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From Horror and Tragedy to Resilience and Hope

By Todd Rockoff

I have always believed deeply in the power of the JCC Movement as an enterprise that strengthens Jewish peoplehood and builds a profound connection to Israel. The fortitude and future of the Jewish people depend on vibrant Jewish life in Israel and worldwide. Spending time in Israel as a part of JCC Association’s Leadership Solidarity Mission to Israel was a remarkable, emotion-laden experience. The consistent thread was the deep gratitude Israelis expressed for our presence, just for showing up. People in Israel are feeling alone, and our being there means something, a concept Rabbi Sharon Brous addresses in her new book, “The Amen Effect: Ancient Wisdom to Mend Our Broken Hearts and World,” when she states: “Err on the side of presence.”

A related teaching—Kol Yisrael areivim zeh bezeh | All Israel is responsible for one another—highlights our interconnectedness and the collective responsibility we bear for each other. In a world that often emphasizes individualism, these words remind us to support, uplift, and care for one another. They urge us to extend our hands in assistance, our hearts in compassion, and our minds in understanding.

Rabbi Doron Perez, executive chairman of the Mizrachi World Movement, taught us about gam v’gam, meaning “both and this” or “also this and also that.” Being in Israel animated that idea: We saw the horror of what occurred on October 7 and in all the days that followed, and we felt the hope and resilience of the remarkable people of Israel.

Toward the end of our stay, we visited the Magen David Adom Marcus National Blood Center. The center was supposed to open “after the holidays,” but the events of October 7 changed those plans. This center is built 60 feet underground to serve the country’s needs today and tomorrow. During our visit, we saw pictures of 14 ambulances that were targeted and attacked by the terrorists as a part of their plan, a blatant example of the barbaric nature of what happened on that day. We also heard the story of a new mother and F-16 pilot who, thanks to donations of breast milk available through the blood center, could return to work in the military only two weeks after giving birth, knowing her baby would be fed. Gam v’gam.

We also visited the matnass (community center) in Lod, where we met with representatives from the Israel Association of Community Centers (IACC) and directors of matnassim. All of them told us, “We appreciate your being here; we feel alone.” One of the directors told our group, “We will be okay; there is no other choice.” One of our Israeli colleagues who is running one of these centers is serving a community of people who currently are displaced throughout the country, planning events and programs to keep them close in spirit, and attending to their own family members, all of whom—like the country—are experiencing trauma. Adi from Shar HaNegev said, “We need to be able to imagine the future. It may be years away, but we need to see it.” For our part, we need to partner with our colleagues, helping them to build this future. Gam v’gam, tragedy, and hope.

At Kibbutz Nir Oz, we stood one mile from the border with the Gaza Strip before Ron, a member of the kibbutz, took us from house to house, telling us the names of the families and their stories from October 7—who was taken, who was murdered, who survived. These stories are about the names, not the numbers. As Avraham Infeld teaches, telling our stories helps turn history into memory. History belongs to someone else; memory belongs to us. The story of what happened on October 7 and continues today is our story, and it needs to be told. I thought I understood what it meant to bear witness, but I did not fully understand it until I stood on the ground and talked to the people. In Sderot, Ofakim, and Nir Oz everyone said that living along the Gaza envelope was 99% heaven and 1% something else, and on that one day everything changed. It is a beautiful area, and I could see what the 99% was and why it is so important to ensure it is safe and rebuilt.

I believe in the words of the late Lord Rabbi Jonathon Sacks: “Optimism is the belief that things will get better. Hope is the belief that, if we work hard enough, we can make things better….It needs no courage, only a certain naiveté, to be an optimist. It needs a great deal of courage to have hope.”

Heading home, I knew I was leaving a piece of my heart in Israel, but I was glad to leave it in the warm embrace of our brother and sister Israelis who were so happy we came to support them and see what can only be described as absolute horror.

Jim Valvano the late basketball coach at North Carolina State University said, “If you laugh, you think, and you cry, that’s a full day.” Our days in Israel were full in every way. I love this homeland of ours and cannot wait to return.

Todd Rockoff is the president and CEO of the Tucson JCC in Arizona and a member of JCC Association’s board. He co-chaired JCC Association’s 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.

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