Berkshire Jewish Voices From Israel: An Experience of Spiritual Whiplash

By Rabbi David Weiner

In mid-December, I traveled on a three-day Rabbinical Assembly mission to Israel with about twenty North American colleagues. The goal of the trip was to support Israeli Masorti (Conservative) rabbis and their communities by showing up from overseas, listening to their stories, and offering our compassionate presence. The journey was an experience of spiritual whiplash – unfathomable stories of violence, loss, and trauma alternated with inspiring accounts of taking care of others in a time of need. I was repeatedly overwhelmed by the suffering, then amazed by speakers’ reservoirs of strength. Though the trip was physically and emotionally exhausting, I am glad I was there, personally and to represent Knesset Israel, the Jewish community of the Berkshires, and Conservative rabbis from North America.

The nature of the attacks on October 7 and their aftermath brought about a crisis of trust for Israelis. Betrayed by their neighbors, abandoned by the army, organizing for mutual support despite government intransigence, and virtually isolated on the world stage, many no longer believe that anyone can be trusted. The undertone was heartbreaking: Are you really my colleague, my ally, my friend? Do you actually care? Can I trust you to hold the story of what has happened to me, to us? Do you have my back, or will you also betray me? The visit was like an extended shiva call, where just dropping in with a warm hug brought a bit of healing and hope.

Tuesday was an especially difficult day. It began with a visit to Kfar Aza, one of the kibbutzim in the Gaza Envelope destroyed by Hamas terrorists on October 7. Walking on the lanes of Kfar Aza, able to see the fences dividing Israel from Gaza – both the one that was knocked down during the attack and the new one that has been built - and plumes of smoke over Gaza City, we learned how Hamas invaders not only murdered and kidnapped and raped and terrorized, but how they did so with precise planning, intending to trigger every aspect of inherited Jewish trauma. The morning I spent in Kfar Aza was devastating, more intense for me than visiting sites of Nazi atrocities in Europe or racial violence in the American South.

The afternoon brought narratives of hope, volunteerism, and resilience. Neve Hanna, a youth village in Kiryat Gat, provides a refuge for children with difficult home lives. There we spoke with the rabbi and several counselors, 18- and 19-year-old Israelis who had opted to serve as role models during a year of service after high school. We learned how the work had changed during the war and how the center had gone above and beyond to serve its children and their families. At an enormous Refreshment Center built from scratch by volunteers for troops on break from the war, its leader (a professor from Bar Ilan University), proudly gave us a tour. There were outdoor kitchens, dining areas, and several tent dormitories lovingly filled with bunk beds, home mattresses, and donated linens – all a palpable expression of hesed, of caring and love for soldiers tasked with risking their lives to make southern Israel a place that is safe to live in.

Later, at a synagogue that has been repurposed as a school – because its bomb shelter is large enough to accommodate a large number of children – we heard harrowing testimony from a member who coordinates the city department of mental health, a rabbi who has officiated at several funerals for those murdered on October 7. Other congregants wanted to speak with American rabbis about the pressures they face, their loved ones in the IDF, and their worries and fears for the future. It was complicated to listen – so much raw pain and grief, anger so close to the surface, and yet so much courage and perseverance.

Throughout the day, I was sitting on the bus with an Israeli colleague, Rabbi Gustavo from our sister synagogue in Ra’anana. When I made it clear that I had come to Israel to listen to him, he shared stories of supporting the family of a hostage who grew up in his town; how he cares for his congregation and its 80 soldiers on active duty; the ways he has come to serve several nonprofit and volunteer relief groups; how his synagogue coordinates youth outreach for 700 internally displaced people temporarily living in a hotel; what it was like to travel on behalf of the Israeli government to speak on its behalf in Europe; and what he believes American Jews and their rabbis should be doing.

I was too exhausted from jetlag Tuesday night. I fell into bed in Jerusalem and slept soundly until my alarm rang, six hours later.

By 6 a.m. Wednesday, though, I was crossing the bridge near the Jaffa Gate at sunrise, on my way to the families section of the Kotel. There we lay tefillin and prayed the morning service. A verse from Psalm 30 jumped out at me – Tears may linger for the night, but joy comes with the dawn. There had been a lot of tears the day before. I could hardly take in what I was seeing and hearing. And still the new morning dawning over the holy city gave me a fresh reserve of strength. It would be another hard day, as we learned about the sexual violence of October 7, delivered socks and underwear donated by our congregations for soldiers on the northern front, and visited with families of hostages, the retired diplomats who are helping advocate for their loved ones, and a survivor of the music festival. But for the moment, at a time of unfathomable pain, we were able to breathe the air of Jerusalem, express gratitude for a new day, and celebrate our capacity to care for each other. Baruch hanotein laya’eif koach – Praised be the One who gives strength to the weary.

Rabbi David Weiner is the spiritual leader of Knesset Israel in Pittsfield. The image shows the headquarters of Jewish National Fund in Jerusalem.