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‘We were broken to see what we saw’: US rabbis visit Israel during wartime

JERUSALEM (JTA) — Wearing army-green helmets and bulletproof vests, the group of American rabbis and community leaders stood next to the ruins of a building at Kibbutz Be’eri as Cantor Luis Cattan chanted El Maleh Rachamim, the traditional Jewish prayer for the dead, for “all those who were murdered in Israel and beyond.”

The group then collectively said the Mourner’s Kaddish and walked silently back to their bus.

So ended the first day of a three-day solidarity mission to Israel, which brought the group through the ravaged communities of southern Israel, to a volunteer center in Jerusalem and back home. One of multiple such missions taking place this week — another was organized by New York’s UJA-Federation — the goal of the trip was to expose the participants to the horrors of Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack on Israel, provide them with opportunities to give back to the country and help them articulate a message to bring back to their communities.

“I hear over and over again American Jews saying there are no words,” said Rabbi Neil Zuckerman of New York City’s Park Avenue Synagogue. “I think there are a lot of words, actually. And I think being here gives us some words that need to be spoken about what’s happening here, the moral clarity that’s here, both the pain and the incredible acts of unity that we see.”

Cantor Luis Cattan sings a prayer for the dead at Kibbutz Be’eri on a mission of Conservative Jewish leaders to Israel on Oct. 30, 2023. (Screenshot)

The group of 34 consisted of 19 Americans and 15 more Israeli counterparts and support staff, and was organized by the Fuchsberg Jerusalem Center, a complex that serves as the home base of Conservative Judaism in Israel. It ran from Monday to Wednesday. The goal, said Fuchsberg CEO Stephen Daniel Arnoff, was to help “our colleagues from North America have a firsthand, very human experience of this horrible time in our world.”

After landing at Ben Gurion Airport on Monday, the participants first traveled to Ofakim, a southern Israeli city that also suffered the Hamas invasion, where they visited the home of Rachel Edri, who became an Israeli folk hero after stymying terrorists by offering them cookies. From there, the group went to Be’eri, where attackers killed more than 100 people.

They were the first civilian group since the massacre, aside from journalists, to tour the site, where homes are burnt and blood and knives still line the floor. They ended the day at Camp Shura, a military base that has transformed into a facility for identifying the bodies of those killed in the invasion.

“What I saw and experienced yesterday is imprinted in me for the rest of my life,” said Rabbi Marc Soloway of Congregation Bonai Shalom in Boulder, Colorado. Arnoff said, “We were broken to see what we saw and the difficult but natural response was to say the prayer for the dead.”

Tuesday was spent volunteering at a relief center in Jerusalem and meeting with families directly impacted by Oct. 7 and Israel’s ensuing war on Hamas in Gaza. Those included Rachel Goldberg and Jon Polin, whose son Hersh Goldberg-Polin is held hostage by Hamas, along with about 240 others. The couple have become two of the leading faces of the movement demanding the hostages’ freedom, which has galvanized Jewish communities across the United States and beyond. Before they spoke to the delegation, Goldberg-Polin’s parents had made the reverse trip — returning to Israel after a short stint advocating for their son in New York City.

“I am in shock, walking through the world without my heart,” Goldberg told the group. She and Polin described the horror of not knowing whether Hersh is still alive, after he was last seen in a video lifting himself up with his own strength into the rear of a Hamas pickup truck on its way back to Gaza — after he had lost one his arms in a grenade attack that killed 18 of 29 people who were crammed alongside him in a roadside bomb shelter.

“We are not convinced that the Israeli government is putting the hostages front and center,” Polin said. “They are talking about war and victory, but they are not talking about the hostages. It is critical even in Israel that we are not forsaking the 239 hostages. The biggest moral victory that this country needs now is to see 239 hostages returning to their families.”

Goldberg described herself as a naturally shy person who has become incapable of feeling emotions such as nervousness or fear when thrust onto the public stage to push for her son’s release. But she said that small gestures still make a difference. “It actually helps, receiving the one-line message on Whatsapp,” she said.

The final day of the trip was about “resilience and inspiration” for “clergy and communal leaders to go back home, representing tens of thousands of people who are frozen with fear and don’t know what they can do to help,” said Arnoff. “Now, they can go back and explain what they saw, what they witnessed.”

The solidarity mission is part of Fuchsberg’s broader efforts to respond to the crisis. It has also turned its Jerusalem campus into a sanctuary for 200 evacuated families from Israel’s south and north, living in dorms generally reserved for students on the Conservative gap-year program Nativ. It has also opened its synagogue for young Israelis of all stripes to sing and pray together.

“I came here because it’s home and I needed to come home and really give the message to everyone here who is struggling, who have lost people ,who are hurting — you’re not alone, we are with you,” said Rabbi Annie Lewis of the Shaare Torah congregation in Gaithersburg, Maryland.

A personal moment for Zuckerman came when he was able to give a quick hug to his son, who is serving in the IDF in Gaza. He compared the experience of being a pulpit rabbi now to how he felt at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Whatever we were planning on doing this fall with our communities, we’ve pivoted,” said Zuckerman. “This is very much a marathon, not a sprint.”

The post ‘We were broken to see what we saw’: US rabbis visit Israel during wartime appeared first on Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

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Flip through the digital edition of the Summer 2024 print magazine from The Canadian Jewish News

We’ve produced a collection of feature articles four times a year since 2022. A special edition of this magazine will appear in mid-September—with reflections on the Jewish year that was. And in December, look out for a reimagined publication with a name of its own. Get future copies delivered to your door as a thank-you […]

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Top US Official Calls Hamas Leader Sinwar a ‘Psychopath,’ ‘Messianic’ as Ceasefire Talks Swirl

Yahya al-Sinwar, head of the Palestinian terrorist group Hamas in the Gaza Strip, attends a meeting with people at a hall on the seashore in Gaza City. Photo: Yousef Masoud / SOPA Images/Sipa via Reuters Connect

A senior US official said that Hamas leader Yahya Sinwar is the Palestinian terrorist group’s ultimate decision maker and has little interest in reaching a ceasefire deal with Israel, in testimony before a US Senate subcommittee hearing on Tuesday.

“At the end of the day, there’s one guy 10 stories below the ground: a psychopath, messianic in his own belief that he has established himself in history, and [he believes that] there’s a sunk cost of having lost thousands of fighters and carnage in Gaza,” said Barbara Leaf, the US assistant secretary of state for near eastern affairs.

Sinwar, the top Hamas official in Gaza and the mastermind behind the terrorist group’s Oct. 7 massacre across southern Israel, has reportedly been hiding in Hamas’ extensive network of underground tunnels during Israel’s ongoing military campaign in the coastal enclave.

Leaf’s comments echo others made by Biden administration officials.

In April, a US official told reporters that Sinwar is single-handedly holding up any progress on a potential hostage deal.

The senior Biden administration official said that while Hamas’ political bureau has shown some willingness to compromise on the terrorist group’s most hardline positions, Sinwar’s maximalist demands continuously win out.

“Sinwar has made the decision he’d rather hold [the hostages seized by Hamas terrorists on Oct. 7] than secure a ceasefire, and that’s just the truth of the situation,” the official said.

Leaf, in her testimony on Tuesday, said that Qatar — where many top Hamas political officials are based — has been “squeezing” the group — though to little effect, according to a report from Axios.

“There’s a cadre of political officials of Hamas in Doha, and boy do they squeeze them, I can assure you they squeeze them,” Leaf said.

Israel has described Hamas’ response to the new US ceasefire proposal as total rejection. But efforts to secure an agreement are still continuing, according to mediators in Qatar and Egypt, backed by the United States.

The Axios report added that Qatari Prime Minister Mohammed Bin Abdul Rahman al-Thani met on Tuesday in Doha — Qatar’s capital — with senior Hamas officials in an attempt to reach a breakthrough in the talks about the hostage and ceasefire deal.

Egypt and Qatar — which along with the United States have been mediating between Hamas and Israel — said on June 11 that they had received a response from the Palestinian groups to the US plan, without giving further details.

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Blinken Confirms US Pausing Bomb Shipment to Israel After Netanyahu Calls for End to ‘Inconceivable’ Weapons Halt

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken hold a joint news conference in Jerusalem, May 25, 2021. Photo: Menahem Kahana/Pool via REUTERS

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Tuesday confirmed the US was still withholding a shipment of bombs to Israel, hours after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called for Washington to remove restrictions on arms deliveries to the Jewish state and asserted that the top American diplomat had assured him the Biden administration was working to lift any halts on weapons.

The Biden administration is “continuing to review one shipment that President [Joe] Biden has talked about with regard to 2,000-pound bombs because of our concerns about their use in a densely populated area like Rafah. That remains under review,” Blinken said at a news conference at the US State Department.

However, he added, the administration is committed to making sure “that Israel has what it needs to effectively defend itself.”

Blinken’s remarks came after Netanyahu posted a video online earlier in the day in which he lamented that the US recently paused a weapons shipment to Israel and threatened to block more but said Blinken told him that Washington was seeking to end any halts on arms deliveries.

“When Secretary Blinken was recently here in Israel, we had a candid conversation. I said I deeply appreciated the support the US has given Israel from the beginning of the war,” Netanyahu said.

“But I also said something else. I said it’s inconceivable that in the past few months, the administration has been withholding weapons and ammunition to Israel,” he continued. “Israel, America’s closest ally, fighting for its life, fighting against Iran and our other common enemies.”

The Israeli premier then asserted that Blinken told him the issue would be addressed.

“Secretary Blinken assured me that the administration is working day and night to remove these bottlenecks,” Netanyahu said. “I certainly hope that’s the case. It should be the case. During World War II, Churchill told the US: ‘Give us the tools; we’ll do the job.’ And I say, ‘Give us the tools, and we’ll finish the job much faster.’”

Following Netanyahu’s comments, both the White House and the US State Department refuted his apparent claim that Washington was withholding more than a single shipment of bombs.

“Everything else is moving as it normally would move, and again, with the perspective of making sure that Israel has what it needs to defend itself against this multiplicity of challenges,” Blinken said.

The White House echoed Blinken’s comments, saying that only one shipment of 2,000-pound bombs had been withheld and nothing else.

“We genuinely do not know what he’s talking about,” White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said. “We just don’t.”

Jean-Pierre added that the US and Israel have been having discussions about the release of the shipment but that there was no update at this time.

“There are no other pauses, none,” Jean-Pierre said. “No other pauses or holds in place.”

On Monday, unconfirmed reports in both Israeli and German media said that during Netanyahu’s meeting with Blinken in Jerusalem last week, the Israeli premier urged the US to return the frequency of its arms shipments to the level immediately after Oct. 7, when the Palestinian terrorist group Hamas launched the war in Gaza with its massacre across southern Israel. According to the reports, Blinken said that Washington would remove all restrictions on weapons transfers to Israel in the coming days.

Netanyahu also reportedly warned Blinken that the slowing of aid and the perception of America’s weakened support for Israel benefits Iran and its terrorist proxies across the Middle East, including Hamas, emboldening them to intensify attacks against Israel and potentially resulting in a broader regional war.

The Biden administration has been under intense pressure from Democrats, especially those on the progressive left, to condition if not outright withhold US military support for Israel. Critics of Israel have argued the Israeli military campaign in Gaza has killed too many civilians and led to a humanitarian disaster in the Palestinian enclave. Israel has said Hamas is to blame for starting the war, stealing aid, and intentionally placing its operation centers inside or underneath civilian sites.

Hamas started the war with its surprise invasion of Israel on Oct. 7, when the terrorist group murdered 1,200 people and kidnapped over 250 others as hostages. Israel responded with its ongoing campaign aimed at freeing the hostages and destroying Hamas, which rules Gaza.

In recent months, the Biden administration has become increasingly critical of Israel’s operations both in public and private, pressuring Jerusalem to change its military strategy and seek a ceasefire.

The issue came to a head last month, when Biden announced that it would cease a bomb shipment to Israel and threatened to halt more weapons deliveries if the Israeli army launched an offensive in Rafah, a city in southern Gaza and Hamas’ last major military stronghold.

I made it clear that if they go into Rafah – they haven’t gone in Rafah yet – if they go into Rafah, I’m not supplying the weapons that have been used historically to deal with Rafah, to deal with the cities — that deal with that problem,” Biden told CNN.

Israeli officials and experts have said operating in Rafah is essential to eliminating the last remaining Hamas battalions. Netanyahu said the Jewish state appreciates US support but “will stand alone” if necessary.

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