Showing We Care
Two weeks ago, I was in Passaic for Shabbos. The main theme of my presentations in four shuls was the feeling of achdus in Israel, from the kidnapping of the three yeshiva students through Operation Protective Edge, and what can be done to preserve it. On Motzaei Shabbos, I spent several hours together with a group of alumni of Machon Shlomo and Machon Yaakov, two yeshivos for ba’alei teshuva in Har Nof.
One of those present asked me what I thought was the most important thing American Jews can do now for their brethren in Israel. He did not specify any particular kind of American Jews, or Israeli for that matter. I replied: Show them that you care about what is happening to them.
I’m not sure where that answer came from since I do not lack for remarkable organizations in Israel to recommend. Perhaps I was inspired by the widely distributed letter of Rabbi Shay Schacter, assistant rabbi of the White Shul in Lawrence, describing in poignant detail his four-day visit to Israel, as the emissary of Lawrence’s White Shul to convey condolences to the Shaer, Fraenkel, and Yifrach families and deliver letters of tanchumin from the congregation. The response of everyone – from the El Al stewardess on his flight to Israel to the three families themselves – was overwhelming.
Another rabbi I knew would show up this summer was Rabbi Aryeh Sokoloff of Kew Gardens. My only question was when would he arrive. I first met Reb Aryeh eight years ago during the Second Lebanon War when he was in Israel offering support to Jews living in bunkers for weeks on end in the North and to bereaved families. The next time we met was at the shiva home of one of the eight kedoshim murdered in Mercaz HaRav. He had flown in on his own dime for one day to visit each of the eight shiva homes.
Reb Aryeh did not arrive until last week, after the worst of the fighting in Gaza was over. His primary purpose was to visit as many of the wounded soldiers still in hospital as possible. And to that end, he travelled from Jerusalem’s Hadassah Har HaTzofim to Haifa’s Rambam to Beersheba’s Siroko to Petach Tikvah’s Beilenson to Tel Aviv’s Tel HaShomer, where the largest contingent of wounded soldiers is found.
The soldiers remaining in hospital are the forgotten casualties of the war. The solidarity missions (each extremely valuable in its own right) that attended the funerals and visited the shivah homes have come and gone. But these young men, almost all of them between 19 and 21, remain in hospital, accompanied only by their families.
Many have lost one or more limbs, an eye, their hearing, or their ability to speak. Others suffered severe head injuries that threaten them with permanent impairment. Still others are paralyzed, either partially or completely. Each one of these young men is adjusting to the realization that he will never again engage in certain activities that came naturally to him just a few weeks ago. Their dreams for the future have all been altered in one way or another. As one mother told Reb Aryeh, “My son went through one milchamah (war); now he is going through another.”
To them, Rabbi Sokoloff brought a simple message: “I love you. I care about you. You are heroes, and you did something great in risking your lives to protect the Jewish people.” And he wanted that message to come in the package of a bearded rabbi, wearing a black suit and hat.
He hugged and embraced the soldiers and their parents, and most important, listened to them. He offered encouragement that they would still be able to lead productive, happy lives. But each conversation was personal, based on what the wounded soldier or his parents were saying.
Meir Solomon, who drove Rabbi Sokoloff everywhere on his four day whirlwind visit, told me that he witnessed two soldiers and two mothers start crying while speaking to Reb Aryeh. And one father, who introduced himself as a member of a HaShomer HaTzair kibbutz, kept saying, “Kol HaKavod,” as tears welled up in his eyes at the thought that a chareidi rabbi had come from America to speak to his son. (There were, of course, also a few soldiers who had no interest in talking to a rabbi from America.) When Solomon pulled out his cellphone to photograph one of the encounters, a horrified Reb Aryeh told him to put it away immediately – no photos.
While walking through hospital corridors, Rabbi Sokoloff was called over by mothers to speak to their sons. One sixty-year-old man, who had been paralyzed by falling shrapnel, asked for a blessing. He told Reb Aryeh that he had been left a partial invalid as a young soldier in the Yom Kippur War over forty years ago and had now suffered an even more serious injury.
The IDF pays for the lodging of the parents of wounded soldiers near the hospitals in which their sons are being treated, and as a consequence, almost every soldier Reb Aryeh met was accompanied by his parents. But one “lone soldier” named Chaim in Hadassah Hospital left an indelible impression on Reb Aryeh. Both his right arm and leg had been nearly severed by sniper fire, and he had watched his commanding officer, also 23, and a close friend die in front of his eyes from the same sniper fire.
He described to Rabbi Sokoloff pain so intense that the morphine administered by medics at the scene had no effect. Yet he still managed to go to the levaya of his commanding officer in a hospital gurney, and even to offer a hesped: “All he cared about was me.” Though not ostensibly religious, he told Rabbi Sokoloff that his left arm was unaffected “So I’ll still be able to put on tefillin.”
Rabbi Sokoloff’s first day in Israel coincided with the funeral of Daniel Tragerman, Hy”d, 4, the first child killed by enemy fire. When Rabbi Sokoloff entered the shivah tent at moshav Sde Avraham, he quickly noticed that he and his friend Meir were the only religious people there. But Mr. Tragerman, not wearing a kippah, quickly came over to hug him. Soon they were joined by Danny’s mother. Reb Aryeh asked her to tell him about her son. She spoke of how much she had learned from her oldest child. She told Rabbi Sokoloff, “I know he is in a better place.” At the end of his visit, Mrs. Tragerman asked plaintively, “How long must this last? Rabbi, do you believe there will ever be peace?” Then her husband once again embraced Rabbi Sokoloff.
The current trip was Reb Aryeh’s fifth personal chizuk mission since the expulsion from Gush Katif. But I only convinced him to let me write about this one because he felt there was such an important message for those of us privileged to live in Eretz Yisrael. First, that there is a great mitzvah close at hand of bikur cholim that we can perform for those who have sacrificed so much on our behalf.
And in performing that mitzvah, we can at the same time go a long way towards maintaining the feelings of unity of the last two months. As Reb Aryeh put it, the hospital visits are a wonderful opportunity to “speak to one another and not at one another.” He told me that almost every soldier whom he told of all the Jews around the world praying and learning on his behalf was uplifted on that account.
Achdus requires all groups of Klal Yisrael to value one another and acknowledge what others do for us. There is no better place to start than with the wounded soldiers to whom we truly owe so much. And, as Rabbi Sokoloff’s experience indicates, such expressions of closeness are likely to be reciprocated.