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11/08/2023 04:26:31 PM

Nov8

Rabbi Shoshanah Conover

I believe, with full conviction. 

Even in my brother’s eyes I can find a sign -  

That I am not alone… 

From Ani Ma’amin by Ari Horowitz 

Today is one month and one day after the terror of October 7.  For the Jewish people, the world fundamentally changed that day.  Yossi Klein Halevi describes the emotional impact in four words: rage, dread, uncertainty, and resolve.  Each of these emotions pervaded my experience in Israel last week. For me, sitting now in my home in Chicago, I feel many of those emotions.  Enraged and still shocked by the horrific way that so many innocent Israelis were murdered.  Dread, not only by the possibility of widening war, but of the loss of so many lives—of Israeli soldiers and innocent Palestinian civilians.  Uncertainty about what might happen next—not only there, but here with growing antisemitism.  I witnessed the resolve of so many Israelis—from my peacenik friends to the heads of situation rooms all over the country’s center.  A better word to describe me is prayerful.  What can I say?  I’m a rabbi. 

These four emotions were displayed acutely in my conversation last Monday with Barak, a father of four from Netiv HaAsara, a moshav in the south, where 20 people were murdered.  He opened our conversation by saying:  

“I can’t believe that sheloshim is almost over…”  

Sheloshim is a period of 30 days that mourner’s restrict some of their “normal” activities after the death of a loved one.   Last Monday evening my friend Yoshi Zweiback and I spoke with Barak.  After nineteen of his friends and one family member were murdered on October 7, half the moshav members were relocated to a hotel in Tel Aviv.  There is a memorial as you enter the hotel with a yahrzeit candle on a table under framed pictures of the slain.  The Wax brothers each holding a beer in a toast.  Chavik smiling from inside a pool.  Bilhah and Kobi hugging.  Parents… Peace Activists…  Farmers… Children…  Yehi Zichram Baruch—May their memories be a blessing.  

The first thing I noticed about Barak were his eyes-- sky blue with warm intensity.   Many times, while Barak spoke, he paused and looked off in the distance.  He told us of the many funerals he attended and of his survivor’s guilt.  He shared how felt lucky that only 20 people from Netiv HaAsara were killed.  What a world to count twenty people murdered as a blessing.  He said: “I have no more tears…”.  But just as he said that his eyes welled up and he said, “Yes I do.”  He told us about his best friend Tamar from Nir Oz.  She was in her safe room with her children and husband in their home.  Terrorists set it on fire.  When they came out, the terrorists shot all of them dead.  “Tamari!” he wailed and then caught himself and looked away again.  

He recounted what he experienced on October 7. 

He woke up to a siren that lets them know to get to a safe room. These are usually triggered by missile attacks from Gaza.  Most often, the sirens stop, and people wait another minute or so before they emerge.  But that day, the sirens continued.  Barak and his family stayed in the safe room.  First the electricity went out and then the wifi.  There was no way to get information about what was happening.  The only thing that worked was the kibbutz’s WhatsApp.  Barak and his family heard gun shots nearby.  Soon after, a member of the kibbutz posted on the WhatsApp that terrorists had come into the kibbutz.  He didn’t know how many.  Families should stay in their safe rooms.  Anyone with a gun should patrol the windows of the home in case any of the terrorists tried to get in.  For twelve hours, Barak’s wife and kids stayed in the safe room.  Barak patrolled the windows.  At one point in the day, he made sandwiches for the kids holding his gun.   

His wife, who was traumatized by an earlier attack in 2012, had become hyper vigilant about charging her phone. There was no way to do that.  But without their phones, they would have no communication at all.   As the day wore on, their phones were below 10%.  Even knowing terrorists likely still roamed the kibbutz, Barak snuck to his car to charge her phone.  (I think about Palestinians in Gaza, who were thrust into this awful war by Hamas terror that day and were cut off from electricity in subsequent days as they tried to get in touch with family.) 

At around 6:30pm, they heard sustained gun fire.  Someone on WhatsApp let them know IDF soldiers had arrived.  Barak and his family quickly packed two suitcases.  They sped off in two cars— Barak’s wife with their oldest son in the car in front, Barak and his three youngest behind them.  He instructed the children to lay on the floor of the car.  They had to swerve around bodies as they fled the kibbutz. 

He shrugged.  Unprompted he asked: “Will we go back?  I don’t know…. I lied to my kids.  I told them we were safe there. How could the government let this happen?  I thought they were keeping us safe….”  His voice trailed off, but he didn’t turn away.  There was rage in his eyes.   

He began again, “I don’t know if I can ever feel safe.  But it was our paradise.”   

This is what he shared a week ago. I wonder what he would say today.   

Ariel Horowitz (the son of Naomi Shemer) wrote a song called Ani Ma’amin (literally, “I Believe”) just days after October 7. Of course, the title is taken from a hymn that focuses on the 12th of Maimonides’ 13 Principles of Faith: 

I believe with perfect faith in the coming of the Messiah,  
and, though he may tarry, I will wait daily for his coming. 

Horowitz’s Ani Ma’amin does not focus on the Messiah.  Instead, it captures the resolve of the people Israel. Pray as if everything depends on God.  Act as if everything depends on you.  

His song concludes:  

I believe, fully and completely, 
In the children’s laughter, 
In the grass that will still grow. 

Here there was a past, 
Here there will be a future, 
I believed once, 
I always will believe. 

 In that belief, I am prayerful and resolute.   

10/31/2023 03:41:53 PM

Oct31

Rabbi Shoshanah Conover

Last Shabbat at Temple Sholom, we celebrated two double Bnai Mitzvah— four Bar Mitzvah boys were called to Torah in the course of the day. In the morning, two of them chanted:

Baruch Atah Adonai, Eloheinu Melech Ha’olam Matir Asurim.

Blessed are You, O God, who frees the captive.

This prayer (that sounds like a declaration), rang out in the sanctuary and, of course, stays with me here.

This afternoon, with other colleagues, I spoke with family members and friends of people held captive in Gaza. We spoke with the family of Omer Wenkert, 22 years old, who was kidnapped while attending the Supernova Sukkot Gathering in Re’im. They worry about how he is managing— especially with a chronic illness. We talked with friends of Keren Munder taken hostage with her son, Ohad, who became 9 years old this past week in captivity.

With Ohad in mind, I spent quite some time looking at a long, perfectly set Shabbat table with 200 empty chairs, a haunting art installation by activists in front of the Tel Aviv Art Museum. Most upsetting are the chairs set with bibs, bottles, and stuffed animals for the babies and children held in captivity. They bring this horror home.

They also remind me of a comment made to me by an Israeli: “Gaza, where half the people are under 18, has a lot of innocent Palestinians held hostage by Hamas as well.” I was taken aback by his comment, not because I didn’t agree, but because I didn’t expect to hear this comment from an otherwise somewhat brusque man. He refused to associate all Palestinians with Hamas terror, not even in this time of extreme pain and anguish.

Tonight at dinner we learned that one of the hostages, Private Ori Megidish, was freed.

Last Shabbat, we also filled our sanctuary with the images of those taken captive. We continue to pray (in a way that sounds like a demand): Matir asurim— free all the captives.

10/30/2023 03:40:30 PM

Oct30

Rabbi Shoshanah Conover

As I wait in JFK getting ready for the El Al pre-board experience, I’m reflecting on why I have been compelled to go to Israel right now. I bought the ticket just days after October 7. I could not articulate my reasoning well, but somehow my friends and family got it. I have to be there… to feel, to reflect, to help, to relate. In addition to the two duffel bags I packed with needed medical packs and other supplies, I’m traveling with two teachings in my pockets. From Rav Joseph Soloveitchik: If boiling water is poured on the head of a Jew in one part of the world, a Jew in another part of the world screams out in pain. With suffering this acute and this fraught, I cannot scream from so far away. And from the Talmud: It is taught that one of the questions we are asked on the day of judgment: Did you anticipate redemption? I take this to mean: Did you believe that things so seemingly intractable could change and did you do anything to create that change? That second teaching challenges me every day. I pray that going to Israel at this time will help me get closer to responding, “Yes.”

10/11/2023 03:35:40 PM

Oct11

Rabbi Shoshanah Conover

We are holding our joy alongside our grief, as we celebrate the safe return of two hostages and Evanston residents Natalie and Judith Raanan. We are still praying for the return of the 198 other hostages, many of whom are connected in different ways to our community. Bringing some of our Temple Sholom teenagers to process and be in community with 200 other Jewish teenagers from around the Chicago area was a beautiful moment of hope this week. As we go into Shabbat, we are praying for peace in the land, for Israel and all of its inhabitants. Am Yisrael chai.

Fri, March 1 2024 21 Adar I 5784