Honorable Mensch-ion

The Three Israels

You can also find Rabbi Sherman’s sermon in The Jewish Journal.

Jewish tradition describes three Israels: the state, the land, and the people. Last week, as a rabbi leading a mission of North American Jews, I observed three different Israels: war-torn Israel, the living Israel, and an American perception of Israel that is far from reality.

Michal Uziyahu described her life living on the Gaza border before Oct. 7 as 95% heaven and 5% hell. Dr. Ron Lobel, director of emergency and disaster management at Barzilai hospital in Ashkelon, called his life before Oct. 7 “a disillusioned paradise.”

The Israel in the news is one of destruction and death, but behind the pictures is a country grasping for life, ordinary people searching for hope and light. Amiram Cooper, a hostage in Gaza whose death the IDF announced on June 2, was the uncle of a member of my synagogue. I have told his story for the last seven months. Last week, as I walked through Kibbutz Nir Oz, the community he founded in 1951, his story came alive.

As Mor, a 41- year- old mother, guided us through the burnt wreckage of her home on Kibbutz Nir Oz, she described the violence in the terrorists’ voices as they entered her home. I cried when I glanced at her son’s charred soccer cleat, blackened stuffed animals, and the growth chart pasted on the bedroom wall. It could have been my own children. She told us that her middle son wanted to give up. He whispered, “Mommy, let’s open the door and die.” They chose life, and they survived. We continued toward a fence surrounding empty fields. It was the fence I saw on TV that terrorists infiltrated, the exact location where Holocaust survivor Yaffa Adar was driven away in a golf cart, and where the Bibas babies were kidnapped.

Our last stop was Amiram Cooper’s home. No longer a name, I gently touched the front door of his completely abandoned abode. I turned to Mor and asked, “Would you like to bring your family back home?” She responded, “Rabbi, I cannot answer that. For me, it is still Oct. 7.”
For Israel, it is still Oct. 7.

Nonetheless, a living Israel exists side by side with a war-torn Israel.

In the Tel Aviv cafes that bustle past midnight, beaches on the Mediterranean that remain full, and in Jerusalem’s marketplace that pulsates with energy, the true living Israel is found in small actions far from cameras.

Two weeks ago, my cousin, Elad, was drafted into the paratroopers. As I walked into his home to celebrate the Sabbath, I noticed large balloons that read, giyus kal, “have an easy draft.” He returned home as a civilian, exchanging his uniform for his prayer shawl. On Sunday morning, I became a tourist, but he transformed back into a soldier, as his mother prayed to see him next Shabbat.

A living Israel, where hope abounds amidst darkness.

On our visit to the Gaza border town of Tzohar, we made the desert bloom, as we planted saplings alongside preschoolers. A young student asked, “Can we plant some more?” A living Israel, where children who live under constant air raid sirens desire a life full of planting. And even in the worst of times, one can still hope.

Shelly Shem Tov is the mother of Omer Shem Tov, 21, who was kidnapped by Hamas at the Nova festival. Shelly received a sign of life when the IDF discovered a diary in one of the locations Omer had been held.

This is what it reads.

“1. One more day …
2. Food … food … food … food …
3. My dear mom, I love you.”

Every day, Shelly finds the courage to tell Omer’s story, so that I can write his story, and so that you can share his story too. Shelly Shem Tov has a dream of a living Israel, when her son walks back into her life.

The third Israel is found here in America.
As I arrived home in Los Angeles, helicopters hovered above a newly formed UCLA encampment. Students boycotted Harvard commencement and ripped up Columbia diplomas. I thought to myself, if only Omer and Amiram could speak to these students.

And if only every college student would take the opportunity to visit Israel and meet the people before they build their tents. I could guarantee the social media discourse would change instantly.

For if “all eyes are on Rafah,” then let “all eyes be on Israel” too. When that happens, the world will see a nation fighting for its survival, inspired by days of hope and peace ahead.

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