SOMETHING I’LL NEVER FORGET

February 8th, 2024

(For the SoundCloud audio, scroll down)

Since returning from Israel after my latest visit, I am constantly being asked – what was it that left the deepest impression? I imagine what people expect to hear is about one of the places we visited, or about one of the people we met who said something particularly memorable. And yes, there were numerous moments throughout our trip that were especially moving or striking in their own way.

For example, witnessing first-hand the dedication of the Lemaan Achai team was deeply inspiring. Lemaan Achai is a Beit Shemesh-based social welfare organization that has had to scale up in ways no one anticipated, so that they can take care of hundreds of displaced families across central and southern Israel, along with the spouses and children of soldiers deployed to the war zone.

The mayor of Beit Shemesh underscored the incredible work of Lemaan Achai’s indefatigable founder and director, Rabbi Avrohom Leventhal. His superhuman efforts defy imagination. But despite that, it wasn’t our visit to Lemaan Achai that left the deepest impression.

The time we spent at Kerem Shalom, meeting the security personnel who repelled Hamas terrorists pouring over the border on October 7th, yards away from the kibbutz perimeter, was truly shocking. Their candid accounts brought home the horrors of the evil Israel faced via the experiences of those who lived through and survived that terrible day.

We also visited the Nova rave music festival site, which was transformed into a scene of violent carnage on October 7th. Even months later, an atmosphere of horror still lingers. But it was neither of these two places that left the deepest impression.

We spent over an hour with Israel’s former chief rabbi, Rav Yisrael Meir Lau, a child Holocaust survivor who lost most of his family at the hands of the Nazis, and whose personal narrative is an inspirational rollercoaster of emotions, embodying the entire story of modern Israel. Rav Lau captivated our attention with his lucid account of the many wars Israel has faced since its founding, all of which he personally lived through and drew lessons from.

Rav Lau’s upbeat demeanor, despite the existential threats to Israel – as real now as they were when Israel came into being – was incredibly uplifting. But it wasn’t our time with Rav Lau that left the deepest impression.

Our visit to Herzog Hospital in Jerusalem – the oldest hospital in Israel, founded 130 years ago, in 1894 – lifted our spirits and gave us much hope for the future. The facility is gearing itself up for the mental health crisis Israel is expected to face in the wake of October 7th and the current war. The staff’s sensitivity and the mental health team’s dedication deeply reassured us. They are doing everything they can to mitigate the crisis’s traumatic impact in the coming period.

The staff also showed us the bombproof wards that they are currently completing in the basement in anticipation of an escalation of rocket attacks from Lebanon in the next few months. Work on these wards began just a few weeks ago, and, remarkably, they are almost ready. We were totally blown away. Nevertheless, it wasn’t Herzog Hospital that left the deepest impression.

What left the deepest impression on me, and I believe on all of those who joined our solidarity mission, was best expressed by my friend Douglas Murray, the heroic reporter whose daily dispatches from Israel since October 7th have become compulsory watching for everyone hungry for factual journalism in a world dominated by lies and distortion.

Douglas joined us for dinner on the mission’s second night, and after giving us his analysis of the current crisis, he shared a conversation he had had with an Israeli man in his 60s which stirred him emotionally in a way that nothing else has since he arrived in Israel in October.

“He said something to me that was incredibly moving,” Douglas revealed. “We were talking about what Israel is going through, and what his generation, people in their 60s, had been through – and he said to me, impromptu: ‘I owe the younger generation an apology, because over recent years I have thought, and used to say to people: they’re on Instagram, they’re on Twitter, they go to parties – they’re just after pleasure. But I owe them an apology, because they have stepped up – like my generation did, and like previous generations did.’”

That’s when it hit me. The thing that most impressed me in Israel during this visit, and on my two other visits since October 7th, was the younger generation. In which other Westernized country would kids in their teens and 20s clamor to go into battle to defend their homeland?

I vividly recall the exodus of military-age men from both Russia and Ukraine after war broke out between those two countries in early 2022. So much so, that both countries restricted movement for young men, stopping them at the border and preventing them from leaving. Israel’s experience has been the polar opposite, with young Israelis flying home from all over the world to join their military units and go into combat.

This, more than anything else, has left the deepest impression on me. Douglas called it: “one of the most amazing things about being in Israel.” At a recent Friday night dinner with friends, Douglas told us that he had chatted with a friend’s daughter. He asked her how old she was. “Twenty-one,” was the response. “And what do you do?” Douglas asked her. “I am an expert on intelligence in Yemen,” she replied. It was an answer that rendered him speechless. Because, as he explained to us, while this barely adult young woman is at the forefront of tackling existential threats, her contemporaries in America “are being indoctrinated – their parents remortgage their houses to send them to universities to make them stupid and wicked!”

On the final night of our mission, we arranged a barbecue for soldiers at the IDF base in Hebron, a city plagued by extremism and radical Islamists. We fed over 500 soldiers – boys and girls, some of them fresh back from combat missions, in full combat gear.

As the barbecue came to an end, we had a surprise for them – Israeli singing sensation Ishay Ribo rolled in with his band and sound team and they performed.

But as the concert got underway, I wasn’t watching Ishay serenading the audience with his rich repertoire of tender songs. Instead, I was watching the audience, with tears in my eyes. I watched the fresh smiling faces of Israel’s next generation, brave heroes swaying to the music, voices raised in a chorus of melody.

Minutes earlier, the base commander had informed me that immediately after the concert many of the soldiers were going off on a dangerous mission to break up a Hamas terrorist cell located very close to Hebron.

But you couldn’t sense any kind of negative vibe. Rather, the atmosphere was one of superlative confidence and Jewish pride. These young soldiers were totally ready for what was expected of them. Nothing would hold them back. And it was this that left an impression on me that I will remember for as long as I live.

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