In Their Own Words - Solidarity Trip to Israel
The following are two personal accounts of an incredible experience that seventy community members recently took part in. As guests of the Friends of the Israeli Defense Forces, the men spent time on an Israeli army base, touring hospitals to meet with terror victims and most importantly - to represent the community by showing their solidarity with Israel.
Special thanks to Elliot Horowitz for his submissions, as well as his assistance in the gathering of information for the article.
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Images of Grandeur
By Rabbi Ezra Labaon
An image can capture an emotion, a thought, a piece of eternity. Seventy men in seven days experienced multiple images and secured a piece of eternity for themselves.
From Saturday evening May 17th until Saturday evening May 24th sixty seven men and three Rabbis decided to throw in their lot with the Israel Defense Force. We needed to show the IDF that they were not alone, that there were Jews world over that empathized with their plight, that we under stood the difficult conditions - almost impossible - of a soldier's daily life. Consider the tense feeling of living life moment to moment, of realizing how quickly life threatening situations develop, of waiting for the next bomb to explode, of the next sniper to shoot, of the next mor tar shell to drop, of the next order to kill (or suffer the consequences). The well oiled - soldier is ready to obey all orders and defend his country and yet he pays a psychological price for this readiness. We hoped that our presence, as short as it was, would lift the spirit and ease the burden.
We first traveled to the largest Army tank base in the deep south (Shezafone), and then to a small out post on the northern boarder of Israel (Rosh Pinah). We brought song (great job Jack Azar), dance, prayer and tons of empathy We visited hospitals, planted trees, and brought food to the poor. We painted tanks (good show Rabbi Elnecave), folded tents, and prepared dinner for 300 soldiers (schnitzel! ?!) There were many emotional moments, and many memories recorded - many images remain with each and every one of the seventy.
What should we speak about? Is planting trees in memory of fallen soldiers - in a forest donated by our own community - worthy of mention? Or perhaps we should note our tank base commander's final words of shalom (goodbye). - "Tomorrow morning we pull out to restore order in Gaza - the suicide bomb in Jerusalem this morning demands our response." We understood that r"l some of the soldiers we befriended may not return. How bizarre! Most of us had eighteen, nineteen, and twenty year old children. They were finishing up their college programs or vacationing in the sun after a long hard year. These soldiers were off to defend their country - our country - and risk their lives. I walked away from the commander's word saddened and with deep seeded anger. Those who force these youngsters to be part of this never ending struggle of life and death are evil. To me they represented an image of evil - writ large.
This image intensified as we visited the hospital for wounded soldiers in Haifa. Soldier after soldier, men and women hobbling around with all sorts of wounds - not easy to watch. Our job was to donate a pint of blood and attempt to lift the spirits of those fortunate enough to be "only" wounded. It wasn't as difficult as I expected. The soldier I visited, Eitan, was in good spirits. As a tank commander he had seen much, but was lightly wounded and would be going home soon. We had some thing in common. Yesterday, I experienced my first tank and drove a huge bulldozer (used to clear the way for the tanks in various military operations). We spoke of his life and mine - very different. His most difficult question was, "why aren't you making aliyah?" He skeptically greeted my answer with a polite smile. I suspect that he wasn't all that convinced. Neither was I. As I was about to leave, Eitan grabbed my arm and asked me to wait a few more moments. He hobbled back to his room and returned a few minutes later. Eitan handed me his tank commander's patch and said, "Now we are both tank commanders." I was moved to tears.
Visiting The Yitzchak Rabin Peace Memorial motivated us to pray more intensely for peace. The inspiring words of Rabbi Besser on this occasion, as on every other occasion, put this matter in proper perspective. We were challenged by Yitzchak Rabin's vision of peace, only to have his vision shattered by an assassin's bullet. But this idealistic vision was tempered by the reality of Arab hatred. Here the image of visiting paraplegic soldiers and seeing the splattered blood of victims of Arab terror took center stage.
But there is one other image that pushed aside all of the other images that were captured. As we walked to the bus, after visiting the hospital, an elderly Yemenite woman rushed towards me, holding an assortment of trees and Israeli flags. Wearing a sum mer white dress - it was at least 100 degrees - dirt stains were evident. Intrigued, I asked her about the small trees she was carrying and planting around the hospital complex. She explained that her grandfather, a great "Mekubal", had come from Yemen 125 years ago. He had great visions of greeting the Mashiah. But her father, who passed to the next world sometime in the 1930s, told her that Mashiah will only come when enough Jews come to settle the Yehuda, and Shomron area (Mashiah is to come from Efrat - I was told) and that these Jews must plant trees. When enough Jews come, and enough trees are planted, Mashiah will come. She has spent the last 60 years planting thousands of trees throughout the length and breadth of Israel- but especially in Yehuda and Shomron - to bring Mashiah. Her simple words convinced me that Mashiah will come when enough Jews come and enough trees are planted.
We completed our assigned task. We established close ties with IDF - though with some soldiers more than othcrs. We hoped that we touched their hearts, as they touched ours. After our final barbecue and snack, we asked the base commander how we can help, we need to do more. The answer was as direct as it was simple. "Come again and bring others." We replied, we will, but we want to do still more. "We could use a pool - the summers in the Negev are bru tally hot". DONE! We raised the money in ten minutes (thank you Jack Mann for this chesed opportunity). By now I have the image of hundreds of IDF solders splashing childlike in their new pool.
The seven days were eventful and meaningful. We experienced and learned that the soldier's life is a difficult one: tense and monotonous. Endless hours at the shooting range; tank maneuvers (which we witnessed early- very early - one morning); long hikes and drills (we completed a 2 1/2 mile hike - late one night); and with the ever present feeling that tomorrow may be the day we spring into action - at Jenin, Nablus, or Gaza. Tomorrow I may kill or be killed - an ever present thought.
We thought we understood, but really we didn't. Even our experience at the range and the laser war games were silly compared ib the real. We will return.
Blessed is He who granted m the miracle of Israel.
Blessed is He who preserves the health and vigor of those who protect the Holy Land.
Blessed is He who blesses His nation with strength and peace.
Rabbi Ezra Labaton is Rabbi of Alagen David Synagogue of West Deal.
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Don't Call Me a Hero
By Dr. Joseph Wahba
Once again, I spent a week in mid-May with approximately 70 other men serving in the Israeli army I was one of the 'veterans on this trip I was fortunate enough to join the inaugural mission last year when we spent a week on Julis army base working on tanks and sorting gas mask components.
This year we were guests of the FIDF (Friends of the Israeli Defense Forces). Most of us were from Brooklyn or Deal. We were businessmen, professionals, rabbis, retirees and students. We slept six to a room, some on bunk beds. The rooms were air-conditioned this year, though. Like a college dormitory community showers and toilets were down the hail. We dressed in Israeli army uniforms and "played~ the part of soldiers - complete with mock training exercises, a night hike in the desert and firing M-16 rifles with live ammunition. We dedicated a computer room at a rehabilitation hospital where only soldiers are treated. We met with victims of terror and ordinary citizens. Shaul Mofaz, the Minister of Defense, spoke to our group. We donated blood. We hosted a dinner for "lone soldiers" - soldiers serving in the IDF who have no family in Israel. My wife would certainly be offended if I left out our three-night stay at the King David Hotel in Jerusalem.
The trips were spectacular. Unfortunately, mere words cannot fully convey the experience; neither can my 150 photographs of the week. Each trip was unique even from the other. I even find it difficult describing to friends who came last year but not this year how the trips differed.
When I returned home to New York - both times - I was showered with compliments from family and friends, from my office staff and from my patients and their families (I am a pediatrician). What a great sacrifice I had made. I took time off from work - during the very busy "camp form" sea son, no less - to go on a solidarity trip for Israeli soldiers. Not seeing patients meant no billing, which meant: no income for the week. How honorable of me. What a selfless deed I performed. But you know what, and I say - or write - this with all sincerity and conviction, I do not feel I did much worthy of extended praise at all! I feel it was my duty to go and show my appreciation to Tzahal - the Jewish armed forces who, by defending Israel, are actually protecting me and Jews around the world.
In Parashat Matot, we are told that at the end of their 40 years in the desert, the tribes of Reuven and Gad had amassed "very large herds." Therefore they asked Moshe to be permitted to settle on the eastern shore of the Jordan River - outside of Israel - where it was grassy, rather than accompany the other tribes and live in Israel. They were too well-to-do to take aliyah seriously (sound familiar?). The tribes men of Reuven and Gad used polite and humble language in their request: "If we have 'found favor in your eyes, let this land be given to your servants as a possession. Do not bring us over the Jordan."
Moshe though bluntly and poignantly replied - and this rings in my ears - "Should your brothers go out to war while you sit here?" This is a harsh and piercing statement. Sure, we American Jews give money to Israel and it's vital, but Israelis give their blood for the country Rabbi Meir Bar ilan once said, "When an Israeli Jew gives his blood for his people, he gives into the last drop; is there an American Jew who would give to his last dollar?" Moreover, when Israeli parents send their child into battle, it hurts them very much. Is there an American Jew who would give until it hurts?
Soldiers we met endure months of training and months of loneliness and boredom on patrols. Soldiers told us that national policy is not their business as soldiers. What is their business is how they carry out the government's policies - with sensitivi to respect, understanding and reasonableness - not sadism. I gave up a week and some billing, but I knew I'd soon be back in my own comfortable home in New York. Soldiers give up three years of prime early adulthood to serve in the army and at least one month each year after that for reserve duty They get paid approximately $100.00 a month in the army. They give up their lives.
To me, spending this week with the army and patronizing Israeli hotels, restaurants, stores and cab drivers was an obligation, not an act of hesed. G-d willing, my wife and I and our five children will be spending Succot in Israel. Israel needs our support and our physical presence. Last year, I spoke about our army trip to the fourth and fifth grades of the Yeshivah of Flatbush. The principal, Rabbi Schwed, who was one of my teachers in high school, called me a "hero," ... I'm no hero. The citizens of Israel, the soldiers, are heroes.
Dr. Joseph Wahba is a pediatrician practicing in both Brooklyn and New Jersey.
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