. Their pictures seemed alive-whispering, “Remember me, remember us, tell the World” – as I walked past.

As the sun was setting our group gathered to recite The Mourners Kaddish: Yis’ga’dal v’yis’kadash *BOOM* Y’hay shmay rabbo *BOOM* Oseh sholom bimromov *BOOM* Blasts so close the ground shook from the sound of 155mm mortars shot into Gaza.  We stood in silence for a few moments and then boarded the buses for the solemn ride back to Tel Aviv.

On day 2 we spent the morning painting buildings and planting flowers at Kibbutz Gvulot. We then had lunch in the Kibbutz dining hall with the residents. My group had painted the Kibbutz’ original dining hall to be renovated as the museum for Kibbutz Gvulot’s artifacts. That day was also the first day the High School students returned to classes on the Kibbutz since October 7th.

We ended the day with a visit to Soroka Hospital where the first victims of the October 7th massacre were brought.  We met with doctors who treated many of the 600+ patients brought to Soroka that day.

We left early the next morning and traveled to one of the IDF’s transport bases.  We cleaned and painted rows and rows of trucks.  At first, I thought it seemed a bit silly and meaningless to do what we were doing until I learned these trucks had just returned from Gaza ferrying supplies to the IDF.  So that dirt and grim we wiped and painted over was Gaza dirt. That felt like something. 

When I registered for this JNF mission I wondered if the brief 4-5 days I would be in Israel would be of any benefit – of any real help.  By the end of the 2nd day of work I felt fulfilled.  I truly felt what we were doing was meaningful and that it was appreciated by the Israeli citizens and soldiers.

During the TBS Israel trip last May we took in the Graffiti Tour of Old Tel Aviv.  This time I had an opportunity to revist the Florentin section of Tel Aviv to view all the new graffiti inspired by October 7 Hamas attack. So much of the landscape had changed in the last 9 months. There was one entire street filled with murals of the kidnapped children, pleading for their release. Happily, most were freed soon after the murals were completed. Again, the focus in Israel is on freeing the hostages – unlike the rest of the world, it seems.

Our final day began with a visit to Hostage Square, located on the public plaza in front of the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, considered to be the “Epicenter of the movement to #BringThemHomeNow.”  Dozens and dozens of people walked silently among the many displays.

Our final day began with a visit to Hostage Square, located on the public plaza in front of the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, considered to be the “Epicenter of the movement to #BringThemHomeNow.”  Dozens and dozens of people walked silently among the many displays.

We then traveled to the Ben Shemen  Forest in Mevo Modi’in to plant trees in memory of those killed on October 7th. I carried this card with me all week and planted my tree to honor Yochai Azulai’s memory.

Our final destination before heading to the airport for our late night flight home was a visit to the Kotel.  We were fortunate to be there to witness the the new soldiers arriving to receive their berets as part of their Swearing in Ceremony. 

During the long flight home I had time to reflect with my sister on the past 4 days. Debbie and I were glad to have been able to offer some support to Israel during this time of War.  We felt a little less helpless and planned to share our experience with others back home.  Unfortunately, just days after arriving back in Connecticut, Hamden, my hometown, The Town Council scheduled a hearing to vote on a resolution calling for an immediate ceasefire.  This resolution was and is “divisive, misleading and inflammatory and irrelevant to local governance,” (to quote Gayle Slossberg, JFGNH’s CEO and a member of TBS.) I attended the Town hearing along with 100 other members of our Jewish Community and found myself back in that place where I had been immediately after October 7th – Outraged. Sad. Fearful. Was this our 1939 Germany?

A friend at the meeting asked about my visit to Israel and welcomed me home.

I replied, “I feel as though I have left home and want to go back, back to Israel.