For the first time in most of our lifetimes, the continued existence of Israel is not a given. The threat is real, well-funded and organized, as proven by the sophistication of this attack against one of the world’s most advanced intelligence organizations and fighting forces.
I was honored to be among those representing our Conservative/Masorti movement on a two-day emergency solidarity mission to Israel organized by the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. The experience was heart-wrenching, inspiring and scary.
We began our trip by visiting with the outstanding students on our USCJ Nativ gap year program. While many noted they have high moments as well as times of anxiety, they were more worried about their parents than themselves. They were proud of their volunteer work, which included supporting families forced to relocate from communities near Gaza. The Fuchsberg Jerusalem Center, home to the Conservative Yeshiva, has taken in more than 100 families displaced from kibbutzim in the south.
We gathered with the families of some of the hostages. Their anguish was palpable as they described Oct. 7, sharing videos of their family members at the moment of capture. They joined us, not to gain our empathy, but to bolster our advocacy. As Jon Polin, the father of 23-year-old Hersh Goldberg-Polin, told our delegation ahead of our meeting with the prime minister: “I’m asking all of you to be players in the greatest mitzvah anyone can do…The Israeli cabinet must know that the hostages cannot be forgotten. Bibi, all of them must be thinking about and taking into consideration that we bring back all the hostages. Get that on the agenda, keep it on the agenda, and don’t let any of our Israeli leaders forget it.” Through tears, we prayed with them in solidarity that winning the war and saving the hostages are not mutually exclusive.
We met individually with those navigating the crisis for the country: Israeli President Isaac Herzog, Minister of Foreign Affairs Eli Cohen, Minister of Strategic Affairs Ron Dermer, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Each provided their perspective of the horrific events of Oct. 7, the threat to Israel’s existence, the recent steep rise in antisemitism worldwide, the complicity of Iran and the complications and potential for waging war on multiple fronts. They were consistent and effusive in their appreciation of our presence and President Biden’s unambiguous, unwavering support. His trip was the first to Israel by a U.S. president during a war. It sent a strong message to the world and opened the way to other countries’ support for Israel. As President Herzog said, “The American support is a ray of light to the Israeli people.”
Their message to us and world leaders is that this is a battle between humanity and barbarism, civilization and destruction, good and evil, for which Israel is on the front line for the West.
At Hadassah Hospital, Israeli courage was on full display. There, we met soldiers injured in battle on Oct. 7. Omer, a 23-year-old unit leader, was shot in the shoulder and suffered internal injuries as the bullet exited his hip. But he kept fighting, shooting Hamas while lying on his back. He and his unit killed 11 terrorists that morning and are credited with saving more than 30 Israelis.
Kibbutz Ma’aleh HaChamisha, located just west of Jerusalem, is providing housing to hundreds of families forced to flee Kibbutz Netiv HaAsara, which sits along the northern border with Gaza. They were among the first to be attacked. Residents were forced to flee, many with only the clothes they were wearing. With the help of the Jewish Agency for Israel, Ma’aleh HaChamisha, like many other kibbutzim, is giving them a new home until it’s safe to return. Some 20 of the 800 or so Netiv HaAsara residents were killed that morning. We listened to the stories of the survivors and felt their pain and strength as they recounted that day.
We saw and felt the Israeli spirit and resilience. Leaders of the Israeli government and IDF, families of the hostages and those displaced from their homes are unified in their desire to fight this war until Hamas is annihilated and their society can feel genuinely secure, as long as it takes without regard to personal consequences. There will be a time when we look back and hold leaders to account. But now is not that time. Now, we must look forward in solidarity.
We need to fight from here at home. Donate where you can. Elect representatives who support Israel. Refute and correct the lies perpetuated by the terrorists. While we are empathetic to the plight of the non-violent Gazans — for they, too, are hostages — we stand with Israel.
Am Yisrael Chai. PJC
Andrew Schaer is a Pittsburgh native and president of United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism.