It was watching that lovely sixteen-year-old with both legs in bandages, struggling to take a few painful steps down the hallway of the hospital in Tel Aviv with her walker that got to me first. There I was last Monday afternoon, the first of four intense days in Israel on a “Fact Finding Solidarity Mission” with a handful of lay leaders from the Jewish Federation of Los Angeles, watching her courage and trying to hold back the tears. We were visiting at the time with nine remarkably brave teenagers who had survived the horrific terrorist suicide bombing just one month ago at the popular teen disco on the beach in Tel Aviv called The Dolphenarium.
Twenty-one laughing, bubbling teenagers died that night in the bombing, and scores more were wounded. These nine with whom we were visiting, were the ones still left in the hospital to struggle painfully each day with their physical therapy and figure out how to face a lifetime coping with the emotional scars of that traumatic night. Every one was a recent immigrant from Russia, and every one had a best friend who died that night at the Dolphenarium.
And perhaps the greatest irony of all, was that everywhere we went this past week in Israel, and every single person with whom we met greeted us with overwhelming gratitude and thanks, showering us with praise “for being brave enough to come and be with us.” From cab drivers to the President of Tel Aviv University, to the mayor of Tel Aviv, to the Prime Minister of Israel, every single one kept telling us that we were courageous, that we were brave.
But each of us knew the truth. Each of us shook our heads, looked at the empty shopping malls and tourist hotels and knew, they who lived here every day, who held up the torch of Jewish civilization in the ancient land of Jewish civilization’s birth, they were the brave ones, they were the ones with courage. All we did was visit for a few days and leave.
It was talking with those kids that set the tone for our entire trip. To hear them thank us for coming to see them. This sweet young girl in broken English thanked me for bringing them the message that Jews all over the world are with them, care about them, ache for their childhood that were stolen away, cry for every child senselessly murdered or maimed.
I couldn’t hold back my own tears then, or at other times in those four packed days every time we met with other high school children and heard them speak of their dreams for peace, their dreams of growing up to make a difference in the world and living proudly as Jews in a Jewish country.
On Thursday afternoon, the last day of our trip, I met the daughter of one of the community leaders from LA who was in Israel on a Camp Ramah program. She had just come from visiting the concentration camps in Poland and had arrived the day before in Israel. When all was said and done, it was Stacy more than even meeting with the Prime Minister himself that had the most powerful effect on me.
Here was another sixteen-year-old Jewish teenager, but this one was from America and her life experiences and perspective are obviously quite different from the Russian immigrants. She had just come back from visiting the Western Wall and her eyes filled with tears as she reflected on how this trip had changed her life already: “I walked into the gas chamber at Auschwitz,” she said. “But then I walked out again. All I kept thinking was how many Jews like me walked into that chamber to die with the words of the Shema on their lips. How many of them lived each day in that camp praying with all their hearts for the dream of being able to come to the land of Israel and pray in front of the Western Wall. And here I was today, fulfilling their dreams. I can’t tell you how lucky I feel to have the privilege and responsibility of being a Jew.”
“Mah tovu ohalekha Yaakov, mishkenotekha Yisrael” – “How beautiful are your tents O Jacob, your dwelling places O Israel,” it says in this week’s Torah portion. In the Torah this blessing was spoken by a non-Jew who was hired to curse the Israelites, but upon seeing their encampment and how they opened their tents to each other, all he could do was recite words of blessing.
I thought of this verse all week – every time we were thanked, every time we were embraced as family, every time we felt once again the undeniable bond of the Jewish people no matter where we live. The Midrash says that this blessing from the Torah is an omen – that throughout history, whenever the Jewish people stand together as one, when our dwelling places are linked together in one community, then the non-Jewish world will be forced to say, “How beautiful are your tents O Jacob.” And that was the lesson I was reminded of all this week in Israel – that we really are one.