Late last month, eight Washington-area rabbis packed their bags for a whirlwind visit to Israel. They brought with them a supply of comfort and empathy for Israelis who, for 11 days, had been on the receiving end of 4,700 rockets fired by Hamas in the Gaza strip.
Rabbi Stuart Weinblatt, of Congregation B’nai Tzedek in Potomac, said the group’s presence in Israel between May 31 and June 3 was like a rabbi’s bikur cholim visit to comfort the sick.
“There was hurt, and there was pain, and I thought it was important for us to offer comfort,” Weinblatt said during a webinar following the rabbis’ return during which they discussed what they had learned.
Weinblatt said the group brought a message of support and solidarity “as I would do whenever family members were facing a difficult solution,” adding that it was important to him for Israelis to “know they don’t stand alone.”
In Ashkelon, they visited Pnina Makhluf, who told the rabbis how she and her family, including her 2-year-old grandson, barely made it to a safe room before a Hamas rocket reduced their house to rubble.
“‘I don’t wish anyone in Gaza ill,’” Weinblatt recalled her telling the group. “‘I have nothing against them. I hope they can have a place to live, but not at our expense.’”
Hamas rockets killed at least 13 Israelis, including two children. Israeli airstrikes killed at least 256 Palestinians, including 66 children.
Yet the situation was more complicated than that. Rabbi Aaron Alexander, of Adas Israel Congregation in the District, said Col. (Res.) Grisha Yakubovich, former coordinator of government activities in the territories, told them that from the Israeli perspective, archenemy Hamas performs a police-keeping role in Gaza.
“There are 48 terror organizations in Gaza, and 47 of them would like to be shooting rockets all the time. One of them prevents the others from doing that,” Alexander recalled.
Yakubovich said that if Israel dismantled Hamas, “the other 47 would step in and fill the void.”
In the mixed Arab-Jewish city Lod, which had experienced ethnic violence during the days of fighting between Israel and Hamas, the rabbis spoke to Arabs and Jews. That was the low point for Rabbi Shira Stutman of Sixth & I Synagogue in Washington. Had particular synagogues in Lod been set on fire? The Arabs and Jews couldn’t even agree on what happened, Stutman recalled.
A side benefit of the trip, according to several participants, was the rare chance to spend time with peers, discussing how to talk to their congregants about Israel, which is practically a third rail in the Jewish community.
“If I got up and said, ‘Palestinian lives matter,’ I would spend the next month fending for my job,” Alexander said.
When a rabbi mentions Israel from the pulpit, everyone quickly decides whether the rabbi is on their side or not. “This I feel is generally unhealthy,” Alexander said.
Without naming a specific group, Alexander suggested that American Jews “very carefully lift up and fund” peace-building groups that aim for co-existence between Israel and Palestinians.
Stutman, whose Sixth & I Synagogue serves young adults, suggested that the rabbis’ heartfelt visit to Israel and the intense feelings of their congregants may soon become things of the past.
The Jews who attend Sixth & I are just not that interested in Israel, she said.
“If I never mentioned Israel again, 95 percent of them would be just fine with that. They are not feeling a deep pull.” And that includes those who visited Israel on a Birthright trip, she said.
Maharat Ruth Friedman of Ohev Sholom — The National Synagogue, in the District, said the tendency to paint Israel as always right and the other side of any argument as always wrong is “horribly unhelpful.”
She said it would be better if Jews could find a way to talk about Israel with open minds. Stutman agreed. “While all Jews do not speak with one voice, she said, “we are all on the same side.”
Weinblatt said the role of American Jews should be to advocate for Israel and let Israelis work out their own solutions to guide their future. He said Jews need to learn Jewish history and Zionist ideology. If they do that, everyone will understand “and appreciate the miracle that is Israel.”
The rabbis’ visit was organized by The Jewish Federation of Greater Washington, whose CEO, Gil Preuss, attended. Rabbis who participated but were not quoted in this story include: Nissan Antine of Beth Sholom Congregation and Talmud Torah, in Potomac; Greg Harris of Congregation Beth El of Montgomery County, in Bethesda; Michael Safra of B’nai Israel Congregation, in Rockville; and Hyim Shafner of Kesher Israel, in Washington.