Two rabbis and a lay leader traveled to Israel during the war: Rabbis Seth Adelson and Yitzi Genack went with rabbinic missions, while Michael Milch journeyed with the Jewish Federations of North America.
The visits, each Pittsburgher told the Chronicle, were opportunities to observe and strengthen Jewish peoplehood.
Adelson, of Congregation Beth Shalom, spent three days with the Masorti movement, meeting individuals and seeing spaces immediately impacted by the war.
After arriving on Nov. 6, the rabbis visited one of five distribution centers established by Achim Laneshek (Brothers and Sisters in Arms), a volunteer organization committed to providing displaced families with clothing, toys, games, cribs, housewares and other aid, Adelson said.
Achim Laneshek was created during the past year’s judicial reform protests.
Given the group’s ability to quickly “mobilize,” volunteers sprang into action following Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack in Israel, Adelson said.
Following their observation of the distribution center, the Conservative rabbis spoke with Ayelet Levy Shachar. Her daughter, Naama Levy, 19, is one of an estimated 240 hostages taken by Hamas on Oct. 7.
“She knows nothing about her daughter’s whereabouts. Her existence is really quite miserable, as you can imagine,” Adelson said.
The rabbis organized a small prayer gathering outside the Tel Aviv Museum Square in an area now called “Captives Square.”
Along with reciting prayers for the hostages and the Israel Defense Forces, the rabbis sang “Lu Yehi,” a song written and composed by Naomi Shemer during the 1973 Yom Kippur War.
Adelson told the Chronicle that during the gathering he informed colleagues that his son is a member of the IDF and is serving on Israel’s northern border. Adelson then told the other rabbis that in Pittsburgh, volunteers created an empty Shabbat table for hostages like the one installed outside the Tel Aviv Museum of Art.
On Nov. 7, Adelson and the rabbis visited Kfar Aza and Ofakim, two areas heavily attacked by Hamas one month earlier.
The remnants of those attacks remained obvious, he said.
In Kfar Aza, a village less than two miles from Gaza, the rabbis observed destroyed cars and homes, and spoke with members of the IDF and a resident of the village.
“After the Hamasnikim came in, Gazans came in and looted people’s personal stuff. It’s scattered all over the place,” Adelson said. “When Israel finally retook the area, the ground was littered with bodies.”
Before the war, Kfar Aza possessed nearly 700 residents. Approximately 60 were murdered by Hamas terrorists on Oct. 7, according to Times of Israel.
In Ofakim, Adelson and his fellow spiritual guides witnessed other reminders of the carnage.
Vehicles, which belonged to Nova music festival attendees, were grouped in a parking lot, Adelson said. “Many of the cars had bullet holes in the windshields. In many cases, the glass was broken. You could see people’s personal stuff inside — strollers, purses — some of the stuff was melted and burned.”
Adelson photographed a vehicle produced by BYD Auto.
“It’s somewhat ironic that the car says, ‘Build Your Dreams,’” Adelson said. “The back window was shot out.”
Genack, of Shaare Torah Congregation, traveled to Israel between Oct. 29 and Nov. 3 alongside Orthodox rabbis on a mission organized by the Rabbinical Council of America, Mizrachi and RIETS.
“I saw a country that I was not familiar with,” he said. “Everybody was completely activated and completely engaged.”
Whether it was simply noticing countless uniformed soldiers throughout the country, or watching volunteers pack food for refugees and caring for displaced people, the engagements were “serious and inspiring,” Genack said.
In Ofakim, Genack said he saw the “strength and perseverance” of a community where people are “living this grief together.”
He described walking the streets of the southern city and seeing shiva notices lining Ofakim’s walls.
During a separate visit to an army base with Rabbi Yosef Zvi Rimon, Chief Rabbi of Gush Etzion, Genack attended a barbecue for soldiers. The event was held in memory of those killed on Oct. 7.
Along with hearing from a deceased soldier’s mother, Genack said he watched soldiers — of varying religious practices — dance together.
When Rimon offered dog tags with the imprinted words of “Shema Yisrael,” soldiers quickly took the small metal pieces, Genack said: “There’s almost like a spiritual revivalism that’s going together with the national revivalism and the unity there.”
Genack told the Chronicle that he, too, took one of the dog tags, and while exiting Israel was stopped by security at Ben Gurion Airport.
He said a young woman asked about the odd metal marker: “I said, ‘I am a rabbi from America. I am here with Rabbi Rimon, and this is for you.’”
Genack said the security agent cried, and he did as well.
“People are together, and they are strong, but not in a way that buries or counteracts their grief. They really feel their grief at the same time as they are pushing together and sharing their determination,” he said. “The trip was very profound, very inspiring and very serious all at once.”
Squirrel Hill resident Michael Milch traveled to Israel between Oct. 30 and Nov. 3 with Jewish Federations of North America.
Milch, a member of the organization’s Young Leadership Cabinet, said he visited the Jewish state to strengthen Israelis: “I ended up leaving with probably about 50 times as much inspiration from them as I was able to give.”
During an Oct. 31 visit with individuals whose loved ones are captives of Hamas, Milch heard stories and suggestions.
“It was a very difficult and very emotional day. I did not understand the magnitude of it until I listened to the firsthand accounts and heard from people who were locked in their saferooms with their families — some of their family members didn’t make it out, some didn’t survive, some did survive and are now hostages — some of these people expressed guilt for surviving; it was a very difficult day, and I want to bring their message back,” he said. “They want us to reach out to our elected officials and tell them to do everything they can to bring the hostages home. It’s obviously a very complicated situation, but I took the message to heart and have tried to reach out to as many people as I possibly can.”
Milch spent Nov. 1 visiting a United Hatzalah warehouse and speaking with members of the volunteer Israeli medical service.
“The cost of what it’s taken to restock supplies since Oct. 7 is tremendous. There are people who are working behind the scenes to give men, women, Jews, Arabs, Druze, everyone the supplies they need,” he said.
Since Oct. 7, the organization has enabled more than 2,500 physicians, paramedics and EMTs to rely on 375 emergency vehicles. And, during the initial days of war, of the 3,800 people who were treated, 800 were transported to hospitals by United Hatzalah volunteers, according to the organization.
Milch called the volunteers “heroes” and said hearing their stories was “incredibly moving.”
Before leaving Israel, Milch traveled to Holon and attended the funeral of Sgt. Itay Yehuda, 20, a member of the Givati Brigade who, according to the IDF, was killed in fighting on Oct. 31.
“I saw thousands of people crying,” Milch said.
Now back in Pittsburgh, the Squirrel Hill resident told the Chronicle he has a better understanding of “the work that the Jewish Agency, JDC, Hatzalah and countless other organizations are doing to keep citizens protected.”
Everywhere Milch traveled in Israel, people thanked him for visiting but reiterated one message, he said: “We need the support to keep coming. It can’t wane, not from our brothers and sisters, not from members of Congress and The White House and not from other governments across the world.”
The Squirrel Hill resident said he hopes fellow Pittsburghers heed those words and contact elected officials: “We need to tell them that the hostages must be released, that Israel needs our support and will continue to need our support, and hopefully sometime soon we see peace.” PJC
Adam Reinherz can be reached at email@example.com.