On June 24th, 2006, I set out on the journey of a lifetime with hundreds of teenagers from different Ramah camps from around North America. It was my second time in Israel, and I was even more excited to be in our homeland this time than the last. As I sat on the airplane, I read through some of the plane letters my friends had written me and also taken in a movie or two. By the time we touched down at Ben Gurion Airport, something had happened that would shape far more than our summer experience: the capture of Gilad Shalit. While I didn’t realize it at the time, this was only the beginning of what was to be a summer to remember, one far more intense than typical sightseeing. While I don’t remember every detail of that summer, what I do recall is vivid.
A few weeks after we arrived, the country was at war. Nevertheless, the trip went on, even as other summer programs had cut their trips short or cancelled altogether. Every day was imbued with a greater sense of purpose. As the days went by, more and more soldiers were called up for miluim. Slowly, our Israeli program staff was waning. One of our bus counselors, Ilana, saw her husband be called. He was also staffing our program. At that time, they had only been married for a few months. Yet, we never looked back. Even when our hike from the Kinneret to the Mediterranean had been changed to random Jerusalem Hills hiking or when we had to use longer routes to get to our destinations due to safety considerations, our hopes were not dashed.
I don’t want to paint an only rosy picture because at the end of the day, war was being waged and lives were lost. The Philadelphia Ramah contingent, along with everyone else on the trip, was hit hard by the death of Michael Levin, a native son of their Jewish community. We came together, we cried together.
Tisha B’Av that year was the most poignant and meaningful one I’ve experienced. It didn’t take much to find the feelings of sadness and mourning.
Emergency synagogue and rabbinic delegations from abroad came to Israel and some of them met with Ramah Seminar. Some told us they were proud that we were there and that we didn’t head back home. I kept thinking to myself that we weren’t going back home because we were home. As long as the program felt they could keep us safe, how could we leave?
I used to be confused as to how feel on Yom HaZikaron. To my knowledge, I do not personally know a soldier who has been killed in the line of duty. As a Jew living in the diaspora, it’s often hard to connect with places that you do not live in. However, that summer in Israel changed my perception on Israel’s memorial day forever. Being there, watching the events unfold in front of me provided me with the proper base for understanding what exactly we are to mark, what exactly is missing. It’s a sentiment that I’ve tried to apply to the American Memorial Day as well, even though the two days seem so very different. This experience taught me that it didn’t matter who I knew or didn’t know when it came to mourning Israel’s fallen heroes. When we say “Acheinu kol beis Yisrael” it doesn’t refer to the Jewish people as a ragtag bunch of people with a shared, common goal. We are acheinu, brothers. We grieve for our brothers. And sisters. Sons and daughters. We grieve for those who fell in battle, whose blood was spilled so that we can live freely in the Jewish homeland. We grieve because there have been too many casualties. Too many families ripped apart. Too many lives snuffed out without a chance to blossom even further.
As I sat on the plane home from my trip, I began to cry. My two seat mates, colleagues of mine on Seminar, began to weep as well. We didn’t really know each other all to well, but that didn’t make a difference. It was a highly emotional summer, and I’m glad I wasn’t anywhere else.