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The Antidote: A Lesson in Coping

By David Black

The requests were simple and clear to our JCC Association partners. On the first JCC exec trip organized to Israel in early November, we were not to be amused, nor treated as tourists. We were to bear witness. We were to give aid and support. We were to get in front of as much press as possible to give the message that millions of right-thinking people support Israel in its war of defense against Hamas.

The truth is that our group went in heavy and preoccupied. The trauma felt by Israel and Israelis was also deeply felt by the participants on this trip. The pain was below the surface, but it leaked out in lumped throats, easy tears and visceral connection that demanded expression. We did not want to feel “othered” in Israel. We did not want to feel like outsiders. We did not want to feel like we were Americans in Israel. More so, we wanted to feel like sons and daughters living abroad who were returning home in a time of need, of hurt, of sorrow.

And we got what we came for—and then some. Virtually every meeting planned was therapeutic either for those whom we met or for us. Connection was easy and immediate. Solidarity was felt and expressed. Sorrow found its place and as we followed the plan of our JCC Association colleagues, they followed ours. And then some things happened which, for me, gave me the essential answers I needed to navigate the hills and the valleys in front of me.

Three things, actually.

The first was a lunch I scheduled with the all the former shlichim and shinshinim who worked at Sid Jacobson JCC over the past 10 years. We held it at a restaurant on the beach in Tel Aviv. There, as I waited, I saw people playing matkot. I saw bicyclists, walkers, talkers—life as it was and as it is, and I reveled in what was normal in the midst of a war. There I learned that our alumni formed a very strong support structure for each other, and it solidified for me that there was no such thing as them and us – we were all us.

The second—At about 11 p.m. on a walk back from somewhere, all the execs on the trip passed a restaurant bar. We were in the mood, so we walked in. We all ordered drinks. The bartender sent shots to our table. We all began to feel loose. We talked; we told stories. And I think—no—I know that I laughed more at that one table with those magnificent souls than I have in the 45 years since I lived in Israel as a young, determined Jew hoping to make aliyah. I learned that laughter was not only allowed, it was critical to giving one’s soul room to breathe, to feel, to hope.

The third was a visit to a sister matnas in Netanya. They had us go to a room to paint flowers on rocks and I got pissed. Do not amuse us. They then held a surprise for us where we were asked to sing a song in a sound room. And I refused. Do not treat us like tourists. And then, having at least learned the damn song, they opened the door to our surprise, which was to record the song with a group of refugee children from Sderot. And as my stupid, closed heart opened, as I sang with the lump and some tears, I realized that the true antidote to the sadness, the trauma, the heaviness was joy. It was permission to laugh, to be normal, to sing so that we fill each other with each other.

I went in heavy. I went in preoccupied. I went in to commiserate as in being co with misery. I went home uplifted. I came back determined to make more of a difference. And not by singing or laughing or returning to normal but by understanding that letting go of joy lets go of hope—the very foundation behind everything we do. It’s not over. It’s going to be a long haul. But I’ve got what I need to prevail for my people and for my people to prevail.

Kudos to our JCC Association partners, Leah Garber and Sara Sless, who planned the itinerary with us and who were with us every step of the way. And to my colleagues who went on this trip without hesitation, my open heart belongs to all of you.

Am Yisrael Chai.

David Black is the executive director of the Sid Jacobson JCC in East Hills, New York. He participated in the JCC Executive Solidarity Mission to Israel in November 2023.

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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