72 hours, a lifetime to recall
By Deb Silverthorn
Six Dallasites joined a solidarity mission to Israel with the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance Jan. 8 to 11. Rachel Berke, Audra Ohayon, Batsheva Schwartz, Lisa Strobel and Karen and Mike Zucker joined the delegation of four men and 31 women to honor the victims of, and bear witness to, the devastation from the Oct. 7 Hamas attack on Israel and its aftermath. The mission was in partnership with Yeshivat Maharat.
“Everywhere we went, we were thanked for bringing what we learned, what we saw and all of the stories back home,” said Karen Zucker. The couple flew to Israel just before Shabbat to spend time with family and friends including former Dallasites Donna and Don Goldberg and Miriam and Paul Geller. “We were thanked over and over for bearing witness.”
“The quintessential phrase in our Jewish tradition is ‘Hear O Israel, the Lord our G-d, the Lord is One,’” said Rabba Sara Hurwitz, president of Yeshivat Maharat, upon returning. “In the Torah, the ayin and dalet are written larger than the other letters and, put together, spell the word ed, witness. We’re called to stand up and be witnesses to G-d’s oneness.” Yeshivat Maharat is the first yeshiva to ordain women Orthodox clergy.
“Bearing witness means holding people’s stories of pain. Bearing witness means retelling the stories of heroism. Bearing witness is about activism,” Hurwitz added. “Bearing witness means committing to act. Bearing witness means finding moments of light and hope. Out of the ashes, there were glimmers of hope.”
JOFA’s board set the wheels in motion for the trip when first approached by longtime Dallasite and JOFA Treasurer Rachel Berke.
“So many aspects of this war are unique to women: on the home front, the captives, those serving in the (Israel Defense Forces),” said Berke. “We want to help and partner however we can.
“From our drivers to the grieving mothers, there was a genuine appreciation for our being there,” she said. “It was hard to leave.”
Daphne Lazar Price is executive director of JOFA, which advocates for expanding women’s rights and opportunities within the framework of Jewish law to build a vibrant and equitable Orthodox community.
“Rachel’s friends said, ‘Let’s make this happen’ and the Dallas contingent definitely made it happen. Your community is one of upstanders who showed up so present and with their whole selves,” said Lazar Price. “We came together from across the country and parted as longtime friends in a personal and deep relationship.”
On Monday, many participants having just landed, the group met with Rabbi Dr. Seth Farber, founder and director of ITIM, which supports and advocates for the connections of Israelis to Jewish rituals of lifecycle milestones. Next they met with Dr. Cochav Elkayam-Levy, chair of the Civil Commission of Oct. 7 Crimes by Hamas Against Women and Children. Elkayam-Levy reported on the systemic weaponization of sex crimes that were perpetrated by Hamas against women and children and the commission’s efforts to raise global awareness and collect artifacts to create an archive to memorialize that day.
Rabbi Doron Perez, executive chairman of the Mizrachi World Movement, told the group of his celebrating the wedding of his son — wounded in battle — while another son is still being held hostage.
Beginning early Tuesday, the participants helped farmers at Yad Mordechai save their produce, picking grapefruit and lemons. Grapefruits were harvested for resale and the lemon trees, filled with fruit past their prime, were picked and discarded for future crops to produce.
They went to Kfar Aza, at which 70 residents were killed and 18 taken hostage, where they spent time with Sara Evron, CEO of the Religious Kibbutz Movement. Evron shared her experience and that of other kibbutzniks wanting and needing to return to their homes after more than 100 days and nights away. They also heard from Efrat Shapira Rosenberg of Ne’emanei Tora VaAvoda, a religious-Zionist movement that seeks to return religious Zionism to its roots, and Kolech, Israel’s Orthodox feminist movement, about the perspective of life in Israel before and after Oct. 7.
They went to Reim, site of the Nova Festival, and later visited with an all-women unit of army spotters whose eyes are trained on computer screens scanning Israel’s borders for danger. The guests there, joined by former Dallasite Naomi Schrager, heard how some of the spotters believed something was happening leading up to Oct. 7, that their calls to the army leadership were overlooked and how many of their peers were among the first to die. After the spotters shared their serious, unyielding work in action, together they enjoyed a meal and time decompressing, dancing and more.
At Har Herzl, Israel’s national cemetery, the group prayed and comforted strangers as they wept over gravesites and spent time with Sarit Zussman, whose son Ben, of blessed memory, was killed the month before. Although torn and broken, Zussman affirmed that despite her grief, she remains hopeful and filled with faith.
Mission participants met with Sharon Laufer and learned of her duties at the Shura base, preparing female soldiers for burial, work previously performed by volunteers but now an army position. Representatives of Aluma, which provides opportunities for options for IDF service for religious young women and supports them during their service, also met with the group.
Moran Zer Katzenstein, founder of Bonot Alternativa, explained how this nongovernmental organization has changed since Oct. 7. Before, its more than 120,000 female volunteers concentrated on promoting social equality, empowering women and raising awareness of violence against women. Since that fateful day, the group formed chamals, chadrei milchama, as volunteer centers where mission participants prepare supplies for kibbutz evacuees.
On Wednesday, the group studied with Rabbi Herzl Hefter, founder of Beit Midrash Har-el, the only Orthodox coed rabbinic studies program. They met with Drs. Aderet Malka and Galia Diller Zaks, therapists and current rabbinic students who spoke of the crossroads between their personal lives and professional roles since the war began.
The group met and prayed with Natalie Ben Ami, whose parents Raz and Ohad were held hostage, only her mother released since then but her father still being held; and Shelly Shem Tov, whose son Omer was kidnapped from the Nova music festival. At Hostage Square, they were with Rabba Anat Sharbat who leads Kabbalat Shabbat and Havdalah prayers and whose cousin Edan Alexander is still held captive.
In a visit with Dr. Michal Prins, founder of the Center for Jewish Intimacy, the group learned more about the war’s effect on married couples including issues related to laws of family purity and going to the mikvah.
Closing their visit, participants along with about 8,000 others took part in a prayer service at the Kotel which focused on the return of the hostages. A dinner followed with JOFA founder, Blu Greenberg; her husband, Rabbi Yitz Greenberg; and Yeshivat Maharat co-founder, Rabbi Avi Weiss.
The short mission was a full and timeless experience to remember and to voice.
“I know I am in uniform and literally on the front, but you have a front as well,” a soldier named Ravid told the group. “You can do your service and do your part. You can take these stories home. You can tell the U.S. what you saw. That’s how you can wear your uniform.”
For more information about JOFA, visit jofa.org. For more about Yeshivat Maharat, go to yeshivatmaharat.org.