In a show of chizuk, 24 American shul communities are pairing with individual Israeli citizens, families and communities directly impacted by the horrific events of Oct. 7, thanks to an initiative spearheaded by the Orthodox Union’s Department of Community Engagement.
The project began with an Israel mission organized by the department and OU Israel for 42 pulpit rabbis and lay leaders representing a broad spectrum of Orthodox communities in the New York area, Florida, Washington, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Maryland. Over three days, participants visited bereaved, wounded and displaced citizens and chayalim in hospitals, at their homes and on the frontlines in Sderot, Shlomit, Ashkelon, Kiryat Arba, Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Alon Shvut and Chevron.
From the Five Towns area, travelers included Rabbi Yechezkel Freudlich of Congregation Beth Shalom of Lawrence, Yeshiva Darchei Torah of Far Rockaway Chair Lloyd Keilson, and Joseph Hoenig and Aaron Jungreis.
The trip included stops at Sdreot’s now-destroyed police station; Sheba-Tel Hashomer and Hadassah-Ein Kerem hospitals; and the northern Tziporit military base, where the group heard from Rabbi Binyamin Machluf, who commands its Rabbinic unit that identifies victims and attends to kavod hamet. Other speakers included Israel’s Ambassador to Armenia and Moldova Joel Lion, Sderot Mayor Alon Davidi, and Executive Chairman of the Mizrachi World Movement Rabbi Doron Perez whose son is missing and whose other son was injured in battle.
“In the aftermath of Oct. 7, the OU is working on initiatives to meaningfully support our sisters and brothers in Israel,” says OU Department of Synagogue Initiatives Director Rabbi Adir Posy.
Remarkably, many mission participants reflected that the people and communities they had come to support gave them chizuk instead.
“To see their strength and courage after going through their loss really brings home what the people in Israel are all about,” said Jonathan Savage of Beth Jacob Congregation in Columbus, Ohio. “To see what they’re able to do, to take tragedy and turn it into strength and courage for our people is beyond heroic.
“It brings home an incredible message. We came to give them strength, and we left with a lot more strength that they have given us.”
Meeting with citizens and chayalim personally enabled participants to forge meaningful relationships with them and to learn about their unique needs. Each shul community has “adopted” individuals, families or communities whom they will support both immediately and long term. For many, that support will come in the form of keeping loved ones’ memories alive through shul learning programs, or translating and publishing victims’ divrei Torah, for example. Other chizuk may be offered via calls to individuals and families before Shabbatot and yamim tovim, gifts for their children, or fundraising, as their needs change over time.
OU Special Assistant to the Executive Vice Presidents Rabbi Yisroel Motzen notes that the pairing initiative is in addition to shul communities’ ongoing efforts which began immediately after the war started.
“The shuls that went on the mission are only doubling their existing efforts now that they’ve met with those personally affected,” he says. “The trip only energized participants to do more and have an even greater connection to Israel.”
Congregation Rinat Yisrael’s Rabbi Chaim Strauchler and Vice President Michael Richmond joined the mission on behalf of their kehilla in Teaneck. Rabbi Strauchler says that beyond representing his shul, he went to represent American Jewry.
“We did not so much show our support as much as communicate our very identity,” he says. “We are one klal. We are one people. When one part of a body experiences suffering, pain or stress, the entire body is affected. We must be there for one another b’eit tzara.”
For Rabbi Strauchler, the most meaningful part of the trip was witnessing the strength of the Israeli people and the families in particular who have lost loved ones.
“They displayed a super-human emuna, at an Avraham Avinu level, kavayachol. They saw themselves as part of a tzibur in which their loss was Am Yisrael’s loss, their story Am Yisrael’s story, and therefore Am Yisrael’s ultimate victory will be their personal salvation. They are not alone in their suffering. There is so much that our communities can learn from their example — about living life as part of a nation and part of that nation’s story.”
Rinat Yisrael has linked with the community of Shlomit, which saw four of its young men fall in battle as they rushed to successfully defend the nearby community of Prigan. The shul has raised money to help citizens in their resettlement and sent packages for 82 families with Rabbi Strauchler and Richmond containing winter clothing, art supplies, and toys. In the coming weeks and months, Congregation Rinat Yisarel will dedicate its parent-child learning programs to Shlomit residents, among other projects in development.
Rabbi Avraham Shmidman of Philadelphia’s Lower Merion Synagogue joined the mission together with shul member Justin Danilewitz.
“I participated in this mission so that I could offer encouragement to those in pain during these difficult and dark times and to learn firsthand from peoples’ experiences, with the intent of determining how best to help them going forward,” says Rabbi Shmidman. Like Rabbi Strauchler, Rabbi Shmidman was also touched by the unity, strength and humility of Israeli citizens.
While the mission was marked by many meaningful experiences, a chance encounter with a young boy at the hotel where the group was staying stands out in particular for Danilewitz.
“The boy was one of many displaced evacuees living in our hotel,” he says. “He told me he was from Moshav Yakhini and I told him I was from America. He then asked whether I too had been evacuated. The innocence of the question, and his thought that American Jews in his hotel must logically also be evacuees, left a strong impression on me.”
For Danilewitz, participating in the mission together with Rabbi Shmidman and so many like-minded peers from the States who share the same affinity for Israel and its people made the trip even more special.
“There is nowhere else in the world I would rather have been than supporting Am Yisrael in Eretz Yisrael, giving the entire people of Israel an enormous spiritual “hug,” and being on the ground to show our support and love.”
It was Racheli Fraenkel who actually inspired the Rabbinic mission, says Rabbi Motzen. On a recent OU Chizuk Call, the educator and mother of Naftali Fraenkel, hy”d, recounted how meaningful it was when she met North Americans who had davened on Naftali’s behalf when he was kidnapped in 2014.
“When Racheli visited different communities in Chutz La’Aretz, people would say, ‘You don’t know me, but I know you,’” says Rabbi Motzen. “She would reply, ‘I know exactly who you are. You were with me during the hardest time of my life.’”
Fraenkel relayed that every single Jew knew about her son and cautioned that people could get lost in the numbers, rather than focusing on victims’ names and life stories.
“Racheli believes each of these victims deserves a Yad Vashem,” he says. “Each should have someone who really knows who they are. Her words were the impetus for this mission. The OU felt that if we could send representatives from 24 communities and each would adopt one person or family, we could develop that personal connection with those who are suffering.”
Many of the bereaved families are hoping their losses will motivate Klal Yisrael to unite, says Rabbi Posy, so that the deaths won’t be in vain.
Reported by the OU
“This was one of the mission’s objectives,” he adds. “We hope this initiative will have a ripple effect. Each of the 42 participants has their circle of influence, both personally and communally. Our goal is to create a general movement of care for the people affected on Simchat Torah and the memories of the precious neshamot we lost.”
The reception of the rabbinic and lay leadership mission was overwhelming.
“We told people that we came from America just to give them a hug and support, and they were simultaneously shocked and so incredibly moved,” says Rabbi Motzen. “The tough Sabra veneer fell away. People were so appreciative that strangers from across the world came and that Klal Yisrael will continue to be there for them.”
OU Managing Director of Community Engagement Rabbi Yaakov Glasser says the mission would not have been possible were it not for the help of the OU Israel team.
“The transformative experience of bringing North American community leaders to Israel was entirely a result of our extraordinary partnership with OU Israel Executive Director Rabbi Avi Berman and his team. Together, we planned a journey that brought the spiritual, pastoral, and organizational strengths of American rabbanim and lay leaders into shiva homes, hospital rooms, and displaced communities. The ongoing presence and impact of OU Israel in the communities and personal lives of Jews throughout the country was felt and experienced everywhere we traveled. The strength and reach of the broader OU family will carry the impact of this mission far beyond its conclusion.”