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Day 118: Iron Swords War

By Leah Garber

Thoughts From Afar

This week, for the first time since the beginning of the war, I left the borders of Israel.

It’s a strange feeling to leave home in the middle of a war. How is it that the earth is still burning, 136 hostages are still in captivity in the darkness of Gaza, and here I sit, enjoying a packed flight?

The airport in Tel Aviv is different—quieter, with few departing flights, the vast majority of which are on Israeli airlines. A display of all the hostages accompanies passengers as they walk toward their gates, their faces almost whispering, “Don’t forget us. Take our stories with you. Share them. Bring us back home.”

In the shorter-than-usual lines, random conversations can be heard, and they are all about the war. One family came to Israel for a quick four-day visit to meet their son, a lone soldier serving in Gaza. Others came for a few days to volunteer. Another group shares experiences from their solidarity mission, and so forth. It seems as though all passengers either visited Israel or are flying out for reasons other than for a holiday. People don’t just travel for pleasure; now it’s related to the war.

The war, the anxiety, the sense of shared pain hovers above. We can’t escape it, and no one wants to escape it.

I let my thoughts wander over the past 118 days. We’ve been through so much since October 7; the country has changed, I’ve changed. I’m not the same person I was before. The war has left a mark on me. My soul, exposed to unimaginable horror, will never be the same again. My broken heart has yet to heal,  and it will not as long as my people are held in Gaza. Not as long as the threat of Hamas remains. Not as long as so many families are still evacuated. Not as long as more and more families must bury their loved ones. Not as long the pain is so raw, and the wounds still bleed.

I arrived in Stamford, Connecticut, for the Jewish Agency for Israel’s joint conference for shlichim (Israeli emissaries) and their supervisors. Entering the hotel lobby, I saw significant security and Israeli flags and heard Hebrew being spoken. Embracing dear young men and women who have chosen to serve the Jewish people through their shlichut in this difficult time really felt good. It’s comforting to feel at home away from home.

Following their military service or for some their bachelor’s degree, these young Israelis chose to go on an educational mission for two or three years and share their great love for Israel with members of Jewish communities in North America.

On October 7, many of them got a Tzav 8, an emergency military order instructing every Israeli who receives it to report for reserve duty immediately for an unknown period. Shlichim here in America received the order, forcing them to decide whether to join their brothers in arms to fight the war on the dangerous front against Hamas or stay here and continue their work, which, especially now, is more important than ever.

The easy answer was to return to Israel to fight. Staying here, despite the difficulty of being far from home and friends, was the harder choice.

They chose to mourn their friends who fell in battle or were massacred on October 7 from a far, and while worrying about their siblings, best friends, and so many others who are at risk every day, they mobilized to serve here. Their service includes educating members about the horrors of war side by side with the beauty of streets that came to life with Israelis in unity and solidarity, following a long and painful period of division.

In one of the conference sessions, we discussed challenges the shlichim are facing. I asked them to share how they’re managing to bridge the gap between the personal and the professional. How is it possible to begin every day by calling home to talk with your parents who were evacuated and have been living in a hotel for 118 days because returning home is too dangerous? Or checking in on a beloved family member who was seriously injured in Gaza and is still in a coma? Or chatting with friends who have been in Gaza for months? Or hearing a mom’s worried voice and then putting on a happy face to walk into a bustling, busy, cheerful, community center? How do these young people reconcile the gap between a very real, constantly present notion of the catastrophe while being a part of an agency where life, alongside the war, must go on, where greeting early childhood kids with a big, happy smile must be done?

What the shlichim described are that JCCs, now more than ever, are their safe spaces, a mini Israel, a place where the Israeli flag is proudly waved, even if as a precautionary measure, it is inside the building. It’s a place where “Am Yisrael Chai” is constantly heard—and has greater meaning than ever. It’s a place that feels like home, a place where when people ask, “How are you doing?” they really want to know, even if the answer may be painful. The war has brought the shlichim closer to these communities and connected them more deeply.

For their part, their supervisors expressed gratitude and great respect for the shlichim, as well as appreciation for their decision to stay and serve the Jewish people from here. They consider their shlichim to be agents of change—and rely on them to preserve the communities’ connections with Israel—which is not always an easy task these days, especially considering harsh anti-Israeli sentiments.

Some shlichim expressed feeling—for the first time in their lives—a sense of existential fear as Jews, having experienced antisemitism, also for the first time ever. Now they get it. They understand and appreciate what it means to be a Jew outside Israel. They talked about their sense of belonging to the Jewish people and how that belonging was strengthened because of the war and the solidarity they experienced. Although they left Israel as Israelis, they will return home with a stronger identity as Jews. The war presented them with an opportunity to reclaim their Jewish values, and they did—thanks to their experiences here in their JCC communities. They also said that until the war, many in the communities they’re serving defined themselves as Jews but now have added a new identity: They are also Israelis.

The shlichim supervisors shared the challenges they’ve faced as Jewish professionals since October 7. It’s not easy, they said, to be exposed to hate, lies, and malicious propaganda—and still to keep their heads up and not to give up. For some, the war presented a mirror image to that of the shlichim, strengthening their sense of identification with Israel, and, for some, seeing themselves not only as American or Canadians Jews, but also as Israelis.

Indeed, the war has changed us all—in so many ways.

Crossing the ocean has provided me with this important opportunity to embrace the shlichim and express my deep appreciation for their commitment and at the same time, my very deep gratitude to their host JCCs, represented by their supervisors, for the most authentic, meaningful expressions of Jewish solidarity—felt like never before.

So, although the temperature outside was cold, snowflakes flew, and the trees were bare of leaves, inside the room was cozy. The sense of shared destiny and unity kept us warm.

We are together in this story; it is the story of all of us. Although its beginning was written by a cruel enemy, we are the ones who are writing its next chapters—and we are doing so together.

Now is the time to harness this beautiful and sacred sense of unity, to shape our future and write our great Jewish peoplehood book together. Yes, it includes chapters full of blood and pain and grief, of misery and bereavement, but it also includes marvelous chapters of our strength, resilience, and a just fight to preserve our homeland.

Now, more than ever, together, united, we will overcome.

Leah Garber is a senior vice president of JCC Association of North America and director of its Center for Israel Engagement in Jerusalem.

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