Courage in Israel, 2006: From Naharia to San Antonio

Sermon delivered September 1, 2006, by Rabbi Barry H. Block

Toni’s and my niece, Hannah, is not a remarkable young woman. In Israeli parlance, she’s a “girl,” though she’s 19 years old. Last year, after the completion of a rather undistinguished high school career near her family’s northern Israel home, she came to this country for several months. She visited us twice, but she spent the bulk of her time in Kansas City, living with one of Toni’s cousins and working at Bed, Bath & Beyond.

When Hannah arrived to visit us in the spring, near the end of her American sojourn, we did not recognize her. She had bleached her hair to the most awful semi-blonde, with the consistency of straw. Yes, we could see that she had grown up a great deal through the experience of actually having to get up and go to work, and of meeting the responsibilities of living in a bustling family household not her own. Basically, though, she is a normal teenager.

Our young boys, Robert and Daniel, adore their older cousins, particularly Hannah. She knows how to play and talk at their level, and she especially enjoys their favorite activity: vegging out in front of the television. When she left, to return to Israel, the boys were particularly sad.

Robert is interested in military matters, so he was fascinated with the idea that Hannah was about to enter the Israeli Army. Hannah told him that she would probably be working as a receptionist or secretary, unlike her older sisters. Ruth, who has completed her service, was in a unique co-ed infantry unit. Sarah continues in the Army, as an officer in Israeli intelligence. Nevertheless, as we drove home from the airport, Robert was in tears. He was so worried about what might happen to Hannah in the Army.

As it turns out, though we haven’t told him, Robert had much more to be concerned about than any of us realized at the time. Hannah received outstanding scores in basic training, better grades than she ever made in high school. She did so well that she was awarded her top choice of jobs. She is in a support role, but she is no receptionist. She is attached to a most elite unit, known as Golani. Every Israeli is impressed by the mention of the name. Her regular job, if I understand it, is to receive and transmit intelligence reports.

One piece of great news, in early July, was that Hannah was assigned to a base very close to home. She is in the Western Galilee, a region of Israel to which our own Jewish Federation is closely associated, through a significant exchange and cooperation project. Her base is between Naharia and Acco, less than a half hour’s drive from home. Having a base close to home is a bonus, because these young soldiers often get to go home for Shabbat.

All was well. Then the rockets started falling on northern Israel. For a time, public transportation was suspended in the North, so Hannah’s journey to her base became a potentially perilous drive, well within in Hezbollah’s target range. Hannah’s father, Toni’s brother Todd, is fearless, so he did take her to and from the base, even though the Army would have excused her if she couldn’t get there. But Hannah wanted to be there, and her parents knew that she needed to be there.

Hannah’s role changed. Yes, she was still processing intelligence. But everybody has different duties, when soldiers are leaving the base to go out to battle, and when they are returning from battle, often fewer in numbers. Hannah joined those who removed equipment from exhausted soldiers, after their forays into Lebanon. She heard stories of their fallen comrades, some of whom she had met. She professionally worked to prepare the equipment, so that these same soldiers could go out to battle again, perhaps 36 hours later.

Did I mention that Hannah’s base has no bunker or bomb shelter?

Hannah was only three years old when her family made aliyah, and she certainly thinks of herself as an Israeli, even though she also carries an American Passport. Hannah doesn’t appear or act all that different from the American teenagers we all know. Perhaps that’s different now, after what she has been through this summer. I look forward to seeing her, when I go to Israel, as our Temple joins the Jewish Federation Mission, October 22 to November 1. We plan to spend significant time in the North, assuming that missiles aren’t falling there again, and I will go north in any event.

What I already know is that Hannah and her parents exhibited uncommon courage this summer. Like her father, who went to Israel in 1973, after Israel was brutally attacked on Yom Kippur, Hannah was there for our Jewish people and our Jewish State when she was needed most. Our sister-in-law Karen is not generally known for her bravery. She avoids travel to Jerusalem, and even prefers not to go to Tel Aviv, opting to remain in her rural environment, far from where terrorists usually strike. Admittedly, she would not drive Hannah to her base. As Todd was in the U.S. on business when the war began, Karen remained at home, with Hannah, until he returned. As often as Toni spoke to Karen, though, we never heard her hysterically worried about her youngest daughter’s being on an unprotected base in a dangerous part of the county. The family, and even Karen herself, never seriously considered leaving their home in the north, to head to safety in southern Israel. I mean absolutely no criticism of Israelis who went south. Whether by retreating to bomb shelters in the north or to a hotel in Eilat, northern Israelis did what they had to do.

Though the media portrayed Israeli and Lebanese civilians very differently, the truth is that Israeli citizens in the North were hardly better off than southern Lebanese. Israelis, too, saw their land and their homes destroyed, fled their homes or hid in shelters. One of our most surreal moments was when Toni called her brother, as we were about to board a catamaran in Hawaii, during our vacation. Todd told Toni that Karen was at a rock concert in a bomb shelter. That was the day he also disclosed to Toni that a rocket had hit the road, 500 feet below the family home, and that damage in Israel was much greater than we were hearing through the media, not because of bias in this case, but because the Israeli government was strategically seeking to paint a rosier picture of its military performance.

The Hebrew word for a soldier is hayyal. It’s the same word that we find in eshet hayil, A Woman of Valor. The word “valor” there is probably not the best translation. This phrase, from Proverbs, probably denotes a woman of inestimable strength. We might call that bravery or courage. In the Proverb, the woman of valor is a hard worker, on behalf of her family and on behalf of the poor. The Bible doesn’t describe a stereotypical 1950s housewife. Instead, we see the portrait of a woman who puts in long hours, inside and outside the home, the picture of a person who puts the needs of others ahead of herself.

Perhaps that’s what courage is really all about. If Hannah, or Todd and Karen, had stopped to think about what was best for them, strictly as individuals, they might have gotten on a plane, flown to the American Midwest where they have plenty of family, and waited out the war. And yet, they all knew what they had to do, and it seemed rather obvious to them. Todd and Karen continued to work at their business, providing consulting to Israeli companies and to American and other entities seeking to do commerce in Israel. They would not abandon their people, or their State, at its time of need. As Todd had done in 1973, as millions of Americans did during World War II and as our military men and women do in Iraq and Afghanistan today, they put the well-being of their country, and everything that it stands for, ahead of any concerns for their own personal safety, and even above the safety of their children.

Courage, this summer, was not limited to Israelis. Our Brotherhood President, Jeff Shapiro, happened to be in Israel when the war began. His plan was to take a vacation on the beach, and to do some writing. Instead, he was joined by our Federation Director Mark Freedman, and together they went north, to visit our partners in the Western Galilee, even as the missiles fell. Mark went back a couple of weeks later, this time joined by Federation President Mindi Alterman. They, too, went north, and also to the insecure border with Gaza. Mindi and Mark had to seek shelter as the sirens sounded. Yes, they were brave; but very clearly, they were doing what they felt they had to do.

Perhaps most impressive to many of us are the five Temple teenagers who were realizing their dreams of many years, spending summer months in Israel, with NFTY, the North American Federation of Temple Youth. Kathleen Rubin, our SAFTY President, was in the North, when the missiles began to fell, and her group was evacuated under the cover of night. Yes, unusual security measures were taken; and no, the kids did not go north once the war began. NFTY can be trusted, even under the most extraordinary circumstances.

Most impressively, though, none of their parents insisted that their children come home. The young people, learning and experiencing and enjoying so much in Israel, felt much better than did their parents, watching CNN in San Antonio. All of them committed extreme acts of bravery. They put the long-term, connectedness to the Jewish people and the State of Israel, ahead of concerns about immediate personal safety. They valued standing by Israel at a dangerous time, burying the thoughts of danger deep in the recesses of their minds.

In Torah, as the ancient Israelites near the end of their years of desert wanderings, and prepare to enter the Promised Land, Moses, their leader, is about to die. His successor, Joshua, faces a daunting task. Joshua must take the reins of a fractious group, while facing dangerous enemies, as he seeks to conquer the land. Moses’ words to him are Hazak v’ematz, “Be strong and of good courage.”

May all of us take inspiration from these stories of our people’s bravery in the summer of 2006, from Naharia to San Antonio. Let us ever be strong and of good courage, as we face the challenges of life. Let us be like that ideal woman of Proverbs, that valorous woman, putting our highest values, the long term, and the critical needs of others ahead of our own short-term needs. Then, may we, too, be called anshei hayil, a people of valor.