Six Weeks in Israel: Prayer with soldiers calms fear of unknown

Editor’s note: TJP intern Rosie Bernstein, a rising Yavneh junior, is spending six weeks in Israel on Bnei Akiva’s Mach Hach Ba’aretz program. She will be filing a weekly report about her experience.

By Rosie Bernstein
TJP intern

Stuck on the side of the road between a cluster of Arab villages, my initial feeling was fear.
Mach Hach Ba’aretz Bus No. 2 had broken down in the central Jordan Valley’s 104-degree heat. Within seconds, the 48 passengers began to feel hot and claustrophobic without the cool air conditioning to which we had all become so accustomed.
Worst-case scenario followed by worst-case scenario sped through my mind, as I futilely attempted to reassure my anxious self. It felt as though the walls were caving in all around me, and I desperately tried to allow my subconscious to transport me to a better place.
We couldn’t escape the clammy bus into the dry desert breeze, so there we sat; the great discomfort of stagnant heat on the bus, and the fear of our unfamiliar surroundings on the outside.
After our hard-working team of counselors and logistics coordinators made several phone calls, the decision was made that we could safely disembark the bus.
There we were, in the backyard of an Arab family, dust blowing all around us, the smells of hot livestock under our noses, waiting to be rescued by a new bus.
And although everyone had relaxed after leaving the bus, everyone was still on edge as they held their breath with the passing of each vehicle on the highway, silently hoping it would go by without giving us any trouble.

Wary of intentions

After a couple of hours passed, a white car slowed and pulled onto the shoulder of the highway where our bus was parked. Our bodyguard and a counselor, who was an experienced Israeli soldier, confidently made their way toward the car, ready to defuse a potential threat.
However, what happened next was both shocking and life-changing. And it was the moment that changed my whole perspective.
The white car began pulling into the backyard where we were all sitting. At first, it was terrifying. What could he possibly be doing here after he had already been spoken to by the people we trusted to keep us safe?
He stopped the car and opened the door. Out stepped a regular, middle-aged man with a bushy brown mustache sitting above his upper lip. Whispers began to erupt throughout the small area we had taken over as people speculated about why this strange man had stopped his car on the highway in the middle of nowhere in between these potentially hazardous villages.
And then the head of our bus announced it: He needed a minyan.
It was at that moment that my world came swirling around me, and my whole mindset shifted.
Here we were, a group of Jewish kids, stranded in the West Bank, and there he was, just a regular Jewish man who needed 10 men to pray the afternoon prayers.
Coincidentally, moments later, an army-green truck passed us on the highway and quickly turned around, pulling into our patch of dirt next to the white car. Four chayalim, Israeli soldiers, stepped out of their truck and began to pray with us.
When we were done, without being asked or ordered, they took posts all around our bus, boots planted in the ground and guns in hand, silently vowing to protect us.
I was overwhelmed with a sense of belonging and bewilderment as I realized that I was in a place where it doesn’t matter where you come from, what language you speak or whether you wear a black velvet yarmulke, a colorful knit kippah or a baseball cap. Jews will find each other from the Kotel to the Dead Sea to a tiny backyard on the side of a dusty highway, and the same rituals that have been practiced for thousands of years will continue on, and they will be practiced, hand-in-hand, together.
A few days later, we found ourselves at Nitzan, a temporary caravan site for families who were evacuated from Gush Katif in the Gaza Strip in 2005.
We went to a museum in the area and learned about the struggle that occurred as the Israeli government came to the difficult decision of ordering all Jews of the Gaza Strip to relocate for safety and political purposes.
We learned about the struggle that occurred as each member of Gush Katif was forced to make the difficult decision of whether to leave willingly and with government aid, or to wait until the last possible second, when they would have to be forcibly removed. And we learned about the struggle that occurred as IDF soldiers were ordered to turn to their brethren and carry them out of the homes that they had built with their own blood, sweat and tears.
Learning about these things was an emotional experience like no other. It was informative and thought-provoking, it was sad and heart-wrenching, and it was, above all, inspiring.
No matter how much time, resources and love were put into building these homes, and no matter how determined these families were to remain in them forever, they refused to raise their hands to the soldiers. They knew that these soldiers were their sons, brothers, husbands and friends, and they understood how equally painful it was for the perpetrators.
And the devotion that the Jews of Gush Katif had to their common goal brought me to tears. They were willing to risk their lives on a daily basis to protect the Jewish homeland and ensure it would remain forever. They were willing to suffer gunshots and burn wounds and bomb after bomb after bomb to their homes, shuls and schools, to fight and make sure that there will always be Jews in Israel for the rest of eternity.
And as I watched the TV screen and saw footage of Jews making a human chain from Gush Katif to the Kotel, I realized that I want to feel so strongly about something. I want to put my life on the line for what I believe in. I want to stake my claim in something I believe in and stop at nothing to protect it.
And the more I experience the Land of Israel, the more I realize that there is something special about the people here. They are here to be together — to practice Judaism together, to mourn and celebrate together, to fight together and to die together. But most importantly, to live together.
I want to be in a place where a minyan can be found on the side of the road, where cities come to a halt on Shabbat and where the graffiti says “Am Yisrael Chai.”
A resident of Gush Katif said something along the lines of, “We, as Jews, don’t die for what we believe in. We live for what we believe in.”
I am ready to link arms with my brothers and sisters and never let go.
I am ready to live.

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