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BJ in Israel: Reflections from our Rabbis and Members

Rabbis Roly Matalon and Felicia Sol are leading almost 50 BJ members on a trip to Israel to visit our partners and shared society organizations, witness the devastation of October 7, and meet with the survivors and family members of hostages.

Here’s their most recent video update.

Explore additional videos, photos, and reflections from participants below:


By Carole Balin      

BRING THEM HOME NOW! הלב שלנו שבוי בעזה 

In the 117 days since October 7, I’ve read the message hundreds of times in and around New York City: BRING THEM HOME NOW! My breath catches — in and out — each time I notice the signs picturing a man, a woman, or a child held hostage in Gaza. The bloodred lettering is chilling, and familiar by now. Initiated by the Hostages and Missing Families Forum, a group formed in Israel by the loved ones of those abducted less than 24 hours after the horrific attack by Hamas, the posters are like a sucker punch to the gut for this American Jew who loves ארץ ישראל (the Land of Israel) and whose heart yearns to be in the East, as the medieval poet Yehuda-HaLevi expressed while in the West. 

Seven days ago, when I disembarked from El Al Flight #10 from JFK to Ben Gurion to join BJ’s solidarity mission, the same inflamed rallying cry shouted at me from on high. No traveler to Israel can miss the massive banner unfurled across the welcome hall at the airport in Tel Aviv: BRING THEM HOME NOW! No pair of eyes can ignore the long entry foyer flanked by posters with the same faces that stare at us on Broadway. 

As I walked through the welcome hall, I glanced at the Hebrew side of the banner, expecting to read the same declarative message translated into the ancient tongue. But it was not to be. Instead the banner reads in Hebrew הלב שלנו שבוי בעזה, which translates into English as “our heart is captive in Gaza.” My breath caught — in and out. 

For the first time since October 7, my heart settled in the East, and I felt less alone. Please, God, who frees the captive, bring them home.


By Vitina Biondo

I have always found Shabbat in Israel to be special. This past Shabbat was not just special but extraordinary.

It was an honor and incredibly moving to attend Kabbalat Shabbat services at Hostage Square (Kikar Ha’Hatufim) in Tel Aviv with BJ’s partners from Beit Tefilah Yisraeli. Held in a tent due to rain, we joined family members of hostages and community members and were surrounded by posters of the hostages, and deeply felt their presence. The service was soulful with beautiful melodies and songs.

The walk back to the hotel gave us an opportunity to get to know one another better and to form an even stronger BJ community bond. Tel Aviv does not seem to be the bustling and lively city that I remembered from previous trips. It seems quieter and subdued with reminders of the hostages everywhere—posters at bus stops; huge electronic screens in store windows; large stuffed teddy bears, each with a different hostage photo, on the benches that line Dizengoff Street; and “BRING THEM HOME” in large, lit-up letters atop the Charles Bronfman Auditorium. Israeli flags fly from many residential and commercial buildings.

After Havdalah, many of us attended the weekly rally at Hostage Square in support of the return of the hostages. The rain was not a deterrent to the large crowd that gathered to listen to family members of hostages speak, urging the safe and immediate return of their loved ones.

Frankly, I was anxious about visiting Israel during this time of war. Thank goodness I didn’t succumb to my fears or I would be missing this incredible experience.


The Situation

By Chris Reid

“The Situation.” That’s the term. The Situation. Not the war. 

And the “thank you’s” (“todah rabah”). Countless times being told how we were appreciated for coming, for being in Israel, for listening, for bearing witness. And yet: Israel and Israelis seem fragile—fearful even—as the core assumptions of the country were shattered. The storm windows, the gates, the doors lie shattered on the ground. 

I pick up and look at a few of the shards; there are some bright glimmers of hope. 

Poetry: We studied six recent poems with Rachel Korazim, all written in response to October 7 and the days that followed. Tough images, beautiful language, sharply defined; Rachel showing us how the change of a single letter in the Hebrew played different notes of meaning. 

BJ’s Israeli Partners: Chen Tzfoni, Sarah Shadmi, and Roni Jaeger described a theme that was underscored again and again. The government was absent during the first days, which necessitated the players in the civic space to step forward. 

Women Leadership – Bonot Alternativo: Three members of the leadership team took us through the pivot they made on October 7 from a national protest movement to one immediately dedicated to caring for thousands of evacuees across the state. One came away with a sense of a powerful organization whose strengths can and will be used in the political as well as civic space. 

Brothers in Arms: Many of us remember the demonstrations that started last year around this time. Brothers in Arms was integral to those. They, too, pivoted on October 7, establishing an extraordinary set of programs ranging from creating clothes washing centers for the evacuees in Eilat and the Dead Sea to establishing over 80 kindergartens. More recently, they’ve organized volunteers to clean and make ready schools and other buildings in Sderot. Brothers in Arms, too, are likely to return to a political role. 

Hostages and Missing Families Center: How many hearts were broken, and how those broken hearts are brought every day to bear witness, to shame, to seek aid, to take every step possible to bring those still held home. YESTERDAY!  

Time and again we heard that Israel has to be rebuilt. That trust in the society, trust in government, and rebuilding a sense of wholeness has to happen and may be possible by leveraging the extraordinary resources represented by these groups that we were honored to meet. 

 


Sunday Observations

By Elizabeth Cohen

On Sunday the group encountered an emotional tsunami of personal stories from an amazing group of Israelis.

The day began with presentations by long-standing Israeli friends of BJ who made special trips to see us: Sarale Shadmi and Chen Tzfoni, formerly of Hamidrasha (plus Chen was a BJ fellow), and Rani Jaeger of the Hartman Institute.

Each is doing holy and heroic work to help their clients and neighbors deal with the overwhelming trauma of October 7 but, painfully, each always carriesd the feeling that they should be doing more.

Both Sarale and Rani stated that on October 7 they felt an immediate, real fear of an invasion of their own cities in Israel and had a frightening sense of physical danger. Rani reported that this feeling was only dissipated by Biden’s speech after October and his deployment of two aircraft carriers to the region. While I may have read that Israelis were grateful to Biden, it was moving to directly hear from someone how deep the emotional power Biden’s words had.

The three partners described being in a heightened state of emergency for the first few months after October 7. The intensity of that state has lessened somewhat now, but none of them has found such a thing as a new normal. The future seems very uncertain.

We also heard powerful presentations from the directors of Bonot Alternativa, the leading women’s rights group in Israel, as well as from one of the leaders of Ahim La’neshek (Brothers in Arms), which has provided support in Israel, primarily to displaced families. Both organizations exemplify the resilience of civil society in taking care of its people in the absence of government support.

The last stop of the day included the privilege of hearing personal stories of three people with family members who are hostages in Gaza. It’s hard to find adjectives to describe the impact of a father saying that whenever he stops to have something to eat he wonders what his son is eating or if he has food at all.

The family members pressed us to tell the stories of the hostages to others, to pressure our lawmakers to help in any way possible to bring them home, and to donate to Bring Them Home Now.

We could not have heard such powerful testimonies and stories without the richness of BJ’s connections to partners and friends in Israel. For this, I am especially grateful.


Day 2.5

By Shira Fernandes

My responsibility to find words

Bonot Alternativa

I heard it from almost every person that I have this far come into contact with: thank you for being here.

Now, again I hear those words.

How could such a brave group of activists, successful & generative women feel grateful for our coming to Israel? I feel unworthy as a mere witness to their abilities, palpable pain—trauma as we heard so many times already.

We heard the repeated statement:

I have no words. 

Slipping into despair. 

Resigning to having no action.

I was brought back to present.

In listening I heard the message in a clear statement: 

“Engage” with yourselves,

with everyone,

not just those with whom you agree.

“Not just my,” Israeli story.

Keep the conversation alive.

One of the reasons we made this journey: Listen to what they need from us.

(Bonot Alternativa came onto the protest scene in reaction to the current Israeli government’s proposed judicial/democratic reform. They formed a network of women and supported one another in entering leadership roles in all aspects of Israeli society.

Then the Hamas massacre shattered the collective country’s (illusion?) pride and sense of self: moral light, strength, and intelligence.

Within hours, Bonot Alternative put political action aside and turned their resources to the hostages. They believe that bringing the hostages home is critical for the country to even begin healing, and they continue to pressure the Israeli government and the world to prioritize hostage release.)

Ahim La’neshekBrothers (& Sisters) in Arms

Volunteers rock.

Engagement takes many forms.

Something for everyone.

I have tremendous gratitude for the many layers of our BJ community opportunities to practice social tikkun. In doing so I build muscles for the climb out of my safe place.

Civil service, civic duty, pride in we, who is holding that hostage?

Another reminder that it is not enough to pay taxes, vote, focus on our own families and not intend to hurt others.

What makes someone run into a burning building?

One good deed does seem to bring another.

We, we, we but who is “we”?

I have to find that word.

(Ahim La’neshek, or Brothers (& Sisters) in Arms, also began as a political activist group that pivoted on October 7. In the complete absence of government action, they expanded actions. They established a command center and now provide support and basic needs, including clothing and schools for the displaced. 

As the government begins to show up, Ahim La’neshek is morphing yet again. They are modeling a revolution of societal tikkun, holding a vision of a society in which Jews around the world are proud.)

Hostages & Missing Families Forum

The visceral landing of these voices, like the broken shards cutting through my self-consciousness. Questions of worthiness to carry the Israeli message. It is not about me finding the right words. The vulnerability and pain from the hearts of these brothers and sisters will not be contained now that they have pierced my heart.

I have a voice to keep the stories alive even if the physical life of the hostages is unknown. I have a voice to demand that the hostage release take priority. To reach beyond my arms and community to politicians, local and federal. To our president and press. Will I fulfill my potential? My obligation? Will I fully utilize my only weapon?

These strong-beyond-understanding family members bring into focus for me that there is no victory without the return of our abducted family members. Until they are home healing, Israel cannot begin to do so. 

Being here it moves from intellectual to realization for me, why I had found myself ready for the “next steps.” I don’t own the trauma, I can put it down when I weary. 

I give myself full permission to move into the pain & own my family and the urgency of getting my mother, father, sister, brother, cousin…back home now!

(We were blessed to be brought into the hearts and souls of families of those lost, missing, and taken hostage on October 7.)


By Ilene Lainer

Day two was tough to absorb. Israelis are struggling to process their loss. Loss of loved ones, loss of safety, loss of trust.  

They feel grief caused by the Hamas attack and they feel abandoned by their own government. As one woman said, “The government vanished, the world vanished, our friends vanished.…” Pain, shock, and disappointment are abundant.  

How do we respond in the face of this?

Just over a year ago a group of Israeli citizens, led by former military officers, formed to protest the looming failures of the Israeli government. They are called “Brothers in Arms.” We met with them at their headquarters.  

Hours after the October 7 attack, while the Israeli government was frozen, Brothers in Arms pivoted from a civil protest organization to a civil militia and humanitarian aid organization. They dispatched retired military, friends and neighbors, and anyone with a car and a gun, and sent them to where people were hiding, texting, and trapped. Over 1,000 people were saved due to their efforts. 

Later, Brothers in Arms realized that in the south 60,000 people in the south were displaced because Hamas had destroyed their homes or had made it unsafe to remain. Nearly 200,000 more became refugees from the north and other regions of the country. They lacked basic human essentials…food, baby supplies, clothing. 

Donations from Israeli citizens poured in without request. An Amazon-like distribution center was created by Brothers in Arms overnight and volunteers boxed and marked essentials. Anyone who was willing to drive was dispatched to deliver aid. 

Brothers in Arms is comprised of CEOs of major tech giants, entrepreneurs, and everyday citizens. They joined together without rank or hierarchy and did what their neighbors needed and what the government failed to do.  

The following is a picture of bulletproof vests they privately sourced and paid for. They called pilots around the world and had people and supplies flown in. Brothers in Arms is an overnight citizen operation of enormous proportions. Truly inspiring!

I could go on, but the point is that the future is in the hands of those who pay attention to it. The Israeli citizens mobilized to fill in where the Netanyahu government failed. Their war is an abject lesson of what can happen when we don’t pay attention and what good can result when we engage and pull together.  The parallels to the United States are striking.  

I cannot possibly express the emotions I felt when we met with three hostage families. Their sorrow, strength, and resilience are a testament to their community and love. As one widow said, “I don’t have the luxury of grieving as long as one Israeli is held hostage.”   

The photo below is of a father describing his joy at hearing his daughter and granddaughters were not taken on October 7 while his son was dragged away as a captive. He has remained there for 114 days and they still await his return. The many faces of human emotion were stirring. 


Unlucky

By Mel Berger

Dozens of girls

Born of joy

Brought together

By chance

By assignment

By schedule

By duty

To watch

To warn

To be ignored

Dozens of women

Brought together

To be raped and slaughtered

To be unlucky

Twenty One Boys

Born of Joy

Brought Together

At a time and place

Where they were ordered

Some were older

Some were younger

Some were lifers

Some just duty-bound

Twenty One men brought together

To blow a building….

Now names read out loud at Kaddish time

Faces on a wall

Bodies in the ground

Because they got unlucky

Hundreds of people

Together in joy

Together in nature

Together by birth

Together by choice

Together by common purpose

Hope for what could be

Some could not yet walk

Some could no longer walk

They all leaned left

But

They fell all ways

When they got unlucky

Four friends

Together in joy

To a concert went

Of love and peace

Of weed I’m sure

Till the terrorists came

And the guns rang out

Two ran left

Two ran right

Two were shot

Two were not

Two were taken

With other hundreds

Who would live

Who would die

Who would walk out

Who would be helped out

Who would be carried out

Mothers wait

Fathers wait

Husbands wait

Children wait

Brothers and sisters wait

A Nation waits

The world waits

What is their fate?

The angels looked down

With wonder and worry

But only god knows

Who will be unlucky