This is the third installment of a four-part look-back on the Boston-Haifa Connection’s inaugural Hatikvah Mission, written by Ken Kaplan.

Encounter with the Other

In a downstairs hall of Temple Israel in Boston, students and teachers at the synagogue’s Monday Night School hurried to tidy up after dinner. It was time to move on to the next phase of the evening’s program. One by one, student leaders rose to address the room, filled with dozens of their peers. They spoke calmly, comfortably, authoritatively about items on the group’s agenda, including looming internal elections and the need for more people to participate in various programs. They exuded the knowledge, poise, and polish to make any educator proud.

But as their teachers prepared them in the next room for an encounter with a team of Israeli officers, the need and challenge to bridge the gap between the communities became obvious. If the students knew of the significance of Yom HaShoah, Yom HaZikaron or Yom Ha’Atzma’ut, or had considered whether Israel does or should play a central role in modern Jewish existence, they did not let on. With little elaboration and amid an awkward silence, the officers introduced themselves by name and rank: Lieutenant Dror Katzav, 2nd Lieutenant; Aklile Kebede, medical officer; Eyal Chayet and Captain Adam Hoffman. For both sides, it seemed, this was going to be a meeting with the Other.

Responding to the students’ first tentative questions, the officers recounted how they felt about military service before they were drafted and spoke of their sense of duty, the opportunities for service that they seized.

Then a question, posed by a parent, went straight to a sensitive core issue: In light of the recent controversies surrounding Israel’s military missions, how do officers reconcile duty with conscience, orders with doubts?

created at: 2010-09-05The challenge created an opportunity. First of all, replied Adam Hoffman, an instructor in Israel’s Naval Academy and a former executive officer aboard a missile ship, it is important to note that the IDF “is an army of the people.”

Secondly, he said, by way of illustration, “I took an active part in the evacuation of Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip. I did that mission with tears in my eyes, and evacuated whole families from their houses. … And I can tell you as a soldier, as a warrior, in the IDF, we do our missions, and we believe in them from A to Z.

“We do question what we do,” he said “but we do it properly, we do it out of understanding, and we do it from a position of strength.” Alluding to unflattering portrayals of the Israeli military in the mainstream media, he reiterated that Israel operates from a position of strength and noted, matter-of-factly, that “Goliath never looks good.”

With that compelling account, the barriers started to fall, the students were engaged, and when discussions resumed in smaller groups, the room hummed with activity.

In one group, Dror Katzav described what it is like to observe Memorial Day as a soldier. “On Yom HaZikaron, all of us remember friends…Each year we go to our schools and there is a ceremony honoring the memory of graduates who have died in all kinds of conflicts. In the beginning, you go to the ceremony as a student and you don’t know any of the names. But as time goes by, you know more and more names.”

Moments later, as he recounted his experience as a soldier in the Second Lebanon War in 2006, it became abundantly clear how tightly bound Israelis’ lives are to dramatic events, past and present. Katzav noted that thanks to Israel’s small size, soldiers can often go home on weekend leave, even during a conflict. In 2006, he said, the war followed him home to Haifa, which was repeatedly attacked by rockets fired by Hezbollah.

“For those of us living in Haifa, going home was not a break, because it was bombed. A quick reminder of why we were there [the army.] I came home on Friday, then the sirens began. I had to go to my grandma’s apartment to make sure she goes into a secure room, because she can’t go there by herself. On Saturday morning, the same ritual, at 4:30 a.m., you wake up, there are sirens, you go, you take your grandmother to the secure room. And when Saturday is over, you take your bag and go back to the army.”

created at: 2010-09-05Asked about the rest of his family, he replied that he knows the names of even his most far-flung relatives: “My family is a family of Holocaust survivors. … You can only climb the family tree so far before you get to the Holocaust. And that’s the end.”

From group to group, the questions poured out. Family. Holidays. Religious observance. Hobbies. Sports. Shopping. At times, laughter erupted. Group pictures were taken. Stories were shared. Understanding increased. Bridges were built.

Christina Broussard, a youth educator at Temple Israel who sat in on Dror Katzav’s conversation, said that the impact of that evening was still felt weeks later at a retreat the 8th-12th graders went on.

The purpose of the program, she said, had been to give the students a “slightly better understanding of what it is to go through those three days in Israel, and then to have the opportunity to speak to people who have lived it and gone through the experience, not only losing friends but also remembering people in their direct families, which is something these kids have zero connection to. I think that it was a very powerful time for them.” At the retreat, “a couple of the kids said, ‘That was an eye-opener for us.’ And it was great to have them draw back on that day.”

She said the main revelation for most of the students, which happened toward the end of the evening, was “they realized that all those soldiers are real people just like them…They watch the same television shows, just like us. They play soccer, go to malls, eat at restaurants, hang out with friends. That was the thing that resonated the most with them—that these are soldiers from a foreign country. A country that, yes, we do have connection to, but so many of them have never been to Israel.”

Broussard said a few of the students are going to Israel this summer. “They are looking forward to meeting more Israelis and to getting to know what life is like over there,” she said. “I think the conversation that they had with the soldiers that day was the first step to that.”