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Day 125: Iron Swords War

By Leah Garber

Each of us has a name
given by God
and given by our parents

Each of us has a name
given by the sea
and given by
our death.

When pain is present without mediation, when it looks at us with its piercing, tormented eyes within touching distance, begging for comfort, for healing, while our tears mix together, it becomes personal. The pain we heard about becomes part of us. It defines us. Each of the scars has a name, each of the cries has a face.

Since October 7, given the war in Israel and the unprecedented rise in antisemitism, leading a Jewish organization in North America is more challenging than ever. The challenges are painted in blue and white, with war-like smoke and the black of hatred.

With this backdrop, 140 JCC executive directors and CEOs from across the continent gathered in Denver this week for JCC Association’s annual Mifgash: Executive Leadership Forum. Throughout, they shared how being a Jew in the land of the free is harder than ever. Being noticed as a Jew is scary, maybe dangerous. Melissa Chapman, CEO of the East Bay JCC in Berkeley, California, shared that she longs to walk down the street proudly, head held high, without hiding her Jewishness. Her disclosure didn’t sound like a delusional desire, but rather a sad reflection of a sad reality.

The monster of hatred that rears its ugly head and venomous jaws in every generation is, once again, armed with inexplicable enmity. It spreads its poison indiscriminately and feeds those hiding from the truth, ignoring the facts. This hatred that was bubbling under the surface like boiling lava erupted with screams for killing as soon as Hamas penetrated Israel on October 7. Before Israel fired the first shot to eradicate the evil forces that massacred its citizens, the beast hurried to accuse Israel of genocide. Ever since, the global Jewish community has faced this well-equipped, well-financed machine that has been spreading nothing but lies for 125 days.

These challenges, concerns, and frustrations made this year’s Mifgash gathering different. It was alarming, emotional, and urgent, not only because of Denver’s local challenges around the rise in antisemitism but also because of the war’s Israeli front, which we heard about firsthand. The pain, the scars, the ever-bleeding wounds crossed the ocean to snowy Denver. Just as each person has a name in Zelda’s poignant poetry, so, too, does each abductee have a family left behind to call for their release. Every survivor has a face that shares the saddest of testimonies.

And so, October 7 became personal.

The Shufuni band, comprising young artists from Sderot and surrounding kibbutzim near the Gaza border, lost some of its performers and audience members 125 days ago. Since then, the band put together a special performance, added new lyrics and original songs, and brought their music—with its unrelenting searing pain—to Denver. The musicians’ voices, like a prayer, enveloped us all, weaving a thread of sadness and grief that bonded us. Mira, Linor, Daniel, and Rotem’s performances pierced our hearts and clung to their chambers, which despite all the suffering, continue to beat with determination.

Linor Ein Gedi sang for the release of the hostages with an amazing voice:

Don’t let us burn alone
Don’t let us burn further on and on
See our bodies, minds, and souls
Don’t let us burn alone, bring them home!

Daniel Weiss lost both his parents. His father was murdered on October 7, and his mother was kidnapped and murdered in Gaza, a helpless hostage. In Denver, he played the guitar he received as a gift from his dad and sang of his longing to return to a time when everything was good, when everyone was together:

If only it was possible for all of us to turn back time
to hold hands, to grow wings
We would fly, look at the water,
just as we used to when we were young and innocent
Living the moment just as we used to.

Six families of Israeli hostages also joined us as part of their journey that included meetings with government officials to arouse sympathetic public opinion, which hopefully will influence the families’ demand to free all the hostages immediately.

Yonatan and Shani were killed at the Nova Music Festival and their bodies were kidnapped to Gaza. We tried to offer Yonatan’s mom, Ayelet, and Shani’s father, Nissim, words of comfort.

We cried with Yaakov Argamani, Noa Argamani’s dad. Noa’s eyes, mirroring her horror are iconic; they are the image of fear. Noa does not know that her mother is terminally ill and prays to see her only daughter one more time before she dies. Yaakov, with his sad, full-of-faith eyes believes in God, and in humanity. He has not lost hope and pleads that we not abandon the pursuit of peace with our neighbors in Gaza. When he asked us to join him in a prayer for peace, we obliged: “May the One who makes peace in the high places make peace for us and for all Israel, and we say, Amen.

The painful encounters this week with victims of the October 7 massacre who had traveled far from Israel’s borders were unbearably difficult. The dissonance between normal life in beautiful Colorado and the crying and pain that engulfed us in the conference halls was overwhelming.

As I sat on the plane on my way back home, I gazed out the window at the bird’s eye view of the snow-capped mountains that crown Denver like a fortified wall.

Israel is fighting, burying the best of the land’s people, the entire nation is in mourning—and the world turns as usual, day in and day out. Colorado’s mountains stand still; October’s autumn turned to a cold winter and soon spring’s blooms will bring new beauty. All the while, we are at war and our hostages, those still alive, have been living October 7 over and over again for 125 days.

Flying into Denver, I not only crossed an ocean but a sea of tears. It was so good to be together with the JCC community as we cried together and comforted each other. We hugged, we shared the pain and the worry.

I returned home to my beloved Israel with a stronger feeling than ever that this long, cold winter, too, will end in a beautiful Israeli spring—just as the Jewish people, thanks to our determination, faith, and adherence to one another, have endured disasters in the past and risen from the ashes like the phoenix that spreads its wings again and again.

Each of us has a name
given by our enemies
and given by our love

And regardless of our cruel enemies, our love and responsibility for one another will lead us to new, brighter, better days. Daniel, Rotem, Liron, and Mira will return home to Sderot and their kibbutzim, and Noa’s Argamni’s mom will hug her daughter again.

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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