I am one of many people who have come to Israel on a Mission. Jofa and Maharat brought over 30 people to give chizuk and support. In fact, we got so much more than we gave.
As we were putting together the itinerary, we debated whether we should visit the devastated kibbutzim in the South. We were less concerned with our safety, although I did feel the loud booms of Israeli artillery reverberating inside my body. Rather, there are some that argue that visiting sites of destruction is a form of voyeurism; “war tourism” as someone described it. In fact, this very debate is happening in Kfar Aza itself. Some members of the kibbutz want to keep their homes private. They want to retain a sense of dignity, even though many of their homes were shattered and sullied by Hamas terrorists. Others, however, want, even need, people to see the atrocities first hand. They want us to bear witness to their pain.
Bearing witness. I have heard that phrase over and over again in relation to the terrible atrocities perpetrated on October 7. What does it mean to bear witness?
The quintessential phrase in our Jewish tradition is “Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One” (Deuteronomy 6:4). In the Torah, The ע and the ד are written larger than the other letters. Put together, the letters spell the word עד or witness. In this context, we are called to be a witness to God’s oneness. But on a deeper level, we are being told to open our eyes and witness all that surrounds us. The tefilah where we cover our eyes, actually means the opposite. We are not supposed to bury our head in the sand and close our eyes to the darkness and sadness of the world around us. The shema is calling on us to be an עד, to stand up and be a witness.
The mandate of bearing witness cannot mean that we crumble or freeze, even as the images that I have witnessed these past few days have forever changed me. But the requirement of bearing witness is not a passive act. A witness effectuates change, and therefore, the bearing of witness must lead to action. The actions that we take can manifest in several ways.
Bearing witness means continuing to pray.
At several points throughout our mission, we paused to pray. We recited the misheberakh prayer for the return of captives in Kikar Hatufim, after listening to Shelly Shem Tov praying for the return of her son Omer. We prayed with Natalie Ben Ami, begging for the return of her father, Ohad. We felt like we were escorting their daily pleas for the return of their loved ones directly to God. We also gathered to recite that same prayer at Reim, at the Nova festival site, overlooking the smiling faces of the missing captives. We also said the kel maleh prayer, picturing the 1200+ souls who died on October 7. We said another kel maleh at Har Herzl, crying for the young soldiers, men and women who died in battle. In front of one grave was a young soldier bent over his commander, Roi Nehadri’s grave.
Roi died on October 9. I️ didn't know Roi, or his friend, but I️ stood next to him trying to hold his pain. The soldier told us that as Roi fell he raised his fist, as if to offer a final message: Am Yisrael Chai. The Nation of Israel will live.
Bearing witness means holding peoples’ stories of pain.
I have heard Dr. Cochav Elkayam-Levy speak a few times. Dr. Cochav has been tasked with documenting and archiving the stories of sexual violence against women that was perpetrated on October 7. For the last few months, she has been inundated with the most tragic stories of devastating and destruction orchestrated on women's bodies. More than hold these stories, she has become the spokesperson tasked with convincing the international community that Hamas’ actions were highly coordinated and purposefully violent and sexual acts against women. I️ watched her break down and realized that I️ can handle these stories. I can offer to hold her hand, listen and share a bit of the pain, offering her even small moments of relief from the constant deluge of darkness.
Bearing witness means retelling the stories of heroism.
There are so many heroic stories. Mothers in Kfar Aza who stayed in their homes placing their bodies over their children saving their lives. Children hiding underneath beds and closets for hours. Parents who left their children to go out and fight. Soldiers who volunteered to show up, even if they didn't have to. Wives who were stuck at home with children, waiting for their husbands to return home. Parents praying that they would not get that dreaded knock from the army telling them that their child had been injured, or worse, murdered. Volunteers who cooked, gathered clothes, found homes for displaced families, moved out of their own homes to make space for others. Grandparents leaving their jobs to watch their grandkids while parents are serving. Therapists who try to remind soldiers that there will be a tomorrow and a tomorrow after that. The woman who needs to pump breast milk while she is serving, so she can continue to feed her baby when she returns. The women who were called to fulfill their service in the Shura base, drafted as part of the chevra kadisha, who have the holy responsibility to escort the precious souls, neshamot, to their final resting place.
The list goes on and on. The spirit of volunteerism and helping out is inspiring. The country is united around the herculean task of defending their country, no matter what the cost. Every single person I met has a story to tell, and each and every one of them is heroic.
Bearing witness is about activism.
There's a sentiment that many hold that this is the war where women have broken through multiple glass ceilings. The question about whether women can serve in combat units has been answered: they can and do, saving hundreds of people in their tanks. Then there are the tatzpaniot, young women who are the “spotters” watching borders and villages. These soldiers knew something was happening leading up to October 7. Their calls to the army leadership were ignored. Many of their peers were among the first who fell. We learned that many young women avoid these jobs. But today, the job has been elevated, its importance revealed. We watched them work, their eyes trained on computer screens scanning Israel’s borders for danger.
Everyone also acknowledged the young mothers who hold up the “home front” in addition
to the chayalot who are combat fighters on the actual front. There has been a renewed awe and respect for the women holding down the home while their husbands are away.
We met with people who in the same breath talk about the complete solidarity between the עם, the people, but the leadership has been revealed in its worst light. There is no time like now to begin advocating for more female representation at every level of governmental leadership.
Bearing witness means committing to act.
As we walked through Kfar Aza we witnessed the devastation in the youth village. We saw pictures of a smiling young couple, Sivan and her fiance, next to pictures of their bloodied belongings and grenade holes all over their walls. I️ saw the final WhatsApp messages between Sivan and her family, where her father writes at 12:21 סיווני, Sivani. And then again at 22:40 סיווני. Sivani could not respond. My stomach was in knots. I️ had no words
I️ tell these stories, because perhaps this is my service. This is what a chayal named Ravid told me. He sought me out to say thank you for being here. But then he went on. “I️ know that I️ am in uniform and am literally on the front. But you have a front as well. You can also do your service and do your part. You can take these stories home. You can tell the US what you saw. That's how you can wear your uniform.”
Bearing witness means finding moments of light and hope.
Out of the ashes, there were glimmers of hope. It's the only way that people get up in the morning. Families talking about their loved ones who are held captive, imagining their resilience and strength.
…of Rabba Anat Sharbat who shows up every Shabbat to lead Kabbalat Shabbat services and Havdalah services at hostage square, where she hugs and holds families who can't pray themselves.
…of the chayalot that we visited on their base who get up and dance with a group of strangers, laughing together with pure joy.
….the letters that we delivered to chayalot, written by first graders and eighth graders in the US.
…the hope of Sarit Zussman who buried her son, Ben just a few weeks ago. Her message: tears are inevitable, but there is also hope. Through Ben’s memory, she finds emunah, faith, and tikvah, hope.
On Wednesday morning we volunteered at Yad Mordechai helping farmers save their produce. We bumped into another group of Americans joyfully picking grapefruit. Our job was a little more depressing. We were bussed over to the lemon trees. The trees were deceivingly beautiful: the lemons were past their prime and could no longer be sold. Our job was to pick the lemons and then throw them on the ground.
What a poignant metaphor for so much that was lost. I️ felt like crying every time I threw a precious lemon to the ground. I even managed to stash a few away to eat immediately–just to save a few. But Yehala, whose farm we were working on, told us that throwing the lemons away was necessary to ensure that the fruit would grow again. Destruction would somehow, in time, allow for rebirth.