I sit here on the plane, physically departing Ben Gurion Airport, but not emotionally prepared to separate from the land of our people. Reflecting on the last few short days, my thoughts are a bit discombobulated. Operation Iron Hugs achieved operational success under every imaginable definition; but our mission, all of our missions, are just beginning.
There are moments in life that remain with a person forever and leave them eternally changed: the birth of a child, the death of a loved one, and now a whirlwind four-day excursion whose blink of an eye will last in perpetuity.
Words seem so insignificant, I merely do not possess the vocabulary to convey the perspective, the emotion, and the deep understanding of being enmeshed in this moment that will fill history books.
But reflect, I must.
The utter exhaustion of mind, body, and soul feels daunting yet so nonsensical next to the experience of our brothers and sisters – be they our mighty soldiers, the directly impacted, or the everyday Israeli going through the motions of daily life.
To say reality surpassed my incredibly shallow expectations would be the understatement of the century.
A recap, and anything else I may posture, seems so trivial. The mere intimacy of our experience requires attention to its composition.
Wounds. Despair. Unity. Integrity. Destruction. Rebuilding. Prospering.
The instant bond of two fathers sharing an undesired connection amidst the mourning of their collective son.
The strength and clarity of limbless warriors, maimed in battle but whose resolve and optimism strengthen their visiting counterparts.
The dedication and certainty of mission of a hodgepodge unit of special force reservists, compelled to duty by a shared mission, despite disparate worldviews.
The harrowing reenactment of a hero retracing the steps of his greatest tragedy and least satisfying triumph.
The enthusiasm for life of boys and girls who are far too young to bear the burden of the nation’s battle.
The empty eyes and simple conviction of a protector whose love and compassion prove boundless.
The appreciative tears of wives and mothers with an empty seat at their Shabbos tables upon seeing strangers bearing gifts.
The bone-chilling and heart-wrenching testimonies of parents now bereft of their oldest son; of homeless defenders of their precious homestead; of a nurse strong enough to absorb three bullets in the care of others; of a fighter so courageous it takes weeks to notice a slug lodged but millimeters from his spine.
The zest of a restaurateur providing incalculable sustenance to as many hungry mouths as she can feed.
The sheer discomfort of a five-star luxury spa turned “home” to 70 beautifully stable families turned nomads.
The resolve and fortitude of mothers and fathers demanding to bring home their sons and daughters now.
The incredible scale of lifesaving blood, abundantly collected and distributed by those who cherish life.
The diversity of logistical experts with commonality of goal and pride in service of their people, dancing as one, believing “with a full belief.”
So many words but so little conveyed. A recap, impossible to transmit but so distinctly felt.
I landed in TLV with a desire to assist but the tools only to receive; sitting comfortably in the goldene medinah, with a guilty conscience, desperately in need of relief; on the western end of the Atlantic while my heart to the East continued to lack comprehension. My people on the frontlines, the backlines, and every line in between. They, the warriors, and we voyeurs parasitically soaring on eagles’ wings to “help,” while only helping ourselves.
I depart with a perspective and understanding that would have been met with a scoff merely 82 hours prior. “They” may be manning the war effort and suffering the most direct blow, but we are them and they are us in ways no words can describe. Each and every one of our brothers and sisters on the home-front uniquely communicated their limitless appreciation for our seemingly insignificant presence. From mourning parents to wounded warriors, from displaced families to unspoken heroes, from chareidi to chiloni; we went because we need them, we leave understanding that they need us nearly as much.
We are truly in this together. Our people are broken and shattered but they are resilient and tenacious. Their eyes reflect the incalculable pain they have suffered, their words convey horrific loss but unfathomable strength to prevail.
But their actions – their actions say it all. Our people, despite the utter tragedies, have slammed their feet on the gas when others would have feathered the brakes. The pain and the suffering are no obstacle for responsibility and family. In these most difficult of times, we keep moving forward but only as the sum of all our parts. The days lying ahead are truly a joint and collective effort of our people. My short stay in the Holy Land emblazoned within me the certainty that we rely on each other in ways we would not previously have liked to admit. Left, right, or center; inspired, lackadaisical, or unaware; north, south, east, or west. This war does not merely threaten the physical well-being of the people of the State of Israel but our identity, our collective consciousness, and our place in history.
The resounding sense of unification despite complication, could be heard, seen, tasted, felt, and even smelled. We all need each of each other if we are to prevail.
So now what?
The takeaways are abundant, and the to-do list could fill novella; but I humbly submit just a few short notes that this experience has readjusted for me:
- This war will begin when the war ends. We as a people are running on love and adrenaline; through the efforts of the collective we will ultimately prevail. The story not yet being written is the aftermath of the physical war. The homes that will be lacking a parent or a child; the families without a place to call home or a sense of safety in their homes; a generation of our youth that will have drunk from the bitter waters of war and how that will impact their development; the chiseled veterans and housewives alike who have seen atrocities that cannot be unseen; the psychological damage to our collective psyches. Now we must focus our efforts on defeating the enemy in front of us, and we as a people are properly focused on that effort, but what comes next will require just as much unity. It will take more than a village to heal our wounded, it will take a nation. And a nation we must be.
- If there’s something, anything, you can contribute, do not hesitate. I rolled my eyes at precisely this idea prior to embarking on this journey. Were the socks we bought at Target and threw into duffel bags in hopes they’d magically appear on the feet of a person in need, actually providing any value? Do the wounded actually care about the cards we have our kindergarteners scribble haphazardly on our dining rooms tables? Do the soldiers need another barbecue or their 900th pie of pizza? After interacting with recipients of these and myriads of other lovingkindness, the answer is yes, YES, a resounding yes! To my surprise, each and every act is appreciated and cherished. Do not hesitate, do something, anything, do it now, and keep doing it – our people depend on it.
- Am Yisrael Chai! We may bicker like bitter siblings but, ultimately, only unity will enable us to truly live. This weight is too great for any individual to bear on his/her own, but together we continue to prove limitless. Yachad n’natzei’ach – only together will we prevail. It is my humble opinion that the incredibly overwhelming sense of unity we are experiencing now will be the key to our success, far beyond the bounds of what we currently face.
As the screen in front of my middle seat adjacent to the lavatory (I mention of a sense of appreciation for having an airline willing to bring us home when no one else will, and pride that each and every seat is occupied) tracks the progress of our journey through Greek airspace, I can’t help but ponder the fate of the ancient Y’vanim. We will prevail, yachad la’netzach.
Our story is just yet beginning, and we are so lucky to have giants in our midst who will continue to motivate simpletons like me to be better versions of ourselves. I would be remiss to not mention the fearless leader of Operation Iron Hugs, my dear friend, Dr. Avishai Neuman, whose tireless efforts made this and countless other endeavors possible. There are so many more thank-yous to dole out, but the list and their accompanying superlatives will exceed the length of these already too-long thoughts. I would like to include a blanket thank-you and sense of deep respect for every single person involved in making this a reality; you all know who you are – yes, you.
The journey does not end here. Another on a thankfully lengthy list of trips to Israel and killing a few moments on a trans-Atlantic flight are not enough. An experience like this mandates permanent change. I return stateside with a fresh new identity and am prepared to share what I’ve seen and experienced with as many people as will listen, but much like this venue, words will continue to fall short. Go. Just go. See for yourself. Understand what I simply lack the ability to describe. Only together will we prevail for all eternity; you may have already known, but now I do, too.
Am Yisrael Chai!
By Chaim Frankel