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Continued from Part 2
“Think of the Middle East as a football field. Israel is the size of a matchbox on that football field. A matchbox! And the world says Israel should give up half of their matchbox.” — Rabbi Ken Spiro
Entering the Israeli Army base on the border of the West Bank, we were given an opportunity to hone our Krav Maga skills (or, in reality, to demonstrate we had none) and perform countless push-ups under orders from a 25-year-old Army Commander. When he wasn’t yelling at us 40- to 70-year-old flabby desk jockeys, he was tasked to ensure his young regiment of Israeli soldiers was ready to handle the threats from Islamic terrorists (yeah, I said it).
After being introduced to and listening to the brilliant motivational speaker Charley Harari, we were privileged to enter the mess hall and dine with Israeli soldiers who are, well, children. These kids, only a couple years older than my own high school-aged son, physically demonstrate the dichotomy of life in Israel: They each had ear-to-ear smiles while strapped with Uzi machine guns.
Our group brought gifts for the soldiers. My brother lugged a body-sized duffle bag across the world with thoughtful notes and presents from the children of his generous synagogue congregants. Barely out of puberty, the young warriors were filled with gratitude. I sat down and had a discussion with two soldiers; a boy and girl, both 18.
The boy immediately asked for pro-tips on how to date women while in the army (as he sat next to his very pretty counterpart). I’m still not sure why he asked me. I quipped that the last 18-year-old I dated likely wore Greek letters and had a St. Elmo’s Fire poster on her dorm wall. This was met with crickets; he couldn’t relate. I told him I had nothing to offer but two words: “Be kind.” He acknowledged with a steely-eyed steady nod, as if I just imparted the secrets of the Illuminati.
And then the young girl demonstrated the difference between men and women: She quickly got real, turning a delightful evening into a heavy-hearted geopolitical reality check. She started weeping. Wiser than her years, she said “I don’t understand why … why the world hates us. We see the news. Why are we hated for defending ourselves? We want peace, but are we not supposed to protect ourselves from our enemies?”
Frankly, I, an unapologetically outspoken advocate for Israel, was stunned. Here were warrior children, old enough to carry firearms to defend their country, yet innocent enough to not comprehend how Israel is treated on the world stage. They see and hear the same news as us. They see how the UN and much of the world believe in a moral equivalence between Israel and Hamas/Hezbollah. I looked around and saw smiles and laughter on the faces of other members of my group. Was I the only one having this type of dialogue? I regretted my inane ’80s pop-culture reference. These kids were literally carrying the weight of the world. In the words of Marty McFly, this “was heavy.”
I gathered myself and told her that there is a silent majority that understands the truth.
“You are not just defending Israel, but Jews worldwide, for Israel is our home too. Know this: You have the support of millions of nameless and faceless people who pray each day that Israel is protected from its enemies. What you are doing is far more important than what any politician or journalist will ever do. When you close your eyes at night, picture the millions of Jews and Christians worldwide who are praying for you. Feel that strength. Know that you are not alone.”
She blushed and then the tears came streaming. It wasn’t the first time I ever made a girl cry, but it may have been for the best reason.
Two days later:
We found ourselves at the foot of Masada by mid-morning. Even in November the Judean Desert heat can be unforgiving if you don’t plan accordingly. They say the Snake Path Trail is the equivalent of walking up the Empire State Building. Lacking sleep and likely having more alcohol flowing through our arteries than blood cells, we of course opted to hike instead of taking the cable car.
As an avid hiker/climber I will say this, it was a challenge! But the trail provided me an energy from the hallowed ground under my feet. As you climb higher, you are witness to the same unblemished view of the Judean Desert that King Herod had in 37 BC.
The miracles of Masada, how 1,000 residents were able to have water and grow crops on an arid & sandy desert mountain mesa while under siege from the Romans, was a historic preview of what Jews in Israel would be able to successfully do in future millennia.
At the top of Masada, our group formed around a bimah and witnessed 14 men from across the globe become a bar-mitzvah. This was an incredible event which touched even the non-religious among us. Men from Greece, Australia, Canada, and the United States all fulfilled a lifelong dream.
After lunch we headed further south to the Dead Sea where we smeared mud all over ourselves and floated in the therapeutic waters of the lowest point on earth. As we immersed in the lifeless water, our unsinkable bodies immediately forgave us for the hike.
Two days later:
Shabbat in Jerusalem.We were treated to a former UCSB surfer who now lives as an Israeli Hasidic Jew playing acoustic Rush songs (“Tom Sawyer”) while one of his nine sons played the drum box. Sometimes the brain doesn’t match what it’s hearing to what it sees. Listening to a shtreimel-wearing Spicoli channeling Geddy Lee was one such time.
One of our leaders then said “a hundred kilometers from here they are rocking the Casbah … tonight, we rock the Kotel!” Most of us had no idea what was about to happen but will never forget it.
Our marching orders were to form rows of 10, arm-in-arm as we headed down to the Kotel, the Western Wall, to welcome-in Shabbat. Right in front of the wall was a reserved area for our brigade of worldwide Jewish men. Pilgrims, evangelicals, tourists, and the curious all watched and photographed us as we sang the entire march down.
We entered the area and continued to sing while pounding out beats on the center bimah as our group danced in a huge circle. We became louder. We went outside the circle and scooped up Israeli soldiers bringing them into the circle where we danced together, even hoisting them up in the air in the plastic lawn chairs, Uzis hanging off their sides as these young kids smiled and laughed. I don’t know if this lasted an hour or three, as it all blended into a cocktail of euphoria, energy, and motion.
I looked over the partition to the woman’s side and saw a Nigerian woman in her purple African garb inches from the wall, eyes closed, arms raised in the air while quietly grooving to our loud singing and beats. An African Jewish woman was part of us, where we knew no color or creed. The entire crowd at the Kotel was watching and moving with us, feeling how extraordinary this was. This experience was incomparable to anything I have seen or ever been a part of. My Brothers and I found each other at the center of the organized chaos, pounding on the bimah the beat of our songs as hundreds of men danced around us. In the din of it all, a man with a huge Israeli flag came into our area and waved it among cheers.
Without pictures (no cameras on Shabbat) it is truly hard to put this experience into words. It was twilight. Northern Star in the sky next to an almost full moon. The spotlights brightened the Wailing Wall. Our large group of men, both my blood brothers and new brothers, along with religious and non-religious visitors from across Jerusalem, Israel, and the world became a single organism. A living, breathing entity that moved together as one. Song, dance, prayers, and laughter all combined into an energy which beamed through and from each of us. With no way to document this, it now seems surreal, and in retrospect feels like a dream.
A very, very good dream.
There are countless other memorable events that could have easily been mentioned in this series. From exploring the tunnels and excavation sites under Jerusalem, touching bedrock of the First Temple, meeting the young students at Yeshiva, experiencing Yad Vashem (Israel’s sobering Holocaust Museum), seeing the bullet factory hidden under a kibbutz which helped win the Independence War, to spending time with my brothers and meeting the incredible men I befriended (both group members and leaders). But the most impactful was the feeling of being in Israel.
In Europe and America, Jews have always been subject to anything from a slight dusting of anti-semitism, to downright hatred. Today, with BDS movements, holocaust deniers, and Iran funding terrorist organizations who are hellbent on destroying Israel, there was something poignant and secure about being in Israel. You feel it the second you step off the plane.
I have been blessed that I have not had to endure the same anti-semitism my father grew up with in London or my Grandfather fought against as a Nazi POW for four years. But I am awake. Thankfully, I recognize that even with today’s uncertainty and the vacuum of global leadership, Israel is prospering. Israel is surrounded by a 100 million enemies who want to push her out to sea. Yet, in the middle of the desert, Israel has figured out how to feed her own. Its engineers and scientists have allowed Israel to become a global leader in technology. Her economy is a leader among middle-eastern countries even though it doesn’t have a drop of oil under her land. Her people work hard and have turned the corner from a semi-socialist state to a free-market global leader. Entrepreneurs from around the world invest in Israel, and Israel makes the world a better place, from providing fresh water solutions to third-world countries, to technology and healthcare advances, to national defense intelligence shared with allies.
Why so much success? Because Israel has to succeed. It doesn’t have a choice. When you are pushed into a corner you either give up or come out fighting, and Jews will never, ever give up. Never.
Being in Israel I not only felt safe, but part of something much larger than just my own life, family, and friends. Being Jewish isn’t just watching my son being Bar Mitzvahed or fasting on Yom Kippur. In Israel it felt like an identity. It felt like I was part of an effort to ensure its survival, and that, without a doubt, I was on the better team.
I am so proud of what Israel has become. I felt at home.
Am Yisrael Chai.