When the 80 students (out of record 250 TJJers who are in Israel this summer) awoke Wednesday morning at a kibbutz guest house in the Kinneret, they had been touring northern Israel for several days and had discussed with their advisors the painful exchange of a brutal terrorist for what was widely expected to be the bodies of two Israeli soldiers, Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev. Their plans for Wednesday included Color War and various activities. But when they came down for breakfast and watched the wide-screen TV in the guest house lobby that morning, seeing the delivery of the two coffins to Israel, the teens and advisors were overwhelmed and immediately decided to change their itinerary and to go to Nahariya to pay their respects at the home of Edud Goldwasser’s wife.
“Watching on television was the catalyst. It was not a day for hiking or biking, but to connect with the Jewish people because the country was in mourning,” declared Rabbi Barry Goldfischer, formerly of West Orange, NJ, who is the Israel-based Director of TJJ.
The following are excerpts from essays written by the teenagers upon their return from Nahariya. The emotions of the day and the awakening of their Jewish souls – even beyond what normally transpires in the month-long TJJ program -- will be evident from what they wrote.
(NOTE TO EDITORS: IT IS SUGGESTED THAT YOU PICK AND CHOOSE FROM AMONG THE FOLLOWING ESSAYS, IF THE STORY IS TOO LONG TO PRINT IN ITS ENTIRETY.)
Benjamin Preis, from Pittsburgh, PA:
“While I never knew Ehud Goldwasser, today, it didn’t matter. Today, when I stepped off the bus to light a candle in his memory, I felt as close to him as if he had been my brother. I was saddened by his loss; saddened by the fact that not more than 15 minutes before the two black coffins were brought out of the car by Hezbollah, we didn’t know whether they were alive or dead. But more than that, I was connected. Even though I had never met the soldiers, as Jews, we are all connected. No matter where you are in the world, if you are Jewish, you have a connection to every Jew there is.”
Michael Francus, from Pittsburgh, PA:
“Until today, we have inundated ourselves with Jewish history and donned the emblem of our Jewish heritage. But today, we connected with our palpable, living heritage. Our counselors decided to visit Nahariya and allow us to experience our living heritage. By visiting the home of Ehud Goldwasser and offering our support to his family. However, when we left the bus with memorial candles, the media swarmed around us asking an endless barrage of questions. Caught off-guard, we swiftly lit the candles while the rabbi and counselors sought to organize us. Eventually, we converged on a street corner and Rabbi Goldfischer delivered a profound message.
As we listened intently, the message became lucid and simple: brotherhood. Whether you are in the abyss of Entebbe, the depths of Russia or across the border in Lebanon, if you are Jewish, the Jewish nation and the Jewish state will come to your aid. We proudly raise out moral banner to the heavens and even through trades with the devil we do not falter nor abandon our ideals. This kinship, for unknown brothers and undiscovered friends, universally defines us as a people and a nation. And for this reason, we will thrive."
Gwenn Barney, from Pittsburgh, PA:
“It was supposed to be a day of hiking and biking in Northern Israel. A typical day of NCSY’s TJJ trip. I never would have imagined that the events of this particular day would become one which leave an imprint on my life and remain with me forever.
We’d talked about the proposed trade before. Just the night before the exchange took place, myself and five others had sat with one of our trip’s advisors and discussed what this exchange would mean to Israel and what it meant to us. Twelve hours later I was sitting on the bus heading to the home of one of the deceased soldiers, Ehud Goldwasser. Before this moment, Ehud had just been a conversation piece, a person in no way connected to me. Now, seeing the place where Ehud grew up, I began to feel the gravity of the situation.
I looked at the candles which rested in front of the house, candles memorializing the man Ehud was. It was at this moment as I stood mesmerized by the flickering lights of the candles that I finally understood what my advisor had been trying to tell me the night before. When it comes to the lives of Jewish people there is no numbers game, no value that can be put on a Jewish life. Tragically, it was the deaths of two incredible men which helped me understand this lesson.
On July 16, 2008, I was supposed to go on a hike. Instead, I took an incredible journey.”
Talia Sehayik, from Jupiter, FL:
“In a land where each and every Neshama is guarded and protected, no one is left behind or forgotten. Two Jewish souls, Ehud and Eldad, were captured a couple of years ago and their lives and bodies became a part of the Hezbollah terrorist game. No individual can imagine the experiences of their bodies and souls throughout this time. The nation, especially their close friends and families, experienced two years of emotional torture because the terrorists toyed with their emotions and grief. Even until the last minute before the prisoner swap, the families were clueless as to whether or not their loved ones were dead or alive. This game is unheard of and inhumane. As it was our turn to approach the home, we were swarmed by the media, who was inspired by the group of 41 American teens. They were surprised that these teens took the initiative and cared enough to show their support for Ehud, who died in honor of the land.”
Claire Lee Miller, from West Palm Beach, FL:
“As a Jew, I have been taught that no matter what circumstances seem to arise, the Jewish people must always be unified, Beyachad, whether it is defending a friend in school or holding a rally to protest injustice. We stick together. When I got to the home of Ehud Goldwasser, a returned soldier, I was glad that there were news cameras around. I wanted the world to see that it did not matter if we were a bunch of random teenagers on a summer tour. We are Jews that celebrate together and mourn together, and when we see fellow brethren cry, we cry with them. Throughout the centuries, Jews have been there for each other; whether it is Operation Solomon, Entebbe, or rescuing Jews from the Soviet Union. Wherever, whenever we will always be there for each other. Beyachad, together. Together, we will get through the difficult times and be one another’s rock on which to lean. Beyachad, together, we will hum the songs of the Kaddish and tear our shirts. We are a nation comprised from different souls, yet each with the same spirit for unity.”
Gabrielle Feigenson, from Woodbridge, CT:
“I started my day with a discussion: was Israel doing the right thing by making this exchange? My answer was yes. Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev gave their lives not just for their country, but for their home, Israel, and the least they deserve is to return to their home to be buried. I then spent the rest of the morning watching the exchange on the news with the rest of my bus, learning that while Israel mourned, Lebanon celebrated. A few hours later, I was standing in front of Ehud Goldwasser’s house with a candle in my hand. A little while later I was sitting back on our bus next to one of my advisors. She was crying. I took her hand and sat with her as she cried for our Jewish brothers who had finally returned home.”
Dayna Rothman, from New Haven, CT:
“When we were outside Ehud Goldwasser’s house, after we had all lit our candles, our group leader Rabbi Barry Goldfischer concluded his speech with the words ‘Am Yisrael Chai.’ The nation of Israel lives on forever. Despite everything this country has gone through, the hardships and the happy times, we always pull through and stick together. Every experience I have encountered here in the last two weeks has instilled in me a feeling of family. People care for one another, and as unfortunate and heartbreaking as this event was, I am glad I was in Israel when it happened so that I was able to pay my proper respects to Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev.”
Jenna Shames, from Seattle, WA:
“I couldn’t comprehend why the Israeli government would be willing to trade living terrorists for soldiers who were rumored to be dead. I thought for certain that it was a terrible idea that would lead to more deaths and in the end wouldn’t be worth it. But today as I was watching the news, my heart silently shattered when I saw the men carry out two coffins. I realized that if I had a child that went missing in action, I would be willing to do anything to get them back, to know for certain whether they were alive or not.
It wasn’t real to me, to us, until we stepped off that bus and were immediately engulfed in reporters. Cameras were going off in every direction, people were screaming to each other in Hebrew, and there was pushing and shoving. Rabbi Goldfischer spoke, and he told us of how Lebanon would be shedding tears of joy while Israel was shedding tears of pain. Not one person in our group talked, moved, or probably even breathed as Rabbi Goldfischer talked. His words flowed through us and became as vitally important as the blood in our veins.”
Nina Breen, from Seattle, WA:
“While walking down the steps of the bus to the house of Ehud Goldwasser’s wife, my eyes were met with flashes of bright lights and voices the camera crew and workers. The reality of the deaths of Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev became like a nightmare as emotions start to rush into my body. Emotions of sadness for the families, anger that the media is treating this tragedy just as another story needing to be rushed until finished. As I light a yartzheit candle, a new emotion comes over me. Not one of anger or pain, but instead an emotion of love and a slight bit of hope for the future.
No matter what tragedy may occur the nation of Israel stands together and is always there to take the action, yet even more so it is there to comfort. It’s on days like today that I realize how important and even more how proud I am to shout: I AM A JEW!”
Esther Tsvaygenbaum, from Albany, NY:
“Nothing has moved or touched me like today impacted me, or left a mark on my life, heart, and head as this event has. I know nothing can or will ever compare. Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev died protecting and fighting for Israel and for that reason, I was honored to pay my respects to them.
Hazak, hazak. Be brave, be strong. Hazak, hazak. We will go on. The family of Israel will unite once again and continue to be a strong people. No matter what, this bond of love is everlasting. I stand as one with Israel; this beautiful nation will live on.”
Maya Shor, from Great Neck, NY:
“Seeing the tears and numerous cameras, I was speechless. All of Israel had come together from near and far to offer support. I felt honored to be in Israel at such a time to offer my support. Israel and I gave support to all of the numerous families. As I walked through the blurry crowd of reporters, I realized the undeniable love present in this land. Being in Israel, I witnessed how every citizen is part of a very large family. I was with my family and I had been able to mourn for my two bothers.”
Alexander Schneider, from Newton, MA:
“At Rosh HaNikrah, a single hill separates the two nations of Israel and Lebanon. Our bus drives this solemn July afternoon on the southern side along an Israeli highway. I am aware looking out at the hill that as a Jew and a participant on NCSY’s The Jerusalem Journey (TJJ) that I will never have the opportunity to cross this border. And yet, the setting sun that now shines over our tour bus is – no doubt – visible from either side. It is a reminder that this conflict will one day end.
The entire country came together to mourn in Israel, as throughout the Jewish community, there is a feeling of responsibility and dedication to individuals. In Judaism, we celebrate the achievements of our neighbors and mourn when issues befall one of the members of our community. The ideal is stated simply: ‘Kol yisrael areivim zeh l’zeh.’ All Jews are responsible for one another. That is the reality of Israel – in such a small country, the news comes alive and affects everyone. Even a bunch of American NCSYers.”