Last August, during the height of Israel’s conflict with Gaza, Adath Jeshurun’s Rabbi Robert Slosberg was tapped by the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, the Rabbinical Assembly and the Masorti Foundation to lead the Conservative Movement’s Solidarity Mission to Israel along with Rabbi Felipe Goodman.
Almost 60 people participated in the mission on very short notice, Rabbi Slosberg said, 52 of whom were from the United States. The purpose of the mission, he explained, “was really to see what was going on in Israel, to meet with government people, professors and military people, and to provide some chizuk, strength, for our colleagues and congregants in Israel.” At the time, he added, there was “a tremendous sense of Israelis feeling demoralized and traumatized.”
The whirlwind three-day mission kept participants going nonstop. A ceasefire was in effect when the group arrived, but it was broken during their second full day in Israel. While the group was in Beersheva, three missiles were fired at that southern city.
“There was no siren in Beersheva,” Rabbi Slosberg said, “and we didn’t hear anything. It was reported on the news and the driver actually told us when we got on the bus. Then we headed north, but it was clear that the ceasefire had ended.”
“It was a very, very powerful, intense emotional experience,” he added. “I don’t think we really realized the impact these missiles have had. … Three quarters of Israel’s citizens are within striking distance of the missiles. … The children, in particular, have been traumatized.
“There was truly a sense of helplessness,” he continued. “One statement of one of the teenagers really sums it up best, ‘They used to come in and blow themselves up so we built a wall. Then they shot missiles at us and we built the Iron Dome. Now they’re tunneling under the wall we built.’ There’s a sense of despair: what hope is there for the future? What will come next?”
Another time, an attack forced the group to seek shelter. Rabbi Slosberg reported, “I had to go down to the bomb shelter in the basement of the hotel. It wasn’t scary because it was Jerusalem. But I was thinking, I had to get out of bed, get dressed to some degree and then get downstairs. Imagine if I had only 15-30 seconds to do that.” Since he was in Jerusalem, he had a bit more time. “Thankfully, the missile was intercepted by the Iron Dome.”
“Imagine yourself being a kid knowing that at any given moment you have 15 or 30 seconds to get to a bomb shelter,” he continued, noting that while this summer’s war was terrible with close to 4,000 missile attacks, the missiles have been an ongoing problem. “What people don’t know is that since 2007, there’s been 18,000 missiles. So it’s really worn people down, and even before the war, there were unexpected missiles.
“That’s what terror is,” he observed. “It’s unexpected. It just happens.”
“The only other time that I really felt a little alarmed was the last day,” he said. There had been reports of missiles targeting Tel Aviv. “We were in Tel Aviv and we meeting with the former head of the Mossad, Danny Yatom. There was like a thud on the windows and then there was an even louder thud, and we were on the 47th floor of the largest building in Tel Aviv. [It turned out that] it was the window washers.”
Rabbi Slosberg was particularly moved by four components of his trip to Israel.
The first was the actions of the Masorti Movement. During the war, they provided counseling, programs and services to children and adults in Israel’s south. For example, they created maps of the city, noting where everyone lives and checking up on people to make sure they’re O.K.
The Masorti Movement is also among the groups that received support from the Jewish Federations of North America’s Stop the Sirens Campaign to provide “camps in the north so that kids who have been in the south and living through this throughout their lives could get away and not be subjected to the missile fire,” Rabbi Slosberg said.
“The second component that was very powerful,” Rabbi Slosberg continued, “was the impact that anti-Semitism throughout the world is having on Israel and the influx of new immigrants. We met with Natan Sharansky, who told us that not a single new oleh [immigrant] had canceled” plans to come to the Jewish State because of the war.
“There’s been a dramatic spike in anti-Semitism in Europe,” he continued, and “some of it, particularly in Hungary, is organized by the government. In other places, it’s not necessarily organized by the government, but it’s of tremendous concern to Israelis and Israeli leadership. They are preparing for a large influx from France, Germany and even Australia. Some of the events reported to us are quite frightening and are reminiscent of the beginning of Nazi Germany.
“The third component to this trip that I found very moving and created a sense of pride was learning the extent to which Israel goes to prevent civilian casualties,” Rabbi Slosberg said. “We met with the ethicist who wrote the code of ethics for the military.” He was shocked to find out how many levels of red tape soldiers must clear before specific actions, like targeted killings, are approved.
“Ethicists are involved in making the decision,” he pointed out. “It’s not just military people saying, ‘oh there’s a terrorist, let’s just go bomb him.’ You have to have clearance, and if there’s any chance of civilian casualties, unless the terror threat is imminent, then the terror strike is called off.
“The other surprising statistic that the gentleman shared with us is that the terrorist-to-civilian ratio in targeted killings is 30-1,” Rabbi Slosberg said. “Over the years so that’s pretty significant and yet any time a civilian is killed, we feel a sense of loss. At the same time, knowing the extent that Israel goes to avoid civilian deaths is very important.”
“A lieutenant colonel who runs an artillery battalion just a few miles from Gaza confirmed what the ethicist had told us,” he continued. “They have to have permission to shoot at certain areas.” The entire area is mapped and the Israeli soldiers know where the civilians are. “The only time they’re allowed to shoot in areas where there may be civilians,” he reiterated, “is to protect soldiers whose lives are in danger.
“During the war, he told me his battalion alone had fired 10,000 missiles and he was responsible for having an Excel spreadsheet for every single artillery shell that was fired,” Rabbi Slosberg reported, “and that is every single one and it is studied and there is strict accountability.
There have even been times when authorization to shoot has been issued and then revoked when the soldiers learn there are civilians in an area. “There is a tremendous concern with civilian lives,” he stated, “and I think part of the reason Israel spent most of its time bombing Hamas, using its air force as opposed to sending in soldiers, is that it really minimized losses on both sides.” The high-tech equipment further reduces civilian casualties.
Hamas does not function by the same set of rules. “There was a report we heard this summer of Hamas terrorists holding children in one hand shooting with the other,” he said.
The final component Rabbi Slosberg spoke about is the Masorti Movement’s Chayal Boded, Lone Soldier program, another program that received support from the Stop the Sirens Campaign.
Like many people, Rabbi Slosberg knew about the Lone Soldier programs that help young people serving in Israel’s armed forces who made aliyah alone from other countries and have no family in Israel to support and help them.
But, he discovered, there is a second type of chayal boded serving their country. “These are ultra-Orthodox Jews who have been expelled from their family because they no longer want to be Ultra-Orthodox,” Rabbi Slosberg explained. They are as much alone as the immigrant soldiers.
“So where do they stay and who takes care of them?” he asked. “Conservative synagogues adopt these kids, find places for them to stay and provide them with clothing. I was so touched.”
Mission participants also got to see an Iron Dome installation, and they met with politicians from whom they learned more about where their parties stand on the issue of pluralism,“ a critical issue for the Conservative and Reform movements in Israel.
“I really felt extremely proud and extremely sad,” Rabbi Slosberg said. “It was very, very emotional and it was also, from a fundraising standpoint, the most successful mission the Masorti Foundation has ever had in Israel. … I’m really glad that we could make a difference.”
His message to his congregation and to the community is, “Now’s the time we need to embrace our Israeli brethren. We need to get there [to Israel] and we need to do more to foster understanding of the challenges Israel faces. At the same time, we need to show our support and solidarity because they are mentally and physically exhausted from years of the errant missiles.
“It was a trip of a lifetime, like none I’ve ever had,” he concluded. “It has really been a real privilege to participate and to play a role in the mission’s success. It’s really one of the great experiences of my career.”