A View From Israel Guest Blogger: Scott Birnbaum

O830703-israelflaggraafixblogspotcomflagsof-1422703836n Tuesday, October 20th, I received a mass email from Barry Shrage, CEO of CJP, announcing an emergency solidarity mission to Israel that would leave 2 days later. Few words would less accurately describe me than spontaneous, yet one day later, I signed up for the trip, and on Thursday night, little more than 48 hours after receive Barry’s email, I was on an El Al flight to Israel as part of a very small mission, consisting of Barry Shrage, Jeremy Burton, Executive Director of Boston’s Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC), and two other lay people.

What possessed me? Frustration.

Like many, I had been avidly following news reports about the latest spate—the Israelis are calling it a “wave”—of violence, marked by random knife attacks on civilians. Among them, a 13-year old boy stabbed and gravely injured by two Palestinian teenagers, one also 13-years old—while he rode his bicycle in Jerusalem.

The last few years have witnessed other episodes of violence in Israel, including two mini-wars in Gaza, and horrific terrorist attacks, including a mass shooting in a synagogue in Har Hanof a year ago. Yet, this seemed different somehow, maybe because of the unlikeness of the perpetrators—“lone wolf” Arab youth and women, stirred to murderous violence by false reports about Jewish encroachments on the Temple Mount.

So, I said yes to the quickly organized mission, fulfilling a need to do something; in my case, to simply be there. I had no fear for my personal safety—I know how incredibly safety-conscious CJP missions are—yet I was making a statement about resilience in the face of terrorism. Just as Israelis were, by necessity, going about their daily lives, I wanted to share in that, to demonstrate by physical presence, solidarity with Israel and her people, as they endured these horrific events, and to show that, just as Israelis would not be cowed by terrorism, neither would I.

The trip lasted just four days—we arrived in Jerusalem just before Shabbat, spent Sunday night in Haifa, and departed Israel at midnight on Monday. It was exhausting and extremely fulfilling. Most of all, it was marked by incredible contrasts, which, to those who have experienced Israel, comes as no surprise at all.

On our arrival shortly before the start of Shabbat, our group, accompanied by a guide and an armed guard, walked to the Western Wall, the Kotel. What would be an important part of any visit to Jerusalem took on an added significance, as the Temple Mount, standing just above the Western Wall, had been the focus of violence, with wild incitement, political posturing, and a remarkable episode of journalistic sloppiness (the New York Times reported, and then quickly modified, a story falsely stating that historians questioned whether the first or second Jewish Temples ever stood on the Mount.) In my three previous trips to Israel, that walk was considerably shorter, passing through the Shuq—the Arab market in the Old City. This time, we carefully skirted the Shuq and arrived at the Western Wall Plaza through a safe route. Families and school kids were out, but whether it was the approaching Shabbat or the “situation,” the Jewish Quarter was quieter than I had seen before. The Kotel itself was more or less the same as I had previously experienced it, except that there were far fewer tourists, noticeable because they of the absence of kippot distributed by attendants in the plaza. Later in the visit, people asked about how many were at the Wall, apparently because, other than on Shabbat, people have been staying away out of fear.

The next morning, we attended services at w a very small Orthodox synagogue, whose members were mostly American olim (immigrants), located just outside the old City. The shul, well over 100 years old, had traditional Ashkenazic Orthodox services, with a curious mixture of kids chanting with Israeli accents and others whose Ashkenazi Hebrew pronunciation was just like my grandfather’s. Despite my day school upbringing, I found it somewhat hard to keep up and find my place in the Siddur. But, what was most memorable was when we came to a line in the Kiddusha during the Amida prayer in the morning service. It’s a line not included in the Reform Movement’s siddur, but it had very special resonance to me that day: תשכון תתגדל ותתקדש בתוד ירושלים עירד Tishkon titkadosh vtitkadosh b’toch Yerushalim eerchah—“Be endured and sanctified in the midst of Jerusalem, Your city.” As the congregation sang that line I looked out a window and saw the walls of the Old City just a few hundred yards away. And I thought, this is a very, very special place—yet while it is a source of holiness, it is, sadly, not an Ir-Shalom, a city of Peace.

Later that night, we met Israelis personally affected by the recent violence. First, Karen, widow of Richard Lakin. As the media has widely reported, Richard and Karen immigrated from the US in the 70s. Richard was an educator, school principal, author; he had been a freedom rider in the 60s. He tutored Jews and Arabs alike, and was committed to peaceful co-existence. His Facebook home page showed a Jew and an Arab under a banner promoting religious coexistence. Ten days before we met Karen, Richard was shot in the head and his internal organs sliced in half by an Arab terrorist on a bus, returning from a routine doctor’s appointment.

As we met Karen, Richard lay in a coma at Hadassah’s Ein Keren Medical Center a few miles away. Karen showed incredible fortitude, talking about Richard—her best friend—and their two children and grandchildren; the visits from media and celebrities, such as US General Secretary Ban. She told us about Richard’s life work, and the Jewish and Muslim students they tutored in English. She told us about the wonderful care Richard was receiving at Hadassah, about the incredible kindness shown to them by the Chief Nurse, an Israeli Arab whose son Richard tutored. She expressed dismay at how recent events had been portrayed in the media, failing to recognize the mindless, murderous actions on innocent victims, like Richard. She recounted her granddaughter’s words, echoing Richard’s philosophy, that there are many possible responses to what is going on, but one of them is not hate. Her message to us—show you care by staying informed and learning the truth. Richard Lakin personified what was most admirable about Israel, answering the prophetic call of Judaism to pursue justice and to be a light unto the nations. His senseless murder—he succumbed to multiple organ failures a day after we returned to Boston—is unjustifiable evil.

Then we met Dr. Talia Lebanon, head of the Israeli Trauma Coalition, and a member of her staff. They were accompanied by two religious Jewish women, residents of the Old City, whose neighbors had been victims of stabbings. One of the most underreported stories about Israel is the psychic trauma recent events have caused. Whole regions of the country suffer from post-traumatic stress condition. Talia described one incident in the Old City: A family, the neighbors of one of the women we met that night, heard a scream from the street. The eldest daughter said, “Abba (Daddy), maybe you should see what’s wrong.” As the family looked on from their rooftop terrace, the father went down into the street and was stabbed to death. The trauma this family experienced is unimaginable; as is the guilt this poor daughter bears for her father’s murder. Whether it is the intention of these despicable acts of terrorism or not, a result of this violence has been to shatter coexistence. One of these religious women has lived next to Arab neighbors for over 3 decades. The Arab women were her friends. Now, fear permeates the neighborhood.

The work that Talia and her team of professional therapists do to help these families and dozens like them (and hundreds in the past) is extraordinary. But, from their faces, their tones, it is taking a toll on them (and many other Israelis no doubt, as well). Yet, they persist, and the braveness of these Israelis, their incredible composure, their resilience, is inspiring.

The next morning, Sunday, we visited the Hadassah Mount Scopus Medical Center. Set among an Arab Section of Jerusalem, the hospital was the site of a massacre of Jewish doctors and nurses during the 1948 War, reopened after the Six Day War, and now treats a broad section of the community, Israeli Jews, Arabs, and Palestinians from the territories.

One of the victims who was being treated at Mount Scopus was a 13-year old Israeli boy who was stabbed and nearly killed by two Arab youth, one of whom was killed by Israeli security forces on the scene the other was successfully treated in the same Emergency Room as the Israeli boy. His parents told us that their son had left to go to the store and was attacked while riding a bicycle in the northern Jerusalem neighborhood of Pisgat Ze’ev. He was taken to the hospital in life-threatening condition, placed in an induced coma and connected to a respirator.

We met the boys’ surgeon, Dr. Ahmed Eid, head of Surgery at Mount Scopus. Dr. Eid is an Israeli Arab. He trained to be a transplant surgeon, but has been devoting more time recently to treating victims of stabbings and gunshots. Dr. Edi told us that the boy only survived because of his youth and strength. (Thankfully, a week after we came home, he was released from the hospital, but still faces a long recovery).

We also met Dr. Osnat Levzion-Korach, the dynamic Director of Hadassah’s Mount Scopus Hospital, who gave us a tour of the hospital’s Emergency Department and showed us the improvised trauma room the ER staff had assembled in recent weeks. The ER doctors we met are practicing state-of-the-art trauma medicine in a 1950’s era facility. Among many lessons I derived from my short trip to Israel, was the tremendous admiration for the generations of Jewish women throughout the world who have supported Hadassah.


Towards the end of our short stay, we visited our sister city Haifa, for a very different perspective. We met the legendary mayor, Yona Yahav, who told us about how signs spontaneously began to appear throughout the city in Hebrew, Arabic, and Russian, saying “Arabs and Jews refuse to be enemies.” We met the leaders of University of Haifa, including President and former El Al CEO, Amos Shapira, and Executive Committee Chair and former Director of Shin Bet, Ami Ayalon, who told us about a tent that was erected in the middle of the campus so Jews, Druze and Muslims could speak openly about the current situation. The tensions we saw in Israel were largely absent from Haifa’s campus. Religious Muslim women and IDF officers were sitting and learning in the same classroom.

We also visited Horim Bamercaz, The Parents at the Center, an incredible project of the Boston-Haifa connection, where at-risk parents from poorer neighborhoods of Haifa come together and receive support and mentoring from volunteers and professionals.

If anything gave me hope during our visit, it was seeing the children of Haifa at play and meeting some of their mothers, including recent immigrants from Ukraine, an Orthodox single woman who had to receive permission from her rebbe to participate in the program, and an Israeli Arab, who told the story, through an interpreter, of how during last summer’s Gaza war, she and other Arab mothers kept their kids home from the center until the Jewish Israeli mothers called her up and urged her to come back. She related that the Jewish woman implored her to return because they missed her and her children and the center was not the same without them. So, this fall, when Israel was riven by knifings and assaults, she didn’t really think about keeping her child at home.

By the end of our short trip, there were signs that, maybe the violence had peaked. Unfortunately, this was far from true, as the violence has continued and the death toll continues to mount. As a tragic coda there was the tragic news of yet another Massachusetts native, 18-year old Ezra Schwartz, A”H, who was murdered by gunfire as he was returning from a volunteer outing. His burial was on November 22nd in Sharon. This is heartbreaking.

I close by quoting a recent blog post published in the Times of Israel, http://blogs.timesofisrael.com/please-tell-us-we-arent-alone/. The blogger, a young American woman who has made Aliyah to Israel, implores us that “we need to know we aren’t alone – that you’re listening. That our lives matter too. Please – reach out to us even if you disagree with our government — push past that to where we are huddled and trembling and tell us you see us and that you care and that we are not alone.”

In the face of so much despair, of so much violence, this may be all we can do—to let Israel and her people know we care.

Scott Birnbaum – Vice-President, Temple Shalom


2 thoughts on “A View From Israel Guest Blogger: Scott Birnbaum

  1. peteradler says:

    Thank you Rabbi Eric.

  2. Rhoda Ben-Gai says:

    Scott, thanks so much for sharing these stories from your Israel trip. What a privilege it must have been to be included in conversation with these Israelis. May your “spontaneous” ways continue to reward you and us!

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