Privileged to Walk with Angels
Posted 24 February 2009on:
Posted 24 February 2009on:
As you know I spend a lot of time travelling to and from Israel. I have just returned from a trip that was exceptionally interesting, inspiring, rewarding, meaningful and even more superlatives I don’t even know. It filled me with excitement and energy – and exhaustion – and I can’t keep this to myself, I have to share.
A little background.
I was brought up in a fairly observant Jewish household with my parents and my twin brother and often houseguests. My upbringing and learning imbued me with not only a love of my religion but also a love of my heritage, a love of Israel and the unwavering belief that it is the homeland of the Jewish people. With no desire to be political or provocative, but with pride I make no apologies for calling myself a Zionist. The love affair with this little piece of land that is no larger than Wales (for the Brits) or New Jersey (for the Yanks) and whose size can be likened to a pinhead on the map of the Arab world, lay beneath the surface until its full passion was unleashed when I took my first steps on its blessed soil in 1968. Today, as in those days, thousands of young Jewish school leavers go on ‘tour’ every summer. My tour year should have been in 1967 but a war, albeit a short one of six days, was raging that changed everything both for the country and for me.
I won’t dig into my memory so deeply to extract the minutiae of that trip other than to say it made an obvious impact on me on many levels. There is a story attached, there always is, but again not boring you with the finer details, two years later post-college, I found myself travelling alone on a bus to a kibbutz betwen Haifa and Afula where I was about to attend ulpan. An ulpan is a school for intensive Hebrew study. On kibbutz this involves an 8 hour day of alternately one week 5 hours study in the morning and working in the afternoon, or 5 hours morning work and 3 hours afternoon classes, oh and it was a six day week, Shabbat being the only day off. After my initial homesickness wore off, the planned six months became a year as I raised my game and gained entry into the highest class, voraciously learning the language and falling in love. My language skills blossomed, the romance withered.
On a rare and welcome free weekend whilst waiting for a bus to take me to some well earned rest and fun and sun in Tel Aviv, I was talking to an old man who commended me on my perfect Ivrit; I felt so proud until he told me no one spoke like that anymore. My teacher was a German university professor, aka a Yekki. If you don’t know, a Yekki is a German Jew who is very very proper and everything has to be methodical and organised and done to perfection, so for him colloquialisms were out; I had to start learning all over again.
The year was over, money all gone, so needs must I had to return home and earn a living. During that time a tragic circumstance threw a childhood acquaintance and me together and one thing leading to another our wedding was booked for December 1973. A couple of months before said wedding fell apart the same time that another war was blazing on all fronts in Israel. All soldiers were called up and volunteers desperately needed to fill their shoes in the workplace. It was the perfect time to leave behind a broken heart and go do my bit. This time I headed further North, not too far from Lebanon, where my newfound language skills would come in handy and I could be of use to my country and my people.
Young and with no responsibility other than yourself, you believe you can do anything.
It was frightening; it was challenging; it was exciting. The survivors slowly returned home to their loved ones and their jobs and the country tried to return to some sort of normalcy after horrendously heavy losses and casualties. I had done ‘my bit’ so tramped down to Tel Aviv to find accommodation and employment and a good time. All three happened in varying degrees of success but nothing lasts forever and not long after I returned home to spend Passover with my family and then… I met my husband. I spoke not another word of Ivrit nor visited my beloved Israel for another 21 years.
In 1995 our eldest son went there to study in Yeshiva in a portacabin on a hillside in Efrat and I was jolly well gonna go and visit him, with or without his daddy. We both went. We went together. We were all in Jerusalem for Chanukah and it felt wonderful and I promised myself faithfully that there could not and would not be another 21-year hiatus. Son came home after one year; his heart and soul were in Israel and unsurprisingly after university and a graduate training programme he returned there to study in another Yeshiva and we accepted he wouldn’t be coming back to London.
Since our initial trip together we went again several times and around the time my husband and I parted our son made aliyah got married and had a family; my obvious impetus for all those trips over the past five years as well as wedding planning since surprise surprise all my children chose to marry in Israel.
So – I hadn’t done any proper sightseeing with a tour guide since my initial trip in 1968; 41 years later that was about to change. This time I was going on an official trip with my synagogue; its purpose twofold. On the one hand to learn more of our history and on the other, more significantly, to meet and help people. Inside I felt giddy like the teenager I once was and very excited.
Often I tread the cobbled streets of Jerusalem and the Old City, but usually just to mooch and shop and people watch and have a coffee and meet friends – kinda the same old, same old! This trip was poles apart, absolutely brilliant. Oh, that’s not to say that every trip isn’t brilliant, seeing my grandchildren is always something special, but this was something else altogether.
We were a small group of only nine souls and we spent our first long day together in the Old City with a wonderful tour guide, visiting David’s City, The Southern Excavations, The Tunnels and the Jewish Quarter. It would be cool if you did click on the links to share where I’ve been and perhaps share my emotion and feelings and to understand where I come from.
Throughout its history Jerusalem has been under the rule of many dynasties and their religions. Between the First Temple Period of 1000 – 586 BCE and the Second Temple Period 538 BCE – 70 CE it was the Babylonians. After the destruction of the Second Temple followed the Persian & Hellenistic, Roman (Pagan), Byzantine (Christian), Early Arab (Muslim), Crusader (Christian), Ayyubid, Mamluk and Ottoman (Muslim), British Mandate (Western) and Jordanian (Muslim) periods until 1967 when once again we had access to Jerusalem (Jewish). The archaeology informs us of our history and the empires that have sought to destroy us; they are long gone, no more; we are still here, small in number, but still here.
Exhausted, yet enthused, we were to spend the following morning at Yad Vashem, the holocaust museum. I have to go back again, it’s a must. It is absolutely impossible to see it all or absorb the enormity of it in the short space of time we were allocated. I had been there many many years ago and knew the power of it – I had felt its effect even as a teenager, but more information and stories are still coming to light . We were told of the story of an old woman searching its archives for the fate of her brother only to find that in old age he had done the same. For sixty years each had believed the other had perished. Needless to say this is one of the few stories with a relatively happy ending.
Words are inadequate to express the emotions these places evoke.
Sadly there is a link connecting what I had seen and what I was about to see.
From the outset of the intifada my community has been raising thousands and thousands of pounds to support the victims of terror and groups have gone to Israel to meet them and their families to show that someone cares; that they are not alone. The victims are not just the individuals whose lives have been torn apart physically and who are psychologically scarred, but their entire families are affected in great measure. It was an honour and a privilege to meet many of these people and the wonderful volunteers of Keren Klita who give them hope, support and opportunity to rebuild their lives.
I won’t go into too much depth about the individual victims I met. Many were horrifically injured by suicide bombers, although personally I prefer the term homicide bomber; suicide is killing oneself not others! I met elderly grandparents caring for little ones who were orphaned. A woman who has undergone 22 operations in Israel and overseas and needs more reconstructive surgery after an Arab woman walked into the shoe shop where she was working and threw acid in her face. A whole family injured and burnt by a bomber on a bus after celebrating their anniversary and a family innocently enjoying a few precious moments eating pizza together – the list goes on. Their warmth and friendship and unnecessary appreciation overwhelmed me.
We also visited the city of Hebron via Kever Rachel, Rachel’s Tomb. This is in Bethlehem, which is now forbidden to Jews. Walls had been erected that allowed us direct access; time enough was allowed for us to savour the moment of being in this holy place, to pray at her tomb, get out and then head off to Hebron.
Hebron is the home of the Cave of Machpelah, the burial place of our patriarchs and their families; a holy site for us, yet Jews are only allowed access ten days in the year.
My feelings were in a turmoil – I cannot make up my mind whether to respect and laud the few residents who live in Hebron for their tenacity, their ideology or their altruism. It is unsafe – a dangerous place – yet these people believe their presence is not for themselves but for the Jews of the future and for the future of Israel. We have given up land for appeasement before, yet it backfires on us. The people of Gush Katif were forced from their homes; they had established a thriving multi-million dollar agricultural industry there. These displaced and dispersed people are still living in tin cans where they swelter in the summer and freeze in the winter. Their families have been fractured; they cannot find work, they are psychologically scarred. Their beautiful homes, their synagogues, their cemeteries, their schools, their fields were razed to the ground and concreted over to become rocket launch pads; rockets that are still being fired day in day out on Israel. That is where conciliatory action got us. Part of me says the residents of Hebron are crazy, they should get out – another part of me admires their selflessness , their sacrifice, their drive.
If my emotions were not stirred enough already, more was to come.
No one can praise highly enough the dedication and hard work of the founders and volunteers of Keren Klita. They are an amazing group of people who I hope to have the opportunity to meet and work with again, yet they are not the only ones. (Coincidentally I discovered that one of the ladies is related to my husband’s family, which means my son has found family in Israel he knew nothing about).
The next day I had the privilege to meet and work alongside an angel, a guardian angel to over four hundred desperate and needy families. She herself was a victim of terror; she was pregnant at the time. Her humility is awe-inspiring. When she recovered from her wounds, she knew she had been saved for a purpose; she had to do something. This beautiful woman gives so much yet thanks the people for letting her. Here is a moving video of Liora and what she has done and what she is doing and I am so touched to have met her.
I have been involved in voluntary work and chaired committees and been on boards, etc in some form or other since my teenage years, winding down somewhat over the past few but now embracing new areas. I thought I had worked hard and gave of myself, but nothing compares to the sheer dedication devotion and enthusiasm of Liora. She is modest and self-effacing and her humility is truly inspirational.
The link I spoke of earlier sadly is hatred. For thousands of years my people have been the victims of anti-Semitism, persecution, crusades, inquisitions, pogroms, the holocaust and today nothing has changed; we are still hated and the right of the existence of the State of Israel for the Jewish people is challenged. Even my own capital is hosting an anti-semitic rally. In Dresden a couple of weeks ago, there was a neo-Nazi rally on the anniversary of the Dresden bombing during the war. Why a neo-Nazi rally? Why not a gathering of people to reflect and to remember and to say it must never happen again. I did not hear a single word of hate on the lips of these victims; they were not even all Israeli born. Some fled Iran; some fled Russia; some from Latvia. Let’s hope their prayers are answered that one day they will live in a country without fear and in peace and safety and security.
I could conclude on an even more political note, but I don’t want this post to be a forum on who’s right and who’s wrong. Let me conclude with a different thought.
Bad things happen to good people.
No one has the answer to that question, only Hashem knows. We are made in His image, but He gave us freewill, freewill to choose, to choose to be good or to choose to be bad. It helps to believe that to everything there is a purpose, but sometimes you have to search deep within your soul to find it. One possible theory is the good that comes from bad. Sometimes it takes a tragedy to be the stimulus and incentive for positive action. Bereavement, incurable illness, hardship, trauma, violence, etc; these are the catalysts that motivate people to dedicate themselves to research, scholarships, foundations, charities, whatever it takes. Victims and survivors who reach out to help one another, mourners who keep the memory of their loved ones alive, people who don’t want what they’ve been through to happen to others. People whose lives are so hard yet they count their blessings and give of themselves to help others. For some suffering can be the defining point in their life when they feel there is nothing to live for. For others it is a turning point in their lives to rise above their suffering and make something good of it.
In a few weeks I shall be back in Jerusalem for a wedding; with so much hardship around us, we have to take every opportunity to celebrate whenever we can. I have extended my stay to allow me the privilege of working with Angels again.