The past two and a half weeks have left me with much to think about. As many of you know, Cheryl, the kids and I traveled through Israel with 26 other folks who joined us on Ramat Shalom’s Israel Adventure. For many of those who traveled with us, it was their first time in Israel. Watching them experience the power of the Jewish State, to lay their eyes on the Western Wall, to look down at the Dead Sea from the top of Masada, to dig in the soil of the Holy Land and discover 2,000 year old pottery shards, to feel the energy that fills the outdoor market in Jerusalem as Shabbat approaches – it’s beautiful to watch folks live all these things and more for the very first time. And for those of us who’ve been to Israel before, once, twice, three times or more, living Israel never gets old. There are always new things to discover.
For me, one of the most moving parts of our Israel Adventure was visiting Sderot – a town on the northeast corner of the border between Israel and Gaza. This border has made international headlines lately. Whether it be the missiles fired across this border and into Israel by Hamas terror cells within Gaza or the incendiary balloons launched over the border and into Israel by these cells and their supporters, the Israel-Gaza border has been an unstable place. Sadly, this is nothing new. The Israelis who call Sderot home are somewhat used to this instability. It’s part of their lives. Bomb shelters are built into bus stops. You can see one of these shelters below.
Wherever you turn you can find a bomb shelter in Sderot. This is because once a missile alert has been sounded, you have 15 seconds to seek shelter. There is even an indoor, bomb-proof playground for the children of Sderot built by the Jewish National Fund. We had the opportunity to visit this amazing place and one of the participants on our tour bought a new bounce house for the children who use this playground. The parents who were there with their children were deeply moved by this generosity. We’re hoping to partner with this playground and send them supplies for the children – stay tuned for more information.
Sderot is not a tourist destination, especially given what’s going on at the border. There aren’t “holy” sites to visit. No real museums or parks to hike in. It’s not a fancy town. It’s inhabited by hard-working Israelis who don’t have much, but they make do with what they have. When visiting with one resident of Sderot and her young daughters, we asked her why she would live in such a challenging place. She replied, “We feel it is our responsibility to help strengthen the land, to stand our ground and build lives in an area that is not a contested part of Israel.” Indeed, Sderot isn’t a contested region. It’s just located in a global hotspot.
I was asked by many who saw our itinerary before our Israel trip: “Why in the world are you going to Sderot!?” My answer, “to support a Jewish community on the frontline.” And we did just this. How? Simply by going for lunch in Sderot. While English is often spoken by folks who live in Israel’s larger cities and towns, most folks in Sderot only speak Hebrew. In my best Hebrew, I explained to the staff at the restaurant why we were there. The smiles this explanation evoked transcended any language barrier – those who didn’t know Hebrew could understand just how grateful the staff was. Just by having lunch, by supporting the local restaurants of Sderot, we performed a very important “mitzvah project.”
After lunch, we visited the Sderot Media Center to learn about the current situation on the border. A representative of the center took us to the border with Gaza where we were able to see members of Hamas stationed on the other side looking right back at us. Smoke was rising around the border region. The representative from the center told us that this smoke was likely the result of one of the incendiary balloons. It was an extremely powerful moment for us all.
This was my first visit to Sderot – my first time at the Israel-Gaza border. During our 12 days in Israel, we visited holy sites, enjoyed amazing Israeli food and culture, stayed in comfortable hotels and enjoyed the air-conditioning on our luxury tour bus. But for me, and I believe for many who joined me, standing on the border with Gaza after meeting the people of Sderot taught all of us about both the strength and fragility of Israel. It allowed us to see how real and how close the threat to the Jewish State is. And it gave us the opportunity to come face to face with some of the heroes of Israel who are often overlooked – the everyday citizens of Sderot who continue to build the Jewish frontier.
When our Israel Adventure was over, Cheryl, the kids and I traveled by ourselves to Poland. First to Krakow, then to Auschwitz-Birkenau and then to Warsaw. This was our first time in Poland, our first time at Auschwitz-Birkenau, our first time at the Plaszow Concentration Camp in Krakow and at the Warsaw Ghetto. I’m still processing it all. For those of you who’ve been to any of these places, you know it’s a lot to take it. So many emotions and thoughts.
In lieu of my own words about our visit to Auschwitz-Birkenau, I will close with a short video I took and shared on social media a few days ago. Along with this video I shared the words of Bernard Offen who was born and raised in Krakow, and spent time in the Plaszow Concentration Camp until he was deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau. He did survive and shared his experience in his memoir My Hometown Concentration Camp. As you watch this short clip I took within Auschwitz-Birkenau, I ask that you reflect on Offen’s words:
Looking at Auschwitz-Birkenau today you see a lot of grass and, as a consequence it looks quite peaceful in some ways. But back then, there wasn’t one piece of grass that existed within our reach. If there had been, we would have eaten it! Any grass that did remain was all trodden down: there was either mud or dust. It’s also quiet (today), the silence almost mocking the memory I have of the terror that filled Auschwitz-Birkenau not so long agoBernard Offen
Tonight, at our 7:30pm Shabbat Service, I plan to speak a bit about our tour of the Warsaw Ghetto. It was the last thing we did before returning home to South Florida. While the stories that come from the ghetto are harrowing, seeing within what was the ghetto a rebirth of Jewish life, albeit from a small Jewish community facing many challenges, gave me a little hope. It allowed me to appreciate that Warsaw, a city that was once a hub of Jewish life and culture, is another part of our Jewish frontier. Strengthening it, rebuilding allows us to reclaim what was ours – an important place where so many of the traditions we still embrace came to be.
I hope to see some of you this evening. I know many of you are traveling. No matter where you are, I wish you a Shabbat Shalom.
Rabbi Andrew Jacobs