Thursday, January 15, 2009

Back in the U.S.- Rabbi Asher Lopatin


We are back from the Negev and Southern Israel! I meant to blog at Ben Gurion Airport this morning before leaving, but even though they have excellent wifi, my computer drained and plugs were scarce. A nice woman selling travel insurance had no problem that I unplugged a change machine to recharge, but somehow I couldn't pull it all together.So I'm writing from a snowing New Jersey, waiting to get back to Chicago. I think all of us are unpacking what we did for the 40 hours that we were in Israel.

After an uplifting evening with Yeshiva students going into the army and dancing at the Kotel, we woke up early on Wednesday to daven and sing. One of the most moving parts of the t'filla was Shomer Yisrael - a prayer said after tachanun, after falling down to express all our frustrations in life. Shomer Yisrael is a prayer of confidence that God is the guardian of Israel. But to sing it in Israel itself, in a war zone, had particular relevance. One of the powerful parts of this war-time trip, were the prayers that came to life. We not only song Shomer Yisrael in the Asheklon hotel synagogue, but we repeated at the hospital bed of a chayal who was suffering what are called "light" injuries. Uri Topolofky, rabbi from New Orleans, then changed the meaning slightly, but deflecting the song from God as the Guardian of Israel, to speak to the soldier directly: Ata (you, soldier are a) Shomer Yisrael (a guardian of Israel)! A little bit different, but that line stayed with me for a long time: Our soldiers are God's guardians, keeping Israel strong.

We had a quick breakfast of danish and coffee and got on the road for Nitzan a community that is hosting a large group of refugees from Gush Katif. Those people who had a powerful, fully employed, community in the Gaza strip, now are highly unemployed and living in "carvillot." They are 600-900 square foot paper thin homes for families with several kids. Rabbi Rimon led us on an empassioned tour of this community which is under missile fire - with about 30 seconds of warning if a missile is coming. This is a community that was forced out of The Gush - which for them means Gush Katif, not Gush Etzion, where Jews were forced out (and slaughtered) in 1948 - because of an argument for Israel's security need to disengage from Gaza, and now they find themselves under fire again from Gaza. Rightfully, they are frustrated. On the other hand, they seem like a community with tremendous passion and conviction and strength. We were hosted in the one building safe enough, an old Field School, and actually the breakfast was wonderful- kind of what I thought we would get in our hotel! Everyone wanted to talk to us. This is a community that feels they are forgotten by Israel: they still do not have their new homes, in the future Nitzanim that will go up, but hasn't yet. Moreover, someone had the clever idea (?) of using giant cement sewage pipes as missile shelters. Now in theory they are convenient and open, but safe, and they are all around the community, on every block. But to be forced to run for cover into what everyone knows is a giant sewage drain pipe - even though it's clean - so many times a day is demoralizing. The symbolism is hard for the Nitzan people to take. At least one of these giant cement pipe pieces was beautifully painted and they all have two benches inside, but symbols are important, and the sense of abandonment is pervasive in this community. On the other hand, this didn't look - at least on the outside - like a demoralized community. Actually, they seemed very close knit and well aware of each other's stories. Moreover, many of them fully expect to return to Gush Katif - and we saw signs like this on, where else, the missile shelters. In some ways, to an outsider, this seems so out of tune with reality; on the other hand, they argue that Israel returned to and rebuilt Gush Etzion after being away for 19 years, and so why not Gush Katif as well. But this wan't a political mission: It was a mission of solidarity and comfort and gaining inspiration from people who are not letting dislocation, lack of jobs, lack of homes and lack of a safe environment destroy their energy.

We left the breakfast discussion following the Table to Table truck which was in a rush to destribute food donated from wedding halls, restaurants and hotels to Nitzan and then to Sderot. We stopped to help them unload, and then headed for Beer Sheva, to the great hospital that has both been under missile attack, and, at the same time, recepiant of many wounded from the front and from missile attacks.Next installment: The heroes of Soroka and Building Carmit.

I am almost back in Chicago, but Israel is still with me. And I am envisioning the faces and voices of so many that touched us and inspired us and gave us strength and hope in Israel: a land at war that desired peace and getting on with building the Jewish dream.
Asher Lopatin

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