During a time when many people throughout the Jewish community are feeling fear and anxiety, Rabbi Hyim Shafner of Kesher Israel Congregation in Georgetown offers a different, more positive perspective on the state of Israel and the Jewish community based on his observations during a recent trip to Israel.
Shafner said that while it wasn’t what he initially expected, he now feels there’s a sense of optimism and resilience in the face of tragedy that he witnessed from the people impacted by the Hamas attacks, which can serve as a message to the Israeli people and American Jews.
“I was a little bit worried about going there because I thought the level of … doom and danger that we feel, even here in America, about what happened in Israel is so strong, that to fly to the middle of it, I was a little bit nervous emotionally. But from going there, I really felt a sense of strength,” Shafner said.
Shafner said that a few days after the Oct. 7 attacks he reached out to his rabbinic colleagues through an email list of American rabbis asking if anyone was going to Israel, which he said has historically been a regular practice as a show of solidarity for the Israeli community and to serve as a witness for what the conditions are like for their congregants in the U.S.
“They [congregants] want to know what’s really going on there. What are your impressions? And how can we help? We’re praying here every day for what’s going on in Israel, but I think this is a more personal connection,” he said.
Shafner was able to provide that information after recently going on a trip to Israel with other rabbis through a collaborative effort of several rabbinic organizations. The group visited people in hospitals, shiva houses for the victims and some of the homes where the attacks took place.
Shafner recounted an especially moving experience talking to a survivor of the attacks in the location where they took place. This particular survivor’s boyfriend was killed by a Hamas grenade as he jumped on it to shield her from the deadly blast.
“She was standing here because they were doing a documentary about her. And the mother of her boyfriend was standing next to her and so we got to talk to her. And I said to her, I couldn’t believe she was able to open her eyes and walk around the tragedy. All her friends had been killed in this terrifying terror attack and her boyfriend had thrown himself on a grenade and died to save her. And here she is standing in front of us,” Shafner said.
He added that he questioned the pair about what they would do next, and they responded that they were going to come back and rebuild because this was their home.
“That to me was just incredible. Just the sense that the Jewish people only have one place. Every other place we’ve been exiled from, kicked out of, persecuted,” he said.
And this sense of Jewish resilience became a major part of what Shafner reported back to his community through Facebook posts and a written statement of his reflections on the trip.
Shafner listed five key factors he observed as being the building blocks of the Jewish spirit that he witnessed through his travels in Israel: family and community, national unity, dignity, spirituality and meaning.
Shafner gave examples of places where he saw these values being exemplified, but one that stuck out was the idea of national unity being at an all-time high in Israel despite serious political discord in the days and weeks before the attacks.
“There was division, there was a sense of partisanship going on there. And it was coming out around a judicial reform issue. People were organizing those marches of hundreds of thousands of people. There was all this division,” he said. “That night [Oct. 7] changed from a battle within Israel, of right and left or of judicial reform against judicial reform. All of a sudden, it was all hands-on-deck and it became about how to help each other.”
He added that there was a pervasive sense of hope and optimism that Israel would be able to recover and rebuild that was powerful and which stuck with him after everything he saw. That’s what he wanted to take back to his congregants, many of which he noted currently face anxiety over antisemitism and some of whom have children fighting in Gaza.
Shafner highlighted the importance of Israel being a haven for the Jewish people while saying he realized how simultaneously vital it is to have a thriving Jewish community in the U.S. supporting Israel and Jews around the world.
“There was a Jewish man from a foreign parliament who was praying in [my] synagogue yesterday morning. He’s here because he had some government things he had to do here and there’s only one regular prayer service downtown – in my synagogue. And when the Jews are suffering, it helps me to realize how important it is that there be an active, strong Jewish community in the capital of the free world, here in Washington,” Shafner said.