When I arrived in Israel last Monday morning, a man at a Schnitzel stand where I grabbed a bite with my friend and guide Abraham Silver asked: “Why do you come here – don’t you know there is a war going on?”
And I replied, “I came because I needed to give a חיבוק – Hibbuk: a hug.”
Since the horror of October 7, I have yearned to visit Israel – to be present, to bear witness, to listen, to volunteer, to help in whatever way I could – to give a hug.
What I really wanted to do was to somehow offer my love, to somehow give strength and encouragement to those reeling from the unfathomable trauma that has seared the spirits and souls of our entire people.
On Wednesday we journeyed south to visit the communities that had borne the brunt of the devastation. What I saw and heard and even smelled will stay with me forever.
Kibbutz Be’eri, a community of 380 homes, was established in October 1946. It grew with the arrival of young Iraqi Jewish refugees who had walked across the desert to rebuild their lives in the land of Israel.
Like the communities that surround it, Be’eri is tight-knit and tranquil, with clusters of small row-houses, neat lawns and gardens, often with brothers and sisters living side-by-side. As Bret Stephens noted, “Be’eri was well known for its pro-peace sympathies: It had a special fund to give financial help to Gazans who came to the kibbutz on work permits, and kibbutzniks would often volunteer to drive sick Palestinians to an oncology center in southern Israel.”
Today the community is littered with rubble and wreckage. Or Yalin, a young man who grew up in the Kibbutz, walked us through what remains of his neighbors’ burnt-out homes.
He described how terrorists would destroy the upper floors with rocket-propelled grenades, and then roll burning tires into the first floor, using the toxic smoke to force those hiding out of their safe rooms. They would lie in wait outside, shooting fleeing families in the hallways of their house, or outside on the lawn.
In another home, we saw the safe room where a fourteen year-old girl tried to save the lives of her mother and father. Bullet holes shattered the window, the walls filled with the pock-marks of shrapnel. He played for us the girl’s petrified calls on the Kibbutz WhatsApp group as her parents lay on the floor bleeding from gunshot wounds, struggling to breathe in the midst of the smoke.
The kibbutz day-care center lay in a heap of rubble, but one wall remained. On the side was a mosaic, made by the children in 2021. It reads in Hebrew: “יש בי אהבה … והיא ננצח – Yesh Bi Ahavah … V’Hi N’Natzeach – I have love in me … and it will triumph.”
As Or led us through his battle-scarred kibbutz, the air still lingering with the odor of all that came from the attack, he was at once angry, grieving, resolute, and broken. We carried a lump in our throat, the tears just behind each breath.
All we could offer him was our presence, our witness, our love. And from each of us, a חיבוק – Hibbuk – a hug.
We heard so many stories – gut-wrenching stories of anguish and pain and horror and loss. I asked Or what it was like telling and re-telling his story. And he replied – “it hurts and it helps”.
And to be there to bear witness – to see, to hear, to listen … it hurts and it helps.
Dana Dvorin, Israeli actress and celebrity, is capturing testimonies of women in order to tell their stories. With a team of writers and artists, we witnessed two testimonies of women who survived.
Sigal hid with her daughter in her safe room for 20 hours, never letting go of the door latch to their safe room to keep out the terrorists who invaded her home. Yasmin fled to Be’eri with her boyfriend from the SuperNova dance festival. She sought refuge in an older couple’s home, and was eventually captured. Held hostage for hours, she managed to survive, though all but one of those captured with her were killed.
These two women, who had lost so much, began to express a measure of healing and hope – simply knowing that their stories were heard with attentive ears, that their grief and agony were held with loving hearts.
A hug is the most primal expression of love. It is a way of gathering that person to yourself, to let them know that all they are, and all they feel, is held by you in your arms and your embrace – that together you are one.
Everywhere we looked in Israel was the slogan – יחד ננצח – Yachad N’Natzeach – Together we will triumph. And so it will be.
We have love in us. We have love between us. Through our unifying and loving embrace – we will triumph.
Rabbi Dan Levin
Temple Beth El of Boca Raton
“Pray for the peace of Jerusalem…”