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“We are all so close and at the same time worlds apart.”

Last week, Rabbi Rebecca Weintraub traveled to Israel with several New York area rabbis and Jewish professionals, supported by the UJA Federation of New York and The Jewish Agency. The cohort met with leaders, activists, and families affected by the October 7 terrorist attacks and visited some of those sites. She reflected on her trip in an in-depth conversation with Max Orenstein, BJ’s director of communications and marketing. 

I know you’ve been to Israel before. What were you thinking about this time?

I’ve spent a lot of time in Israel. This was the longest stretch [of not visiting], so I had my own emotional reaction to [generally] being there. But basically since 2005, when I was in Israel for a semester abroad with Ramah Israel, to 2017-18, I was there at least once a year. I also lived there for a gap year after school, and I lived there during rabbinical school for almost a year. When I saw the land, from the airplane, I got choked up. And when we landed, I just started crying. I wasn’t anticipating that reaction. It feels almost cliche, and it took me by surprise. It was just a physical and visceral reaction to being there. I even had the urge to kiss the ground. 

How did it feel different this time? Did it feel different at all?

It was a very short trip. I was actually quite nervous to go. I was very excited and very nervous, and I think that’s a reality of reading things about war in the news, of not actually knowing what the pulse will be. Am I putting myself in danger? We’re going to go down south. What’s that going to feel like? And even that day of going to Kibbutz Be’eri, I felt a buzz in my body, a nervousness. 

Everywhere we went, they would tell us “Just so you know, this is where the mamad [safe room/space] is if you need to run there, you have 90 seconds in Jerusalem or other areas of Israel, you have 15 seconds in the south, or we might not be able to get there, so just drop on the ground and put your hands over your head.” Those are things that weren’t ever mentioned when we would first arrive places at any other time I’ve been in Israel. 

Jerusalem itself felt very empty. This would usually be a big tourist season, potentially with Birthright trips, with college students. Very empty, but not super empty. People are still going out to bars and people are still living life. You also see a lot more soldiers, a lot more uniforms, a lot more guns. And I feel like in a sense, a lot fewer people my age [30s]—a lot of the men are in Miluim [army reserves]. And so just walking around, there’s this strange sense of “people are missing, a large chunk of people.” And then in other ways, I realized as I was leaving that I almost have that post-camp feeling. I feel sad not being there. And I realized how comfortable I felt toward that, that that kind of nervousness about being there pretty much went away by the end of being there. 

For the country itself, a lot of people are out of work. It’s like there’s not a real rhythm in certain senses. Our tour guide who was with us was so grateful—he got choked up as he told us “I can’t really explain what it feels like to be back with a group. I’ve had to work in a bakery because tourism just doesn’t exist in the way that it had.” Things are interrupted in so many ways.

But also Israel’s economy is very dependent on Palestinian workers in a lot of ways. And they’re not getting permits. They’re not allowed to be in Israel, and so the agriculture sector is feeling that, every sector is feeling that. And then you also have Palestinian people who are now not making any money and don’t have an income. They don’t have parnassah [a livelihood], they don’t have anything. So when we went to the Abu Arara family  farm to help pick clementines, they said that Thai workers would fill three huge crates of clementines, just one person, and Palestinians, five massive crates every day. My group of eight of us or so filled one and a half in the span of three hours. It made me think a lot about what our role is as American Jews. Are we really helping when we come to pick clementines? Nadi, one of the owners of the farm, told us that anything we did was helpful even if we weren’t nearly as productive as his team. I think a large part of it was just us showing support and bearing witness to his pain and struggle.   

There are people in Israel with so many different backgrounds, and everyone must be going through something uniquely complicated. Did you hear any stories? 

Nadi Abu Arara is a Muslim-Bedouin Israeli and he has family in Gaza, he also has family members who were killed on October 7th. He said, all these Palestinian workers, they still reach out to him. They’re in a really bad situation. Some of them can’t get food, they don’t have money. And so he sends them money sometimes. There, you see the intersection of all of these pieces that are really complicated. 

Mohammad from Givat Haviva was telling us that his daughter’s in an Israeli university, and there is actually a fear for Palestinian and Arab students on campus in Israel. He told us that she said something in class and all the students started to attack her and said “We should just strap you to a rocket and send you back to Gaza.” And now they’re trying to write a petition to get her kicked out of the school. There’s so much deep hatred, even for Israeli Palestinians who are living in Israel who are Israeli citizens, for Arabs too. Yet, her father woke up the next morning to meet with us and to continue to fight for and build the dream of a shared society. 

Such complex and painful stories. 

We met with Ismail, who is a Bedouin, in Rahat, a Bedouin city in the south. And on October 7th, he and three other family members got a text from a family member who was working at Kibbutz Be’eri in the fields, saying that he was hiding in a ditch in a field with a woman who lived there, Aya. And they were like, Okay, we’re going to come save you. 

So after some debate they jumped in their car, they also knew the back roads—the main road there was shut down at this point because of the terrorists. And on their way there, they came to this kind of small forest and there was another white car there, and they slowly approached it and there was a lot of fear, because terrorists were using white Jeeps and white cars. But they recognized the people in it and they were like, What are you doing here? And they said that there were hundreds of young people running away from a festival and we’re going in and we’re taking them in our car and we’re bringing them to safety.

So as Ismail and his cousins were on their way to save their family member, they stopped for two and a half to three hours. They first told the other white car that the forest was not a good spot to be in, that they needed to go somewhere that’s elevated. And from this elevated spot, they drove back and forth taking young people who were running from the Nova Festival and bringing them to safety. He said he was able to help 30 to 40 people. 

Then he goes into the field to try and get his cousin. After all this, they can’t find each other. It was crazy—his cousin was too scared to even just lift his hand or his head. And Ismail was like, “Well, either you’re going to die and we’re going to find you or we’re all going to die, so just let us find you.” Through a series of texts and pictures, they find their cousin and this woman Aya. They get them into the car. And this is all the backstory, just to get to the part that’s shows that Israeli society is really just so complex and messed up in so many ways. 

As they’re driving, they started approaching the IDF army, who have come to the area to fight the terrorists. Ismael and his cousins are Bedouin and though they speak Hebrew, they speak with very heavy accents, they’re Arabic speakers. And the army sees a white car with Arab men and they all pull their guns out at them. And Ismael starts screaming “Don’t shoot us! We’re saving people. We’ve been doing it for the past three hours. We’re not terrorists.” And the army makes them get out of the car, they lie down on the floor, they have all these guns pointed at them. And Aya, a Jewish Israeli woman, gets out of the car and she starts talking to the military and they start asking her, Are you a captive? Did they do anything to you? And she says no, these people came, they saved me. 

Ismail and his family are Bedouins, they’re Israelis, but they needed a Jewish Israeli to help them. And they basically could have lost their life. They said “We did not feel secure in that moment, were more insecure than somebody else may have felt, even though we are Israeli citizens and we were there risking our lives to save people.” They ended up taking Aya and the cousin and they found some other people and they went back to Rahat and thank God they were all safe, but they said they were dodging bullets, they were dodging terrorists, they were dodging rockets, and it was chaos. No one knew who anyone was. It was just total fear. The intersectionality of their identities didn’t help. 

"Seeing the best of humanity after actually seeing the worst of humanity, it's magnificent."

I think that for those of us outside Israel, on top of being distraught there’s also a sense of disconnect. How was it different being on the ground compared to just hearing about things?

I met with a friend who runs trips, and he had just run one that the attendees said they had gotten a lot out of. But he said he felt like he failed, because he felt like they had come in knowing what they wanted to get out of this trip and he was concerned he didn’t do a good job pushing them or making them see something they didn’t see before. He and his wife told me that they feel like in America there’s a lot of the kind of sentiment of “we know what’s best.” And they were pretty strong in saying, You don’t know anything. And that conversation made me think, Did I have an agenda that I wanted to see? 

And I think one of the really big takeaways from this trip was actually how important the work is of individuals to create the world we want to see. And it’s so cliche, but that’s what I saw over and over again. I was like, Oh yeah, these are just a bunch of individuals who are doing the work to make it happen. And that’s why I keep holding onto  something that Mohammad at Givat Haviva said. He said “We’re not aiming for peace. That actually feels too unrealistic. We’re aiming for pieces of peace.”

And to me that feels really tangible, that we can’t step away and lose hope.

That was such a big trope of it, that people are hopeless, but they’re also not, and they’re also doing things and the civil society has stepped up—I knew this, but experiencing it and seeing it [felt different], watching how people have opened their homes to each other and set up food stations and free clothing on the side of the road to feed soldiers who need it because the army doesn’t give them good food and clothing that they would need when they’re coming in and out of Gaza. I think seeing the best of humanity after actually seeing the worst of humanity, it’s magnificent. And to experience it was really powerful, just to feel it.

What was it like to visit some of the sites where some of the worst atrocities happened?

I felt a little bit strange around the trauma tourism. It feels a little bit weird. The Nova Festival has become a site where Israelis and tourists and people go, which shows respect—but actually, when we got there, it was packed in a way that I wasn’t anticipating. I thought it would be this quiet, open field with all the pictures. It couldn’t have been more of the opposite. Hundreds of people were there, which is really beautiful and powerful, and also felt strange. 

When we went to Kibbutz Be’eri the person who walked us around, Lotan, shared his entire story. His whole family was there and he lost his mother-in-law and father-in-law, and he’s now living in the hotels and figuring out what comes next. When I asked him why he comes back to give these tours, he said: “We need to tell our story. We need people to hear it. I need to tell it. And it’s been processing and therapeutic for me to be back here and telling the story. And also I need people to see it because we’re going to rebuild and the destruction is not going to be here anymore.” And it feels really important. 

And he said, “I do feel the support, and people coming from abroad means so much. It feels like a huge hug.” 

From the moment we arrived, people were like, What are you doing here? Thank you for being here. But they also said they wouldn’t want to be in America. There’s a lot of fear of antisemitism for us. They’re like, we’re with you. And we’re like, no, no, we’re with you. There is this sense of “Oh, you have it really bad [in America]. We feel safer here because it’s a Jewish state. You just live in no man’s land of antisemitism and everyone wants you to die.” It’s so fascinating. 

Being in the south and hearing the bombs and actually feeling my body shake—at Kibbutz Be’eri, it was so loud that I would startle. And it was interesting, and disturbing, to see that our tour guide, Lotan, wouldn’t even flinch. It didn’t even faze him. So he’s used to it, which is also sad. Also, just thinking about the proximity to the war in Gaza—it’s so close. It’s so close. And to hear the bombs, it shook me to my core. And you think, Are people dying when I hear that sound? Are innocent people dying? It’s just this kind of surreal and all too real feeling that there is a war raging just a few kilometers away. The soldiers are there—every day there’s the list of soldiers who die. So much grief and loss for all of us—we are all so close and at the same time worlds apart. 

It sounds like you really took to heart how many pieces there are to this situation. Is there anything you learned or can take away from the trip that was unexpected?

I think that insider/outsider question is one of the big things that I am leaving feeling even more than before. I’m an insider because I’m Jewish and I deeply care about Israel and I need to, and I’m an outsider because I’m not living this and I don’t know what it feels like to have my kids there. I don’t know what it feels like to live there right now.  On the one hand it made me ask, What is my right to speak from the bimah at BJ? On the other hand, it made me realize how sacred and important it is for me to speak from the bimah with all of my uncertainty and discomfort. 

And I actually felt incredibly proud because a lot of what our community has been doing is stepping into the uncertainty and inviting that uncertainty, and inviting the question marks. And in a rhetoric where it’s been so binary, I’m proud that our community has the audacity to try and   sit in the uncertainty and complexity together. But I walked away feeling that it’s even so much more complicated than anyone understands, than any of us can understand. 

The hostage situation, I didn’t even get into that. Everywhere, everywhere [there’s acknowledgement of the hostages]—the airport, both when you’re coming and going; every single signpost and sign; whenever you’re anywhere, people are wearing the dog tag necklaces. This is a whole other piece of the psyche. How can you say to these Israelis that we’re going to try to move forward from October 7th when, for them, their families are stuck. They are stuck there. When I was there it was almost 100 days [since they were taken hostage]. There’s also this deep sadness, everyone feels it. I felt it and I still feel it. There’s a different energy there, a different pulse. 

And I think that’s where I struggle, because there’s the part of me where I want to say to my friends who are there, What about the innocent people in Gaza, how do you sit with that? But many of them are not in a place where they can talk about it. They’re so deep in their own wounds, that are not yet scars, that are not even starting to heal. They’re just open wounds on both sides. There is no room. They have to tend to themselves, and, as one of my friends said,  “put on my oxygen mask before I can put on somebody else’s.” Which is very troubling and painful to hear. It’s the devastation and the heartbreak and the hopelessness that comes with it, because you can’t help but think, we’re just going to loop back here if we only care for ourselves and at the same time we can’t care for ourselves or others if we are no longer here. [For full context,] most of my trip we met with more liberal people and communities and spoke with more liberal leaders, but the violence is not helping. We’re just in a cycle. I think that that piece of it is really also just so painful for everyone. For everyone. 

You really felt things viscerally.

[The personal stories really got to me.] I was sitting with a woman named Galit who ran away from Kibbutz Zikim with her three young kids and her dog leaving her husband behind. There was one point after she was “safe” in her in-laws apartment that her mother called her. She answered the phone and started screaming and crying, “I am not ready to be a widow!” It was only hours later that he husband was able to call her to tell her that he was still alive.  She was sitting there, in her leggings, oversized sweatshirt, glasses, layered necklaces, and ugg boots. This was one of the points when I lost it, when I felt like I was looking in a mirror, you are me, I could be you. Every single person on the trip had moments like this, moments of thinking, this could have been me. There’s such a closeness to it. 

We have the privilege of thinking how we should expose or sheild our child from it all, but for Israelis that’s not an option. Galit told me: “We’re living in a hotel with this other kibbutz, and my 10-year-old daughter asked, ‘the terrorists were in my friends house. She told me they were in her house. Can they come into our house?’ And I had to say ‘yes, yes they can.’” In the lobby of the hotel there are pictures of the people from the other community Netiv Haasara who were murdered. Galit’s son asked her, “Mommy, when I die, will people put my picture up someplace?” 

They’re living it. They’re living it.

Your trip was organized by Elad Bar Ilan and Gali Rabin, shlihim [emissaries] who grew up in Israel. Did interacting with them, as opposed to talking with someone who may have grown up elsewhere and then moved to Israel, affect your experience?

I am incredibly grateful to Gali and Elad, and to the UJA Federation, for making this trip happen. It was amazing and invaluable to have the two of them there with us. It gave me a deeper appreciation and understanding of the importance of having shelichim who are a part of our communities. They are and especially on this trip were bridges. I don’t think [I would have appreciated the program as much without them.] They are Israeli, and they’ve been living abroad for a few years—they’re embedded in our communities, and so they understand the landscape and where we’re coming from, and they understand the Israeli side.The questions that they were able to ask brought depth to everything. It was  spectacular to have the experience together. It was such a powerful experience to have them really alongside us. And for Gali, it was her first time there since October 7th. Witnessing her embrace her father for the first time since October 7th is a moment that had a profound impact on me and has stuck with me. 

Were there any conversations or experiences that surprised you?

I feel like there is a deep tension between everyday being October 7th and this Israeli mentality of, We have to keep going. There’s a lot of “We have to be strong. We have to be the rock.” I asked Ismail, the Bedouin man who saved people, if he had gotten therapy or help after what he saw. And he told me: “Honestly, I was depressed the next day. I came home, I was starving. I couldn’t even eat. I went into my room and I just cried for hours about what I’d seen. For the next three or four days, I couldn’t get out of bed. I was so distraught. And then I just was like, Okay, I have to pick myself back up because I’m either going to live or I’m not.” It’s this survival mode. 

I was very young when [Israeli Prime Minister] Yitzchak Rabin was assassinated, but on this trip I felt a real sense of sadness about it, the enormity of his assassination. I feel this gaping hole of what could have been. I think that that grief and mourning rose for me in a way that so many felt at the time of his murder. I was feeling and experiencing his death in a new way. Wondering what would have been. Grieving it. I know we can’t live in the past and we don’t know what would have been, but this was a profound and surprising feeling I had.   

When we met with leaders from Omdim Beyachad/Standing Together, who are incredible, one of the things they spoke about was that we didn’t originally have peace with Egypt. It actually took five years, and that was after a huge war. And they stomped on the flag of Israel and said that they would never, ever, ever accept Israel as a state. And now it’s actually one of the most peaceful places that we have and one of the best relationships that we have. It was really hopeful to hear—both to hear them say it and as a good reminder that history repeats itself for the worst, and it can also repeat itself for the best. And moments when you can never even imagine that peace is a possibility, or at least pieces of it are possible, [it’s only not possible] if you let go of it.

Thank you for taking time to do this interview—I think our broader community will really appreciate the chance to hear, in depth, some of your reflections on all that you saw, experienced, and heard. Is there anything else you’d like to share?

Just to reiterate, I rarely feel like I have the authority to walk around Israel or anywhere and say I know what is best, and all the more so with this. After being there, I have so many questions around what it is to be an American Jewish person and leader who’s experiencing this and living it. 

I’ve realized that I do have my own secondary trauma from October 7th. I’ve noticed that I get tense every time I see a motorbike on the street. It’s wild. It’s really wild.  Maybe it’s because I watched too many videos of people being taken on them. Or when I am hugging both of my little ones at once, I picture Shiri Bibas holding Ariel and Kfir as she is being taken hostage. But at the same time, not to put down my experience as an American Jew, but there was really a sense of, I’m not living this day to day. I’m not on the ground. I can have all the intellectual conversations that I want to and that is a privilege.

But I just keep going back to a quote from Yuval Noah Harari in an article he wrote in Time magazine. He basically says that right now Israelis are too deep in their own pain to see the Palestinians and Palestinians are too deep in their own pain to see the Israelis, and it’s the job of the outsider to hold and create the space for peace. To remember what that could be, so that one day hopefully we can step into it together. It’s so beautiful. It gives me permission, even when I feel silly, insecure, and naive for doing so, to have hope and to keep dreaming of peace.