We Will Not Be Silent: An Israel Mission Recap

March 20, 2024Rabbi Lisa Delson

Ein Milim - there are no words. Arrival at Ben Gurion International Airport on a mid-February day in any other year, one would be met with the sights and sounds of people greeting their loved ones, lines of tour busses waiting for excited passengers, pilgrims coming from all over the world to soak in the holiness of the Holy Land. However, from the moment I stepped off the airplane, it was clear that Israel is different now. Lining the wide walkways to baggage claim are the faces of the Israeli hostages held in Gaza after October 7. This was just the beginning of my experience with the Women of Reform Judaism (WRJ)/Women’s Rabbinic Network (WRN) Mission to Israel entitled, “We Will Not Be Silent.” Throughout the week-long mission, our goal was to see, hear, hug, and cry with those who are suffering from deep losses and working to make a difference after October 7.

From morning until night, our group, expertly led by guide Shari Robins, bore witness to the new reality in Israel. Each day, we met with various high-level leaders from the Jewish Agency, the Israeli Movement for Progressive Judaism, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, Women of the Wall, Israeli Knesset members, and the Leo Baeck School in Haifa, who are all doing their part to support their membership and constituents. We met face-to-face with wounded soldiers and the NGO leader who coordinates supplies for them. We met with an entirely new sector of researchers and lawyers, namely Dr. Cochav Elkayam-Levy, who is working tirelessly to archive and report on the sexual and gender-based violence against Israelis by Hamas. She is spreading the word to world leaders who have been silent or are ignoring what happened on October 7 because it does not fit with their narrative. While attending these meetings, we received “thank you” for being there, for taking time out of our lives to continue to partner even during war. Yochi Rappeport, the Executive Director of Women of the Wall even said, “Meeting with the WRJ/WRN solidarity mission was like an oasis in the desert. Being around such a powerful group of women during these difficult times gave me strength and hope.” Many of our visits included questions about the rise in antisemitism in North America. One person described our visit as a week-long shiva call. We showed up in a nation’s time of grief.

As the week progressed, three themes emerged of how we can speak out and encourage others to not be silent.

  1. Release the hostages. There are currently 134 hostages being held in Gaza, 32 of whom are no longer living. Buildings and billboards remind the public that these precious souls are not free and are facing danger every day. Yellow ribbons adorn jackets, wrists, and trees reminding the world that Israelis are suffering. And yet, there is a fear that the focus shifting away from the hostages. During our mission, we met with Lee Siegel, the brother of Keith Siegel, who was taken from Kibbutz K’far Azza. Lee spoke about the kind of peace-loving person Keith is and how he and his wife, Aviva, were taken hostage together. Aviva has since been released while Keith remains. Since Aviva’s release she is speaking about the continued sexual violence that both men and women face in captivity. Both Lee and Keith have connections to the Reform Movement in Israel and made Aliyah from the United States. In addition to these personal stories, there is evidence that some of the women taken hostage are now pregnant and time is running out for them to be returned to Israel so they can receive abortion care. Each person being held has a story to tell, has a life that was cut off on October 7. As North American Jews, we must keep the plight of the hostages at the forefront. The Hostages and Missing Families Forum is working tirelessly to raise awareness and bring their loved ones home. We must not stay silent.
  2. Telling about the atrocities. Multiple times we heard that it feels like time stopped on October 7. It is difficult to imagine that nearly five months have passed because for so many of the atrocities that occurred that day are so heavy. We walked the grounds of K’far Azza with a resident with ties to the Reform Movement, who gave us a detailed description of the hours that passed during Hamas’ invasion. She walked us from house to house telling the stories of the rich lives of the members of the kibbutz. 63 members of the kibbutz were killed that day and 14 were kidnapped, five remain hostage. In addition to those stories, we heard a first-hand account of a woman named, Liora, 71, a peace activist, who was trapped in her safe room on K’far Azza for 35 hours with her son, daughter-in-law, and two 15-year-old granddaughters. The family has since been evacuated to another kibbutz in central Israel. Liora’s story spoke of the horror of having to hold the door handle closed for all of those hours because their safe room was built for overhead rocket fire just 3 kilometers from the Gaza Strip rather than intruders to the kibbutz. She spoke of the IDF using her small house as a medical safe zone for injured soldiers, her granddaughter acting as commander to the soldiers with intimate knowledge of the kibbutz, and Hamas terrorists hiding in the room next door waiting for their escape. It is up to us to learn these stories and tell them so they are not forgotten. We must not stay silent.
  3. Maintain a sense of hope. The Israeli national anthem entitled Hatikvah means hope. Right now, in Israel, hope is like a flame almost guttered out. And yet there are still people like Hamutal Gouri, board member of HUC-JIR in Jerusalem, a professional feminist, storyteller, and peace activist who insists that peace is still possible. One of Gouri’s best friends was Vivian Silver, a peace activist killed on Kibbutz Be’eri. Silver was known to say, “There is no path to peace, peace is the path.” Gouri finds hope and has desires to return to her Israeli/Palestinian peace dialogue in time. She encouraged our group to have hope as well. Even though peace and hope are dwelling in the shadow of war, we could see it on Shabbat at Kehillat Bavat Ayin and at a bar mitzvah at Beit Daniel in Tel Aviv, and in the sweet voices of the preschool children getting ready for Purim, wearing costumes that our delegation brought from home. We must not be silent that hope is possible. 

As we head into the continued days and months of war and Sexual Violence Awareness month in April, let us keep in mind the lessons of this mission. We must continue to stand up for the hostages, to continue to tell the stories of sexual violence that the world does not want to hear, and we must continue to hope. We must move from ein milim - there are no words to we will not be silent.

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