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Of Heroes and Leaders | Shabbat Shalom 18 Kislev 5784

By Doron Krakow 

Of Heroes and Leaders 

What to make of a week? What to make of this one? It began with the grudging release of hostages from the clutches of Hamas. Slowly they emerged. Wide-eyed. Traumatized. Haunted. Nearly all of them women and children. They’d been released knowing that others, many from their own families, remained behind. Only partial relief. Partial freedom. Too many came home to learn they have no home. That parents or spouses for whom they’d longed were dead. They brought news of others thought missing, those they’d seen murdered in Gaza. The butchers made sure that the hoped-for celebration would be a hollow one. All this before even the first, small, hesitant steps into the hell of their ongoing trauma—a trauma that will follow them like a shadow through the rest of their lives.

On Monday I visited a friend of a friend at Loewenstein Hospital in Ra’anana—Israel’s foremost rehabilitation hospital. A dear friend of his who’d been there since that terrible day. Avraham is a long-time member of Israel’s volunteer search and rescue squad, the people who race to find lost hikers, survivors of flash floods, those injured in off-roading accidents. Salt of the earth. They’re on call 24 hours a day and rush into harm’s way whenever the alert sounds.

On the morning of October 7, Avraham was working at the local MDA Ambulance Corps in Ofakim when a call came in about three people wounded in a terrorist attack. They rushed south as the slaughter unfolded and succeeded in evacuating two of them. The third had succumbed to his wounds. As soon as they were clear, Avraham and his team put on their IDF uniforms, grabbed their guns, and made for the communities under attack. They entered Kibbutz Holit—the first soldiers on the scene—and immediately were engaged by Hamas fighters lying in wait. Moments later, Avraham took a bullet through his neck. Dragged to safety by his buddies, two of whom would not survive the day, he was evacuated and brought back to life twice en route to the hospital.

He told me his story from a wheelchair—to which he’s been confined with no feeling from the chest down. Rehab has restored the use of his arms and hands, and there is hope for further progress. Welcome news for his wife and four young children. His spirits were remarkably good—at least they seemed to be—and when my friend asked him “If you could go back to that terrible day, what would you have done differently?” he said, “Not a thing.”

The next evening, I was privileged to attend an extraordinary program. Musicians and performers from communities along the Gaza border. Sderot, a town of 30,000, has become a hub for the Israeli music scene, drawing established talents and rising stars. One of its remarkable successes is Shufuni—a monthly talent showcase begun in 2022 for those still-undiscovered. The Shufuni community suffered grievous losses that day—several members killed, others taken. Nearly all lost family or friends.

Tuesday, a dozen or so came together in Tel Aviv. In a beautiful auditorium on the edge of Rabin Square, they played for an audience they couldn’t see but that had the enormous privilege to see and hear them. (Watch the performance, which begins about 30 minutes into the video.) Their audience was in JCCs across Canada and the United States as the evening was part of Mit-habrim | מתחברים | Connections. Begun in the wake of October 7, the initiative, a partnership between the JCCs of North America and Israel’s Ministry of Diaspora Affairs, is dedicated to connecting the voices, talents, and stories of Israelis to Jewish communities across the globe. Some events are taking place online, while others will bring speakers and storytellers, experts and educators, actors and musicians on tour.

The music was beautiful and the talent impressive, but neither was what made the experience one that I will remember for the rest of my life. Each performer shared their stories. Where they’d been. What they’d seen. Then they poured their souls into the music—their voices and instruments transmitters for their broken hearts and their hopes for better days.

Daniel Weiss, from Kibbutz Be’eri, dedicated his performance to his mom and dad. His father, Shmulik, was murdered there on October 7. Yehudit, his mom, was taken—her body discovered in Shifa Hospital in Gaza City on November 15. Shiva had ended on Sunday—and yet, Tuesday evening, he’d insisted on being there. On singing for them.

It was strange to be in a concert hall of empty chairs, the only applause coming from the other musicians, the crew, and me. I didn’t need a backstage pass to speak with them afterward. I just walked over and told them they’d touched my heart, as I’m sure they did to those so many thousands of miles away. A representative of our movement—of the North American Jewish community—I told them that we are with them. That we love them. That we share in their pain and their determination to keep their music and memories alive. A number of them will soon travel to JCC communities, where you’ll be able to experience them as I did—not just their music, but their passion, their resilience, their souls.

Early this morning I was back at Ben Gurion Airport, this time to welcome my wife, Janet, who has been in the U.S. these past eight weeks. I greeted her with a pleasant surprise: Aaron’s battalion had been informed they would be able to visit with family and friends at a park near their base for several hours today. So, we immediately loaded the car with food and treats, collected the family, and headed south. We were driving back into a warzone, the fragile cease-fire having ended with a host of Hamas violations, including yesterday’s slaughter of four innocents at a bus stop in Jerusalem.

We had four hours together on a picture-perfect day. Watching Janet with Aaron and our grandson, David, filled my heart—as did the broader scene. Family upon family. Couple after couple. Soldiers enjoying a brief respite from the war. But no sooner had it begun than it was time to say goodbye. Again. I figured I’d have gotten used to it by now. But I haven’t. Each time it’s the same. Knots in my stomach. A lump in my throat.

Janet’s arrival precedes my return to the U.S. on Monday—a two-week visit to spend time with staff and to renew engagement with the movement’s leaders—charged with guiding our communities through increasingly difficult and harrowing times. Innocents in the crosshairs in Israel. Antisemitism on the rise at home. Uncertainty around the role of our institutions and the responsibilities of Jewish leadership. We’ve had precious little opportunity to prepare. Precious little training for moments like these. Yet, here we are. Finding our way won’t be easy. But leadership rarely is. And we have something remarkable going for us. We’re in it together. And together we’ll make our way, drawing inspiration from heroes. Like Avraham. Like Daniel. Like my boy.

Am Yisrael Chai | עם ישראל חי

Shabbat shalom | שבת שלום

Doron Krakow
President and CEO
JCC Association of North America

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