Skip links

Main navigation

Bearing Witness: Jewish Peoplehood

By Rabbi Bill Kaplan

Am Yisrael Chai |The people of Israel live is the solidarity anthem of our people, an expression of Jewish peoplehood and an affirmation of the continuity of the Jewish people. Our people. So, in solidarity with Israel in the aftermath of the tragic events of October 7, I joined 40 other lay and professional leaders of the JCC Movement on a mission in January to personally bear witness and to represent the North American Jewish community in support of our Israeli family. As a visual and sensory person, I needed to see, hear, touch, and feel what had happened. Prior to the mission, I watched hours of news coverage and Facebook posts and videos, but it still felt distant, removed. I needed to be there. I needed to bear witness.

And we did bear witness. We bore witness to the devastating “pogrom” that took place on October 7 and the trauma that continues. On our tour of the Gaza envelope, we saw the destruction at Kibbutz Nir Oz and heard stories of those who were killed, those taken into Gaza, and those who survived. I cried.

Am Yisrael Chai—This was our people massacred, who lost their lives, whose lives are forever changed.

We stood in the fields at the site of the Nova Music Festival and looked into the eyes of the young victims on the posters at their makeshift memorials. They looked like my children. We imagined them enjoying life, dancing, celebrating peace, and then horrifically experiencing the unimaginable atrocities. I cried.

Am Yisrael Chai—These were our children violated, whose lives were violently cut short, and who continue to be held in captivity.

After the mission, I went back to the Nova site. That day, trees were being planted and permanent memorials were being created for the victims—with their families there honoring their loved ones. I bore witness to their anguish. I cried.

Am Yisrael Chai—These were our families suffering.

At the headquarters of Bring Them Home Now, we met the father of hostage Omri Miran, a husband and father of two young daughters who was taken to Gaza from Nir Oz, and in Jerusalem, Rabbi Doron Perez, executive chairman of the Mizrachi World Movement, whose son, a soldier, is also a hostage. They shared what happened to their sons on October 7, and we all felt their pain. I have a son. I cried.

Am Yisrael Chai—These are our sons.

In the article in eJewishPhilanthropy about our solidarity mission, Doron Krakow, president and CEO of JCC Association of North America, shared: “for the 40 people who came on this mission, they understand that they are now first-person witnesses to what happened here, and they must be spokespeople for what they saw and for what they heard.”

As Krakow shared, I am a witness, and I am a spokesperson to what happened. However, I am also a witness and a spokesperson to what is happening, something incredible and representative of the spirit of Am Yisrael Chai. I saw what Fred Rogers described in his quote: “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.” I found them everywhere. I bore witness to Israelis and Jews (and non-Jews) from all over the world helping wherever needed.

On our mission, we heard from leaders of the country’s community centers who are working tirelessly to serve their communities, many among the 200,000 people who had to evacuate and are scattered across the country. We met the heads of Kfar Maccabiah, who without thinking of financial concerns, welcomed in evacuees with open arms and are providing needed mental health and wellness services for victims.

Am Yisrael Chai—These are our inspiring colleagues and friends.

After the mission, I stayed, volunteering to pick lemons at a moshav near Sderot and avocados at Kibbutz Be’eri and packaged donated items for evacuees and for soldiers near Gaza. I worked next to Yom Kippur War veterans; an Israeli grandmother; Thai workers; religious Israeli families; kibbutzniks; young Israelis from Tel Aviv; a retiree from London; a woman and her teenage daughter from France; a businessman from Brazil who took a month off to volunteer; an Australian family; my college roommate and friend from New York; and so many others—all there to help. One evening while providing food for soldiers, I was amazed by the tireless energy of our leader, Yossi, a member of ZAKA, the voluntary emergency response team, and a first responder on October 7, who spends three days a week organizing volunteers to barbeque for soldiers at their bases outside Gaza.

Am Yisrael Chai—These are our helpers, our angels, our people.

I met an inspiring 23-year-old woman from Baltimore, Yocheved Kim Ruttenberg, who dropped everything after October 7 and came to Israel, to thank her for being the “helper of the helpers.” Upon her arrival in October, she saw so many who wanted to volunteer, but did not know how or where. She created the Facebook page Sword of Iron—Volunteer Opportunities. Over 12,000 people have joined and are finding opportunities picking and packaging fruits and vegetables, visiting the injured, bringing duffel bags from abroad stuffed with items for soldiers, sitting shiva for fallen soldiers, donating blood, and more.

Am Yisrael Chai—Ruttenberg embodies and models our resilient Jewish spirit, and she, as a current and future Jewish leader, represents the best of our people.

I will never forget our mission and my volunteer experience. Yes, I bore witness to the tragedy of October 7 and a country and a people in trauma, but I also bore witness to the remarkable spirit of resilience and the inspiring culture of volunteerism of our people. We showed up in solidarity, and everywhere I went, our Israeli brothers and sisters truly appreciated our being there for them. This is what peoplehood is all about.

Am Yisrael Chai!

Rabbi Bill Kaplan is the CEO of Shalom Institute in Los Angeles, California. He participated in the JCC Association Leadership Solidarity Mission to Israel in January 2024.

This blog post is one in a series authored by JCC CEOs and executive directors who recently visited Israel on one of two different JCC Movement Solidarity Missions. Read other posts in the series.

Subscribe to JCC Association's Blog
  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.

Reader Interactions


  1. Rabbi Bill Kaplan epitomizes the feelings we all have about the recent horrible events since Oct 7th.
    To him and the other 40 folk in the group KOL HAKAVOD and there is no doubt that AM YISROEL will CHAI