Destruction and Inspiration: Notes on a Mission to Israel

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Jay Bernstein
Jay Bernstein (Courtesy of Jay Bernstein)

By Jay Bernstein

Imagine taking a tour of the Warsaw Ghetto a few months after the its destruction by the Nazis in 1943, or viewing Kishinev weeks after the 1903 pogrom, or visiting the Jewish communities of the Rhineland after they were massacred in the Crusade of 1096.

A modern-day version of these was afforded to me and other participants in the Baltimore Zionist District’s recent solidarity mission to Israel. Our trip included a visit to Kfar Aza, where Hamas terrorists brutally murdered 52 residents, and abducted many others. The terrorists turned a bucolic community into a deserted hellscape of scorched homes where Israelis were burned to death, bullet-ridden interiors where Israelis were shot to death, and streets where elderly Israelis were murdered and children were abducted. Witnessing these sights a mere two months after the atrocities were committed brought home the scope of destruction in a way that reading articles or watching televised reports cannot do.

The Hamas attack has forced the residents of Kfar Aza to temporarily move to the kibbutz Shefayim, which we visited the following day. There we met Amit, who provided our group with a detailed account of how she, her husband and three small children survived the Hamas massacre by hiding for 36 hours in a small room without electricity or cell service, dwindling oxygen, little food and surrounded by the sounds and smells of gunshots and explosions. Once again, the parallel between Amit’s experience and that of the countless Jews who hid to avoid capture and death at the hands of their persecutors is inescapable.

Memories of past persecutions were also evoked by the harrowing stories relayed to our group by survivors of the massacre perpetrated at the Nova music festival, where more than 260 Israelis were shot, beaten or burnt to death by Hamas terrorists. Young men and women tearfully relayed to us the hours they spent running for their lives and hiding from their attackers, and the trauma and survivor’s guilt that they are battling to overcome. Like the residents of Kfar Aza, the Nova survivors — and all Israelis — are dealing with a swirl of emotions: grief over the fallen, concern over friends and relatives serving in Gaza, and anxiety as to the future.

Despite the scenes and stories of death and destruction, our mission was tremendously inspirational. It was moving and uplifting to meet Rami Davidian, an ordinary Israeli who accomplished the extraordinary feat of rescuing hundreds of people from the Hamas attack on the Nova festival; Amir Gissin, the CEO of the Maccabi World Union, which is housing and feeding 800 displaced Israelis; Sigal and Dafna, Ashkelon officials overseeing the provision of resources and services to citizens facing constant rocket attacks; Rabbi Bentzi Mann, who serves in the Israel Defense Forces unit that ensures that fallen soldiers are identified and prepared for burial with the dignity and respect demanded by halachah; Tzvika Mor of Kiryat Arba, whose support for the war effort takes priority over his personal interest in obtaining the release of his son Eitan, who was abducted by Hamas; and wounded soldiers at Tel HaShomer Hospital, who deserve our admiration and gratitude for their self-sacrifice on behalf of Am Yisroel.

Our mission’s interactions with these heroes, and with so many other Israelis, reminded us that notwithstanding the parallels between the events of Oct. 7 and prior persecutions, the critical difference is that today, we are blessed with a sovereign Jewish state, an army to defend that state and a nation unified in support of the citizen-soldiers risking their lives on the front line.

May Hashem, the guardian of Israel, protect and provide strength to the people of Israel, liberate the hostages, protect our soldiers and speedily bring peace and security to Israel and the entire region.

Jay Bernstein is a lawyer, activist and chair of the Israel Committee of Ner Tamid Congregation.

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