Lemons to Lemonade on the Gaza Border: DMV Residents Head to Israel on Community Missions

Participants on the JOFA mission to Israel visited Kibbutz Kfar Aza, which was attacked by Hamas terrorists on Oct. 7.
Photo credit: Fran Kritz

Just before dessert in a restaurant close to Jerusalem’s Old City walls, Brahm Weinberg, rabbi of Kemp Mill Synagogue in Silver Spring, said a warm goodnight to the close to thirty participants of the synagogue’s solidarity mission to Israel.

The mission had begun just a few hours before with text study at a center overlooking the Kotel (Western Wall.) “Our students are here,” said a smiling Rabbi Weinberg gesturing to the growing number of young people entering the restaurant to greet the rabbi and his wife Elana who taught many of them in her position as a Judaic Studies instructor at Berman Hebrew Academy.

Kemp Mill Synagogue announced the mission just a few weeks ago and spots quickly filled up not just with KMS members, but with people from neighboring synagogues as far as New Jersey. During dinner, the rabbi invited every attendee to stand and explain why they had decided to join the four-day program. In varying ways each participant said he or she felt the need to do something to help Israel right now and expressed their gratitude to the synagogue for creating the opportunity to do so.

Peninah Gershman, a KMS member, said she decided to join the mission when she heard the rabbi talk about it during his sermon at the synagogue a few weeks ago and discuss the need to “bear witness.” Gershman said those words from the rabbi were what spoke to her and made her sign up for the mission.

Another KMS member, Devorah Grayson, who arrived earlier to spend time with family and friends, many of whom have soldiers serving in the Israel Defense Forces, said she had very much wanted to come but wasn’t sure how to safely navigate the opportunity to visit and help, and that the KMS mission, put together by the rabbi and the synagogue’s executive director, Aryeh Shudofsky, who also came on the trip, made it possible to come now to support family and to help Israel.

At least two other missions with Washington area participants are in Israel this week, including the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance and staff and leadership from Berman Hebrew Academy, which has many former students studying in Israel this year, and many more who have made aliyah and immigrated to Israel.

Many of those immigrants are also part of families serving in the IDF, and included in the Berman family are Israeli families that lived for a while in the greater Washington area with kids who attended Berman. Also among the Berman family are the generations of young men and women from Israel, known as bachurim and bnot sherut, who each spent a year after army service or as part of their national service as mentors and teachers at the school.

Shmarya Gasner, Berman’s executive director, coordinated with many of those alumni ahead of his trip with other staff members this week, arranging dinners, presents and home-delivered pizzas, especially for wives of soldiers serving in the army. Berman representatives gathered over 70 alumni and family members for dinner at a Jerusalem restaurant on Sunday evening.

Our Israeli family told us they were so appreciative of our putting together the evening especially now “because it was something to look forward to during these challenging times and their children were eager to meet up with their Berman friends and the past bachurim and bnot sherut,” said Gasner.

Planning missions to Israel now can be challenging, especially when including visits to army bases and hospitals, because of quickly shifting security and timing needs. At the mission’s first dinner, for example, Rabbi Weinberg explained that a planned trip to an army base might not happen because the base had just announced it was closing to visitors “but there was still a possibility that efforts could make that trip happen.”

“Logistics are certainly in real time,” said the synagogue’s executive director, Aryeh Shudofsky, with a broad smile, “but that’s why I’m here and I’m so glad that we all have this opportunity to help.”

Ayelet Lederman, 18, of Silver Spring, who is spending a gap year in Israel between high school and college, joined the mission hosted by this week by the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance, which combined crop picking and visits to Hostage Square with discussions and Torah study about women’s issues and war, including marriage issues related to spouses in captivity.

“I was here on Oct. 7 and the other people in my program bring back stories. Going on the mission with JOFA gave me the opportunity to learn about tragedies and heroism that day to share with the people I study with, so that more people are talked about,” said Lederman.

That mission’s harvest task was bittersweet. At Yad Mordechai near the Gaza border, fighting after Oct. 7 made it too dangerous to pick the Meyer lemon crop during its usual harvest time of October and November. The men and women on the JOFA mission were asked to pick the lemons but throw them to the ground so that the trees next year would be empty to bear fruit again. “It’s a job of destruction that will lead to rebirth of the crop, which makes me first sad and then happy,” said Daphne Lazar Price, the executive director of JOFA who lives in Silver Spring. Turning lemons into lemonade, said one harvester.

The KMS mission includes delivering letters to soldiers and family members as well as hats hand-knitted by synagogue members, and in the past few weeks the rabbi continuously invited the entire synagogue community to participate financially for a barbecue to be held for soldiers, to write letters to people who had been injured and to watch several sessions of the mission on Zoom.

“The mission is a continuation of our efforts as a community at KMS on behalf of all of our brothers and sisters in Israel from the moment we began praying for them on Simchat Torah (Oct. 7) and for the return of the hostages and the health and well-being of the soldiers,” said Rabbi Weinberg.

This is the second time KMS has held a mission. The first was a synagogue trip to Poland five years ago led by Rabbi Weinberg, that, like the current Israel mission, includes daily Torah study as a key part of the programming.

At dinner, Elana Weinberg, who is joined on the mission by her parents, Howard and Miriam Rosenblum, who made aliya two and a half years ago, suddenly slipped out of the dining room and hurried down a hallway. She had spotted an Israeli family that had spent time living in Kemp Mill and was eager to greet them. That didn’t stop mission participants from heading toward Elana Weinberg’s table.

That’s because her 94-year-old grandmother, affectionately known as Bubbie, who was also seated at the table, is a celebrity in the KMS community. She spends a part of her year living in Israel and part of it living with the Weinbergs. Mission participants lined up to talk to her about life in Israel during the war.

The missions this week included opportunities to help farmers pick vegetables and prepare sandwiches for soldiers and people who are recovering in hospitals and their families. KMS made sandwiches at the Crave meat restaurant in the Machane Yehuda market in Jerusalem and also visited the Ella winery, one of many businesses facing challenges after managers and owners were called to the reserves. Visits also included meetings with families of hostages, time at Hostage Square in Tel Aviv and at some of the massacre sites.

At dinner the first night, Rabbi Weinberg acknowledged the feelings in the room when he said that no one knew quite what to expect during the trip, but nevertheless they stepped forward to make the trip. “We are one with the people of Israel,” said community member Max Rudmann, “and that’s why we wanted to go with KMS on the mission.”

Fran Kritz is a freelance writer.

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