OU DIARY: AN ESTEEMED AMERICAN RABBI GIVES AN EYEWITNESS REPORT ON ISRAEL AT WAR: ‘THE HARDEST THING IS SEEING THE PEOPLE’
Orthodox Union Executive Vice President Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb arrived in Israel Monday, leading a mission of OU leaders who came to observe the many activities of the Seymour J. Abrams OU Jerusalem World Center in assisting the population during a time of war. Most notable among these programs has been the dispatch of 700 volunteers, at great personal risk, to the North to bring comfort to those spending their lives in bomb shelters. These activities include games and toys to occupy the children in the shelters and are made possible, in great part, through money raised by the OU’s Israel Emergency Fund.
Rabbi Weinreb has been sending back emotional reports of the group’s travels every day since arrival. Excerpts follow of his eyewitness observations of a nation at war and how the OU is bringing aid and comfort to its people.
Monday, August 7 — Unbelievable. I am sitting here in the Israel Center in the middle of a group from the North – men, women and children, from Kiryat Shemonah and Ma’alot, with Israel Center staff and a bunch of volunteers. There are easily a hundred from the North, real people with nowhere to go. The chizuk (strength) we gave them is mighty. You should have heard the applause for the OU when I told them that we just came from the United States. There are so many kids – they are in a daze. Like their parents, they don’t know what hit them. Chavi (Mrs. Weinreb) is sitting and bawling and I am not much more “controlled.” The group just hugged us and kissed us. Each child came over and kissed my hand.
Everyone credits Israel Center Director Rabbi Avi Berman, who just started his job in July, for his very powerful “interdepartmental programming.” You can’t imagine the emotion in this room as one fellow concludes his story with, “We are gaining strength from you.”
Tuesday, August 8 – Menachem Persoff, Program Director of the Israel Center, escorted me to a farm near Rechovot to meet a large group of Makom Balev campers. (NOTE: The Israel Center’s Makom Balev (Place in the Heart) program brings inspiring, educational and fun programming to both religious and non-religious economically disadvantaged teens throughout Israel.) These teens are from various neighborhoods and would be on the streets if not for this camp. A group from Nahariya was supposed to have joined us, but their parents were afraid to let them leave the bomb shelters. This group of boys and girls were picking tomatoes, one of which I tasted. Nothing like peirot haaretz (the fruits of the earth) straight from the ground.
Another group, picking onions, was from our NCSY (National Conference of Synagogue Youth) Kollel program, which is spending the summer in Israel studying Torah at a very advanced level, and enjoying chesed (acts of loving kindness) activities such as today’s farm visit. They were having a grand time. All the vegetables were boxed and shipped to Northern communities, which have difficulties accessing food.
People from the North who come to our offices are treated with special concern. So many people at the Israel Center have sons or other close relatives in the army. It is hard to understand how they are able to work. The radio announces the names and biographies of all the dead, particularly the soldiers, and even keeps providing funeral details.
Wednesday, August 9 – Well, we are on the road. Our group’s first stop was the Park Plaza Hotel in Jerusalem, which is full of displaced persons from the North. We met a family from Miron who left after the rockets started. We saw a number of families from Miron and Tzefat and heard their stories — confined to shelters, wandering from place to place, not knowing where they will be this weekend, homes abandoned and often looted, children traumatized, on and on.
We received full reports from two leaders of our volunteers with story after story of the work we do. We watched a group of our young women take a batch of kids to the park – a small thing, but a big mitzvah because these children have been confined to shelters or hotel rooms for days on end. And this way the parents get some relief.
As one of our group said, the hardest thing is seeing the people. When you see real people, who have active, normal lives and who were living peacefully and are suddenly war refugees, it is hard to take. Only it doesn’t seem real. As one person from Tzefat said, “Here it is Yerushalayim (Jerusalem); in Tzefat it is Kosovo.”
After visiting various communities, we returned to Yerushalayim and the Israel Center, where we met with Rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu, Rav of Tzefat. I told him how helpless we feel in America and how much we want to help. He spoke of his experiences in Tzefat over the past few weeks, over the pain he feels with each rocket, with each burned car, with each burned bush.
He described what it feels like to hear the siren and to hear the approach and landing of the rocket. Rav Eliyahu spoke of feeling great strength on the one hand but great fear on the other hand. He says he never saw such an outpouring of chesed. I too, have seen tremendous chesed. I promised to visit him in Tzefat and to bring a large group of Americans with me.
After these few days, I have the following words for American Jews: Don’t waste your time and energy discussing the political and military issues and listening to or offering advice or criticism. Spend your time raising money for causes that help people here. Be careful to give your money only to proven organizations. Give encouragement in any way you can. Letters or calls to Israel, appearances at rallies and demonstrations, are the way to go. Above all, tefilla – prayer.
Meeting Rav Eliyahu was a great honor; seeing the tears in his eyes and his quivering voice was a great privilege; but hearing his courageous message was most uplifting and encouraging. He gets his strength, he told us, from knowing that all of us are in this together and feel connected to him. We parted with expressions of sadness mixed with hope.