Principal Marc Light looks at the camera, he is wearing a grey suit and smiling. The King David School's logo is behind him, silver on a wood background.

Soldarity in Israel

I have just returned from a visit to Israel where I participated in the Herzog United Fellowship program which involved 21 heads of Jewish schools from 13 different countries. The program aims to offer school leaders strategic support in managing change and addressing common challenges that occur in Jewish education. The program began in the middle of last year and has involved a series of online sessions before the group came together in Jerusalem for an intensive seminar. 

The events of October 7 and the ensuing crisis led to a change in the programming to focus directly on the impacts of the events on Israeli society and its relationship with the Diaspora. 

Over the course of my time in Israel I was privileged to participate in a range of activities that explored the many contradictions and voices that are present in Israeli society. These exposed stories of heroism, resilience and hope and also of the unfathomable grief, despair and disillusionment in the challenging circumstances facing the nation. 

Ever present was the knowledge that this is a nation that is still reeling from the tragedy and is dealing with concurrent challenges. The terrible impact of the war on civilians was also front of mind. While the direct focus of the program was on the impacts on Israeli society, almost everyone I spoke with, regardless of their background, expressed a deep yearning for peace. 

Upon my arrival, my immediate observation was how the fate of the Israeli hostages was so prominent both in conversations and media and in its representation in posters, stickers and installations on almost every corner. This was first apparent when walking through Ben Gurion Airport where images of the hostages adorned with handwritten prayers and messages have been placed along the walkways. In Tel Aviv, I visited the makeshift ‘Hostages Square’ that has been established outside the Tel Aviv Museum of Art. Here, there are a number of installations including a replica Gazan tunnel, a visitors tent where family and friends of the hostages are present and a number of moving art displays. There is a powerful public memorial surrounding the fountain at Dizengoff Square where photos and mementos of the hostages and others killed in the attacks and war are on display.

Another feature of Israeli society that I noticed was that on first glance one could almost forget that the country was at war – the restaurants and cafes are frequented and people are surfing in the Mediterranean Sea. There are a range of cultural and sporting events that are still occurring.

Of course, this is contrasted by the fact that there are reserve soldiers who have been frequently absent from their workplaces for the past six months and there are still hundreds of thousands of evacuees from the north and from the areas surrounding the Gaza Strip who are living in hotels across the country. I was fortunate to be able to assist by spending a day helping teach English at a school in Kibbutz Gvulot that served students from the Gaza border region. 

One unique, but annoying, feature was that in parts of the country the IDF has blocked GPS access as a security measure. This meant that the location displayed on my phone kept defaulting to Beirut International Airport in Lebanon regardless of where I was. Consequently, I had to utilise an old school solution of printing out maps to use when I was driving to visit a Kibbutz in the north and nearly got lost a few times making my way around Haifa.

Through the Fellowship Program we were granted extraordinary access to meet with people who had been directly impacted by the events of October 7 and the war with Hamas. We met with Sarit Zussman, the bereaved mother of Ben Zussman who was killed in fighting in Gaza. Despite her obvious grief, Sarit’s message was life-affirming and positive. She said that we must believe that Israel’s story has a happy ending and she is totally focused on promoting unity and hope. 

We were also privileged to tour the city of Ofakim that has been renamed the “City of Heroes” in honour of the 53 citizens who lost their lives to Hamas terrorists on October 7. We met with the bereaved wife of the first policeman on the scene who was able to save many lives through his personal sacrifice. Additionally, we met with an elderly gentleman called Muki who spontaneously told us his harrowing story of leveraging his body weight against a bike lock to hold the door of the public bomb shelter shut for many hours as terrorists tried to enter. He saved 13 lives that day.

At Re’im, the site of the deadly attack on the Nova music festival, we encountered a number of families of victims who wished to share stories about their children, siblings and partners. A powerful symbol of achdut (unity) was an Orthodox sofer (Torah scribe) who was writing a Torah in honour of the victims. While the victims were predominantly secular there was a deep sense of connection to amiut (Jewish peoplehood) present in this act.

Perhaps my most uplifting encounter for the whole trip was to be able to attend the annual Leo Baeck Educational Centre’s Iftar meal held in honour of Haifa’s multicultural community. You may recall that I attended this last year when I was in Israel during my sabbatical leave and I wrote in this column about how affected I was by the mutual respect demonstrated.

This year was no exception as Sephardi, Orthodox and Progressive rabbis sat with imams, priests, and leaders of the Druze community and the Bahai faith in honour of a meal to break the Muslim fast for Ramadan. A Year 12 student from Leo Baeck sang Shir Le’Shalom (A Song for Peace) and the school’s Head, Rabbi Ofek Meir, introduced the song by asking the audience to focus on the line: “Sing a song to love, and not to wars.”

The shared humanity, mutual recognition and indeed, love that was palpable in the room tells a story of optimism and hope for a better future for all people in this fraught, complex, inspiring and beautiful country.

A repeated experience throughout the visit was to receive expressions of gratitude from people who were clearly buoyed by visitors from the Diaspora. At one museum when I was asked for my Israeli ID number and replied that I did not have one, the attendant nearly burst into tears upon realising that I was a visitor and just kept repeating “Toda sh’bata” (thank you for coming). Many Israelis seem to have felt isolated during this crisis and it was apparent that having the opportunity to share their stories with eager listeners was important for them. To be able to share the support from our community was a great blessing for me too. 

Shabbat Shalom,
Marc Light