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History Will Repeat Itself

By Steve Rogers

We have all heard the adage that “A picture is worth a thousand words.” Although, of course, it is true to some extent, there are certain times when nothing compares to “Hineni” | “I am here.” At those few moments in life, seeing with your own eyes is worth a thousand pictures.

On the morning of September 11, 2001, I watched in horror as terrorist hijackers crashed Flight 175 into the World Trade Center’s South Tower. I was safely across the Hudson River in Jersey City, New Jersey, in what at the time was the tallest building in the state. Our 29th-floor office looked directly at the Twin Towers. The immense fireball as the second plane struck will forever be etched in my mind’s eye. I have seen that fireball hundreds of times over the past 20+ years—TV, film, pictures….nothing compares to what I saw live with my own eyes.

In August 2014, I was privileged to be part of a mission to Israel during that Gaza War, in support of those who live with the constant fear of the next missile attack. With a shared deep pain, I have heard their stories dozens and dozens of times, and its impact on me has been a driving force in my life. But you just can’t imagine what it is like only from pictures and words…. We stood before an apartment building near Sderot—one of Israel’s towns closest to Gaza—that had been damaged earlier that day in a missile attack. Staring at the damage, it was truly a miracle that all survived. Suddenly, the sirens blared, and our group was escorted—quickly pushed is more descriptive, “hurry, HURRY, HURRY!”—to the nearest bomb shelter, about 50 yards away. We were too many to get inside, so we stood huddled in a small group and watched as two missiles headed in our direction. As sudden as the first blare of the sirens, Iron Dome interceptors appeared and knocked both missiles out of the sky. From that incredibly brief encounter, I will forever have a different perspective on what it is like to live in Israel under constant threat.

Thanks to modern technology and the bravery of news reporters, in February 2022 we could sit in our living rooms and watch the horror of war and the humanitarian crisis resulting from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. I was honored to join a small group to stand face-to-face in solidarity with Ukrainian refugees fleeing into Poland. Seeing and touching these souls who had been displaced, often leaving everything behind and not knowing when, or even if, they would be able to return to their homes, was deeply painful. Seeing the pain and fear of the unknown in every pair of eyes I locked on was heartbreaking. It was another time when the thousands of words of a picture tell you only a very small part of the story.

If I thought that being an eyewitness to these historic moments would have prepared me to stand in the western Negev Desert, approximately three miles from the Israel-Gaza border, near Kibbutz Re’im—on the grounds of the Nova Music Festival—I was flat out wrong. This time, I was standing with what felt like my family. It was my family—both the victims and those standing with me that day. We stood at the spot where 364 beautiful young souls were shot, beaten, and burned simply for being Jewish. A mass slaughter of millennials and Gen Zers doing nothing but celebrating life. The site has turned into an impromptu memorial, with pictures on stakes of each of the victims. As I stood there and stared at the faces of the victims, I could not even imagine the unfolding scene of joy as it turned into terror.

I saw so many scenes of destruction and death on our mission to Israel, but it is the faces of the Nova victims that will be etched in my mind’s eye for the rest of my life. Because seeing with your own eyes is worth a thousand pictures, it is incumbent upon all of us to bear witness.

While the deep pain of bearing witness was the overriding emotion of the mission, everywhere we went, every person we met, and every story we heard reminded us of the resilience and defiance of Israelis and the Jewish people. Although Israel’s underestimation of Hamas led to tragic consequences, we were reminded, and uplifted, time and time again as it became clear that the underestimation by Israel was dwarfed by how much Hamas underestimated the power of Jewish unity. The verdict of history is that cultures that worship death, die, while those that sanctify life live on. That is why Judaism survives while the great empires that sought its destruction were themselves destroyed. Once again, history will repeat itself.

Steve Rogers is the chief executive officer of the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades in Tenafly, New Jersey. 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.

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