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The People of Israel Are Living

The People of Israel Are Living

Monday felt like the longest day of my life. Maybe it was, actually. Monday was two days for the price of one, thanks to 18 hours of travel time. It was also the first time I’ve ever had rockets fired my way, the first time I’ve experienced seeking shelter, and certainly the first time I’ve had a super-high-tech Iron Dome destroy rockets heading my way.

A long day indeed - but Israelis are experiencing these things every day.

I came here on a solidarity mission with the Central Conference of American Rabbis to learn about the everyday amid this conflict, to understand what is happening in person, rather than on a computer screen. One of the questions I’ve pursued as I’ve met Israelis throughout the trip: How are you coping with this? Growing up in in synagogue, one of the first songs I ever learned was “Am Yisrael Chai,” which I usually translate to, “The Jewish people lives!” Witnessing the people of the State of Israel enduring this tragic period, I’d now translate it slightly differently: “The Jewish people is living” or “The people of Israel are affirming life.”

Amid this conflict that is negating so much life, three snapshots from Monday reflected, for me, how Israelis are living and affirming life.

  1. The first photo shows Yael Karrie, an Israeli Reform rabbinic student at Sha'ar Hanegev. Yael noticed that every single day, their lives are bombarded by red: the red sirens, the red ambulances, everywhere is “conflict red.” Instead of lamenting, or allowing the color to drift into permanently dreadful connotation, she decided affirm a more positive notion of life. She started a campaign called “Reclaiming Red,” inviting people all around the world to “send us happy pictures with the color red.”  What a statement, a powerful artistic expression reminding us of what our prophets knew so well - that no matter what our situation is, we have the power to transcend, to find beauty, to reach out to each other and live. 
  2. One of the realities of life here is that at any moment, a siren can sound, meaning that there is a rocket headed in your direction. Israelis have as little as 15 seconds to find shelter. We experienced this twice on Monday in Ashkelon. People in this part of Israel experience this for prolonged periods of time, getting stuck in shelters. We made packages for people stuck in these places; supplies that will get them through longer periods of sheltering. 
  3. The third photo shows a playground in Sderot. Look closely and you’ll see that this playground is also a bomb shelter. It’s the only one in the world – unsurprisingly, because Sderot is the “bomb shelter capital of the world.” Not a badge to be worn with pride, to be sure, but what pride they take in this playground. It sends a message: We will let nothing stand in the way of our children’s happiness and well-being. No wonder the seven wedding blessings culminate with the imagery of joyful shouts of children at play.

We are pained by the knowledge that this conflict has taken more than a thousand lives. Nothing can diminish that; I have written before about this ubiquitous anguish. But Monday was about more than anguish, more than conflict and death. Just as the Mourner’s Kaddish is a prayer that affirms life, so do the Israelis here in the South: The Jewish people here are busy living.

Rabbi Matthew Soffer serves Temple Israel of Boston, where he directs the Riverway Project, an initiative engaging individuals in their 20s and 30s in Jewish life. At Temple Israel he leads, Ohel Tzedek, the social justice arm of the community, which practices congregation-based community organizing, through the Greater Boston Interfaith Organization (GBIO). Rabbi Soffer serves on the board of the Jewish Alliance for Law and Social Action (JALSA).

Rabbi Matthew Soffer
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