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Israel Mission 2023 Blog

Harry Klarfeld ’24

Day 1: November 13th


The day began at 6 a.m. in Israel, stepping into an empty airport where only El-Al was operating. Our first stop was Achim L’chaim -“Brothers for Life” a rehabilitation center for Israeli Defense Force (IDF) soldiers recovering from severe injuries. The soldier’s healing process is not only about physical healing, but also restoring their spirit and providing a space where they can find internal and external peace. 


The attention to detail in their programs, whether in therapeutic activities or the overall environment, reflects a compassionate approach toward addressing the holistic needs of these soldiers. It’s more than a facility; it’s a community that brings resilience and brotherhood. 


Next, we visited Tel Aviv, marked by somber hostage memorials, including rows and columns of empty bed frames symbolizing the 240 hostages taken captive by Hamas. Afterwards, we went to the “Bring Them Home” offices to help with management (e.g. social media, press, family support, and government advocacy). The office staff is made up entirely of volunteers, who believe that the government continues to fail Israeli hostages and their loved ones in supporting them at this moment. Many Israelis that I met felt that the release of the hostages should be a much higher priority for the army’s actions in Gaza. 


At the offices, we met Meirav Gonen, the mother of Romi Gonen who was kidnapped by Hamas on Oct. 7. During the meeting, Gonen could barely speak in complete sentences without crying as the events had only occured six weeks ago. In addition to Gonen’s story, we heard from Dvir Rosenfeld. He and his other sisters have been left to raise his twin nephews after his sister and brother-in-law were slaughtered by Hamas in Kfar Aza, leaving the children alone for about 16 hours. Although their story was widely circulated, hearing it directly from the family was much more powerful and real than what the media presents. 


After our time at the “Bring Them Home” offices, we attended the ceremony in front of the Tel Aviv Museum of Art. Hundreds gather every night to display solidarity with the hostages. Music, art, and people fill the somber streets of Tel-Aviv as they all pray for the return of the hostages. During the ceremony, tears streamed down my face as I turned and noticed an elderly woman standing holding a sign of her family who were all taken hostage. I noticed her hysterically crying and couldn’t do anything else but join her in her weeping. 


The day concluded with a conversation with Alon Tal, former Knesset member of the Kachol v’Lavan Party, shedding light on the Israeli government’s challenges. As a left-leaning politician, he critiqued the way the government was reacting and functioning during the war, and especially targeted Prime Minister Netanyahu for his inefficiency and carelessness. 


Additionally, we spoke with Lee Siegel, whose brother and sister-in-law were kidnapped by Hamas in Kfar Aza. Siegel was shaken as he recounted the story of the kidnapping and conveyed his anger towards the Israeli government’s inability to predict the attack. 

Today has been a rollercoaster of emotions and insights, each encounter etching stories that speak of resilience, pain, and a collective longing for change. It was an immediate wake-up call to understand what was going on in Israel.


Day 2: November 14th 


The day began with breakfast alongside the profound writer and educator Yossi Klein Halevi. In our discussion, Halevi praised the current generation in Israel and expressed that he sees them as a beacon of hope during the war. Halevi also told us that, years ago, he had recalled Hassan Nassralah’s (The Secretary-General of Hezbollah) analogy of Israel as a spiderweb – meaning that they appear complex and strong, but with just one swipe of the web, the structure collapses. Halevi mentioned that people disagreed with his analogy when he presented it years prior.  As it turns out, According to Halevi, many Israelis now realize that Nassralah was, unfortunately, correct. The events of Oct. 7 were a clear reminder of this vulnerability. 


Halevi predicted that the government will inevitably collapse after the war and said, “I am 70 years old and willing to go to jail after this war if it means protesting in the streets every day to save our government.” 


I asked him about campus life and how students should cope with the events. Halevi advocated for speakers in Hillels and Chabads rather than public campuses as he believes that it would be counterproductive to just yell at each other. Halevi emphasized the need for constructive dialogue with those who are willing to have it. 


Afterward, we journeyed to Ashkelon. Interestingly, Waze heeded us not to do so as there were threats of rocket attacks. On the bus ride, we discussed the topic of the Hannibal Directive, a controversial procedure used by the IDF to prevent the capture of Israeli soldiers by enemy forces; this would involve killing both the enemy force and the potential hostage. 


The Hannibal Directive has sparked intense debate within military and political circles. Supporters argue that in the face of unique security challenges and ever-evolving threats, adopting unconventional and surprise tactics inspired by historical military successes could be a strategic necessity. They see it as a way for Israel to maintain a proactive stance and stay ahead of adversaries who might not anticipate such approaches.


On the other hand, critics, including some military strategists and ethicists, express reservations about the applicability of ancient military tactics to the complexities of the modern Middle East. The region’s geopolitical landscape is intricate, involving a myriad of political, cultural, and religious considerations. Some worry that rigid adherence to the Hannibal Directive might not adequately address the nuanced challenges Israel faces, potentially leading to unintended consequences or ethical dilemmas. There has been speculation that on Oct. 7, the air force saw the hostages being taken, and the soldiers deployed the Hannibal Directive by killing terrorists and hostages as they were making their way back into Gaza. Nothing has been confirmed and most publications won’t discuss it in fear that it will be used against Israel in propaganda. 


As we arrived in Ashkelon, we were welcomed with rockets: everyone ran off the bus and sought refuge near a wall— at that moment, we all questioned how Hamas still had so many rockets. It was both frightening and fascinating. I noticed as we Americans hurried off the bus, that the locals of Ashkelon seemed used to the attacks and acted as if it were any other Tuesday. Even our Israeli bus driver stayed on the bus and finished his lunch while we scrambled to the side of the road. The problem is that the Israeli people have found this to be the norm: hearing sirens, going to the bomb shelters, waiting 10 minutes, and then continuing with their day. I wondered: “How is this okay?”


Our next destination, the Barzilai Hospital, revealed some of the most heartbreaking yet incredible moments on the mission so far. We met wounded soldiers like Yam, who caught shrapnel in his eye and offered an example of resilience amid adversity. Thank-you notes and gifts were shared. The group I was with was made up entirely of rabbis; some offered blessings to each of these patients and recited –Misheberach for Cholim. I also met a wounded soldier who brought his guitar with him to the hospital, and we all sang Gesher Tzar Me’od as well as other classic Israeli tunes. This remarkable moment showed me the amount of ruach and simcha that is still so prevalent during this time of war. 


We then headed back up north to the Magen David Adom headquarters in Ramla. We visited their first responder command center. Their core workforce is made up of Haredim who don’t serve in the IDF. The room echoed the hustle of EMT workers actively responding to calls.


The day concluded at the Hatzalah Center in Jerusalem, where we learned what they have been doing since Oct. 7. One member of the team mentioned that he worked in Sderot from Saturday morning of Oct. 7 through Sunday night without any breaks. To conclude the night, we sponsored dinner for those on the Hatzalah hotlines. It was a small gesture in acknowledgment of their tireless efforts.


As I walked back to our hotel, I ran into a good friend of mine. He made Aliyah and finished his service in the IDF a few years ago. Something was off about him. He had just been called back into service in Miluim as a member of a combat unit. I didn’t know that he had just returned from Gaza that day. The fear and confusion I saw in his eyes made me feel helplessly devastated. I only asked him how he was. Nothing more. Knowing that people like my friend are fighting this fight kept me moving onto the next day.


Day 3: November 15th


Natal: Israel Trauma and Resiliency Center


We arrived in Tel Aviv where we visited the offices of Natal: Israel Trauma and Resiliency Center. Natal’s mission is to support the citizens of Israel throughout all stages of trauma, specifically post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). They are a non-government organization (NGO) funded by private donations, mostly from America and around the world. They aim to be a guiding light in times of disaster, offering strategies for resilience. NATAL is a calm center that is committed to being a pillar of strength when it is needed most. One distinctive aspect of Natal’s approach is its focus on “nourishing the nourishers.” They recognize the immense emotional toll that caregivers, first responders and support personnel face, and strive to provide them with the tools and support needed to navigate their challenging roles. By addressing the well-being of those who care for others, Natal aims to create a ripple effect of resilience throughout the community. This is especially the case in times like now where people from all across Israel need mental health support. The staff at NATAL also emphasized they feel abandoned by their government. They are trying to work in coordination with the ministry of health but find it frustrating. They feel that everyone in the country including Jews, Arabs, Christians, Druze and Muslims require significant mental health services and the country  doesn’t have the resources to meet the immediate demand, not to mention the demand that they know will arise in the coming weeks, months and generations. 


Kibbutz Kfar Aza

Our visit to the residence of the Kfar Aza community, who have all been temporarily relocated to Shefayim, near Tel Aviv, took an emotional toll on me. I met 10-month-old twins who were unaware of the tragedy that befell their parents. We learned that their parents were killed protecting them and that Hamas allowed them to live because they used them as a trap for other Israelis. Hamas terrorists planned to let the babies cry and kill any other member of the kibbutz who attempted to come to thier rescue. The twins were alone together for more than 10 hours until the IDF rescued them. Today they are at Shefayim living with their aunt, uncles and grandparents. Seeing them was heartbreaking. Sitting with them and playing with them was something I will never forget. 


Three people from the kibbutz shared their harrowing experiences. One mother shared that she negotiated with terrorists as they invaded her home, and convinced them to leave her and her two children alone. 

She told us that they told her “We want you to apologize.” 


She responded, “Apologize for what exactly?” 


They replied as they screamed at her in the doorway of the bomb shelter holding guns, rocket-propelled grenades and other weaponry, “Israel’s oppression of Gaza.”


She told us that she held onto the door handle (because bomb shelters don’t lock so that IDF soldiers can come and rescue you) until the terrorists broke through. She didn’t understand how or why she survived, she joked that perhaps it was because they didn’t have the right coffee in her house for them to drink. Her resilience and ability to share her account was heroic. Every story emphasized the crucial need for recognition, love, and support for the resilient Israeli people.


Kibbutz Kfar Aza – Inside the Kibbutz


Stepping into Kibbutz Kfar Aza felt like entering a war-torn landscape, where the very air carried the weight of the kibbutz’s ordeal. The visible destruction, marked by bullet-riddled cars and buildings, served as a visceral testament to the relentless conflict that had plagued the community. Walking through streets that bore the scars of warfare, was a surreal experience. Each bullet hole and damaged structure told a story of resilience and survival.


The firsthand accounts of residents that detailed constant missile launches added a chilling layer to the narrative. These weren’t abstract reports; they were the daily realities faced by the people of Kfar Aza. The air of tension was palpable, and meeting at the penetration point where Hamas entered the kibbutz, with the International Spokesperson of the IDF police force, Dean Elsdunne, provided a deeper understanding of the intricate challenges the community grappled with regularly.


The journey to Kfar Aza was accompanied by a heavy feeling in my stomach, a physical manifestation of the bone-chilling reality of being in such proximity to Gaza. As we navigated through the Kibbutz, the stories we heard were horrifying. As we walked through the destroyed homes, we found ourselves covered in ash, a somber reminder of the destruction and the remnants from the unconscionable acts towards human beings.


The constant explosions in the background were a haunting soundtrack to the harrowing scenes, a reminder that even in moments of apparent calm, the threat persisted. 


After each explosion, the Israelis we were with looked at us and said “Shelanu,” — “do not worry, that is from our side.” 


As we walked through, there was a large cloud of black smoke from Gaza in the near distance and the kibbutz still had a few abandoned white Toyota trucks driven by Hamas in their pursuit of terror left on its outskirts. It was an experience that left an indelible mark, highlighting the urgency of addressing the ongoing danger posed by groups like Hamas. 


An IDF soldier said: “The events that happened here weren’t committed by terrorists, they were committed by monsters.”


Bright Moments Amidst Kfar Aza


Amidst the somber experiences of visiting Kfar Aza, a moment of connection emerged during a barbeque on an IDF base about two miles from the Gaza border, where the Givati brigade is stationed and operates in and out of Gaza daily. The Givati brigade also staffs the Iron Dome, 

a defense mechanism of frequent use over the past few weeks. We sang and prayed together, listened to their stories, and thanked them for being heroes of the Jewish people. The day ended on a note of resilience and unity, reminding us of the strength found in solidarity. 


Today was a mix of emotions, from the depths of tragedy to the heights of good fellowship. As we grapple with the realities faced by the Israeli people, the day serves as a poignant reminder of the importance of global support and collective strength in the midst of hardship.


Day 4: November 16th


Today, I had the opportunity to visit the J2 offices for a military debrief on the ongoing conflict in Israel. A spokesperson (who wanted to remain anonymous) shared crucial insights. IDF soldiers are surrounding Gaza City, aiming to establish a “security strip” in the northern region. This control is vital, considering sensitive sites like hospitals, mosques and schools are concentrated there. One of the biggest challenges lies in preventing Israeli hostages from being taken to Egypt. The weight and responsibility of finding and rescuing the hostages is front and center on everyone’s mind. 


The spokesperson underscored that Iran, acting through proxies like Hezbollah and Hamas, seems hesitant to directly intervene, likely out of fear of American involvement. The spokesperson also mentioned that Israeli Arabs and their advocacy may play a significant role in addressing Arab national aspirations and kickstarting a potential Palestinian state. The war’s resolution involves regaining a sense of sovereignty over Israel. The spokesperson emphasized that defeating Hamas is complex since it’s an ideology, not just a group of people. 


Later, we visited Shura: Israel’s Center for the Identification of the Dead. Visiting Shura was an emotionally taxing experience. The facility, as the headquarters for the Rabanut of the IDF with the grim task of identifying fallen soldiers, embodied the harsh reality of war. The efficiency of the process (identifying a body and delivering news to families within 15 minutes), speaks to the urgency and sensitivity surrounding the matter. 


The methods employed, from fingerprints and teeth to DNA and CAT scans, underscore the meticulous effort invested in this somber task. They are committed to burying the soldiers according to Jewish law, and ensuring that fallen soldiers leave the world as they entered it, with all their blood. This means a painstaking process of collecting debris and any medical equipment with blood on it. Dealing not only with Israeli casualties, but also with the bodies of terrorists, Shura confronts the harsh aftermath of conflict. The separation of these processes, one for fallen soldiers and another for terrorists highlights the complexity and emotional toll on those involved.


The weight of the responsibility carried by the soldiers at Shura is palpable, as they navigate the challenging terrain of identification amid the ongoing conflict. The individuals working in such a facility take a lifelong toll on their mental health.


Finally, we had a few hours of downtime. We packed for the airport, ate a delicious lunch at Machane Yehudah, and then headed to the airport. The empty halls of  Ben Gurion Airport reflected the gravity of the circumstances in Israel. 


Concluding Thoughts:


Each day of my journey unveiled a different emotion, weaving together moments of connection and heartache. From the somber ceremonies at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art to the heart wrenching recountings at Kfar Aza, each experience painted a vivid portrait of resilience and pain.


The haunting sound of sirens in Ashkelon, and melodies of a wounded soldier’s guitar in Barzilai hospital, created a collage of contrasting emotions. The destruction in Kibbutz Kfar Aza and the camaraderie during the barbeque on the IDF base encapsulated the dichotomy of Israel’s current reality.


In the military debrief, the IDF official’s insights revealed the significant imbalance between geopolitics and human struggle. Shura, the Center for the Identification of the Dead, showed an example of the profound sacrifices made in the name of duty and remembrance.


As I navigate this whirlwind of experiences, I am left with a sense of unity and dissonance, torn between the profound connections forged and the weight of witnessing the aftermath of conflict. The resilience of the Israeli people echoes in my ears, and the images of lives affected by the attacks linger in my thoughts.


I want to express my gratitude to Rabbi David Seth Kirshner for inviting me on this eye-opening trip. His generosity, humor, and warmth truly made the experience memorable. 

It was amazing how Rabbi Kirshner effortlessly connected with everyone he met in Israel. His ability to create bonds and his genuine compassion were the guiding lights of this trip.


This mission, a diversity of emotions and insights, has left an indelible mark on my soul. The journey is not just a physical one across Israel but an exploration of the human spirit amidst the complexities of war. עַם יִשְׂרָאֵל חַי

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