Thoughts On Four Days in Israel

December 11, 2023 in Hazzan Asa Fradkin, Israel

By Hazzan Asa Fradkin. 

A trip to Israel is a magical thing. I still remember my first trip at the age of 19, when I was able to get onto a birthright trip at the last second. As the plane landed and people erupted in applause, I felt that special sense of holiness, that we had completed an age old exodus and reached Eretz HaKodesh, the holy land. Ben Gurion airport offered a warm welcome with its long ramps down to customs buttressed by walls of Jerusalem Stone. Before we could even verbalize it, we knew, we were home. That trip was filled with Bedouin tents, natural springs, Dead Sea mud, Jerusalem, the western wall, jeep rides and the best food we’d ever eaten.

This visit was oh so different. When the plane landed, there was tepid applause. No one seemed eager to disembark. The ramps to customs were empty of people. In place of the throngs of visitors were photos of the hostages taken from this small, holy country. They dotted the railings on both sides as we descended with our luggage. In some places, the hostage signs had been removed because they had finally come home or in some cases died while in captivity like Noa Marciano, whose mother spoke here just a few weeks ago.

Exhausted and with no time to waste, we set out for Hadassah hospital in Ein Kerem. On the way there we got some lunch and our first opportunity to buy a soldier a meal. He acted like we were crazy to do him such a small kindness. He didn’t understand how American Jewry works. We like to donate. But it speaks to the mentality of the country. In the soldiers’ eyes, there is nothing extraordinary about what they are doing. They consider it a birthright to defend their country and they don’t need any thanks for that.

After lunch we were taken to a floor of Hadassah hospital where patients are in post op recovery. We met an 18 year old soldier whose shoulder was injured by a shell fighting in the north. He was in good spirits as he recounted the events surrounding his injury. We sang a misheberach for him and here’s something funny about that. I’ve never been a cantor in Israel. I’ve led trips to Israel a few times and in as much as I’m the cantor of the synagogue on tour then I suppose I was a Cantor traveling in Israel.

But I had misgivings, even a sense of embarrassment about singing American Jewish music to these Israelis. I just have an inferiority complex when it comes to Israel. Everything Jewish there is better. The food, the prayers, the holy sites and the music!

So when we chose to sing Debbie Friedman’s misheberach I wasn’t sure how that would translate to Israeli ears that are so are so accustomed to a more mizrachi sound. But it turned out to be one the most moving moments of the trip. Singing in a choir of ten and praying for this young man’s healing was the most spiritual I ever felt singing that song.

And he was very taken by it as well. Also, he’d never heard it before, so it was a gift.

At dinner that night we met with Gil Hoffman, who is the executive director of, an organization dedicated to calling out anti Israel bias in the media and in America writ large. One piece on their website site exposes the Oakland teachers Association for using BDS talking points in their educational materials on Israel and telling blatant lies about Israel Palestinian history.

That was Day 1.

Day 2 was scheduled to be the hardest day of the trip as we were to visit Kfar Aza in the south, one of the hardest hit kibbutzim in the Gaza envelope and a scene of mass devastation.

We began the morning with a lecture from Colonel Grisha Yakubovitch, an extraordinary military veteran who served in Gaza nearly 20 years ago when Israel last occupied it and even had the position as the mayor of Gaza City.

Here are some important facts he shared with us:

  • Israel only supplies 12% of the water to Gaza so why the water crisis? U.S. dollars pay for the majority of the water to the strip.
  • There are zero Israeli soldiers guarding the border from Gaza to Egypt since Israel disengaged in 2005 and this in retrospect was a mistake.
  • October 6, 1973 , start of the Yom Kippur war is a day of celebration in Egypt, and Hamas wanted to have their own day of celebration now, October 7. 50 years and a day
  • Iran chose the date of attack, which was supposed to be from the north, rockets fired at once from Iraq, Lebanon and Syria at the same time. The attack was planned 2-3 years in advance.

Believe the unbelievable. Grisha is not a hateful man. He has Palestinian friends in the West Bank that he does business with, but when the war broke out his heart broke. He says we must believe the unfathomable. That there are radicals all over the world ready to carry out Hamas’ agenda. There is no doubt that terror is a worldwide issue and that Hamas will continue to spread its propaganda and terror around the globe if it is not stopped.

We took a special bus with bulletproof glass windows down to Kfar Aza and on our way we stopped at a military base near kibbutz Alumim. There we met soldiers that were in “Miluim” meaning call up reservists. They were in their 20’s, 30’s and 40s with lives established. Girlfriends, Boyfriends, spouses, children, cats, dogs. A life. All of them were cheerful and upbeat and ready to do what needed to be done. We met a solider named Ben Hardin, whose father is a professional arranger of Jewish music. Ben made Aliyah a few years ago, joined the IDF and now lives in Tel Aviv with his girlfriend and his cat.

Our tour was done by a survivor of the attack named Gon. His family is now resettled in the north. I am continuously amazed by the Israeli people’s ability to manage stress and psychological trauma. It is a feat of mental and emotional courage.

Kfar Aza has a lot of rebuilding to do. If you would like to support their efforts please look for further info in our Israel emails that go out on Monday.

Day 3 was concert day. Our trip coordinator, one of my colleagues from Minnesota, who will host our Gesher chorale kids on a trip later this year, arranged for us to perform a concert with Israeli pop singer Hila Ben David. She also accompanied us on the trip down to Kfar Aza on Day 2.

We began Day 3 by visiting an incredible facility in the heart of Jerusalem called Lev Echad. Lev Echad is civilian resource center that has recruited 6000 volunteers since the beginning of the war. The head of the effort is a 28 year old Israeli named Adir, who has been in local grassroots politics since 16 and is the head of the local Hitorrut party in Jerusalem.

Adir told us, “ The worst thing in a war is to feel powerless, what we’re doing here is wanting to do something. Urgency + some infrastructure = what they were able to do.

He also made sure we knew that the government had done essentially nothing. This is something that people outside Israel need to know. The government was not prepared for Hamas and it was not prepared to respond to the fallout from the war either. The people are the ones who have caused this incredible effort to take place.

We ended the day by performing a concert of Israeli favorites at Tachanah Rishonah, the old train station. Appreciative Jerusalemites packed in in appreciation and we again soaked in the mazal we had to share our music with the Israeli people.

In the interest of time I will give you just the “highlight” of Day 4, which was the visit to the famous hostage square in Tel Aviv. Many of you will have seen the empty Shabbat table with 240 chairs that sits outside the Tel Aviv Museum. A few steps away from the table is a modest piano with a man’s name, Alon, on it. His poster adorns the space and people come each evening to sing songs, say prayers and keep vigil for the hostages taken from us.

We had the opportunity to sing a few songs with this group and again did our Gesher Tzar M’od, Acheinu and Oseh Shalom along with some others. Perhaps the most powerful moment was when my colleague Tahl Ben Yehudah was asked to read the prayer for Israel that includes a section dedicated to restoring the hostages.

Tahl happens to have two cousins who were taken hostage in Gaza. As she read the text of the prayer her eyes welled with tears. All the pressure of the past few days overcame her and she broke down into tears of deep sadness, heartbreak and loss. Gone is the Israel that could always protect us. Gone is the Israel that was impenetrable. Gone is the sense of security that even in the middle east, was like a Ner Tamid, the presence of God hovering above an fragile impermanent dwelling.

In that moment I understood. I understood what Israelis meant when they said we can’t go back to how it was before. The fundamental nature of Israel is changed forever. Tahl, and so many others, wept that evening for the loss of what was. The dream that we had held sacred for 75 years came crashing down for a moment.

Rebuilding that dream means living with the cracks formed by October 7. The Japanese have a way of beautifying what was once broken by practicing the art of Kintsugi. They take liquid gold, pour it into the cracks of a shattered bowl and something new emerges. Something not so whole as the original but perhaps still more beautiful for it’s individuality, for it’s celebrated vulnerability.

Israel has a lot of vulnerabilities to face in the future, but if what we saw was any indication, they are doing the hard work to make sure that although their nation is broken, their people are as strong as ever. We met several streaks of gold as we traveled the country I look forward to seeing the new creation that is Israel for many generations to come.

If you would like to donate to some of the relief efforts I mentioned please check the Israel emails for a list of charities and funds. But most importantly, GO TO ISRAEL. It is not safe and it never has been “safe” but our family is in need. Let’s see 100 Beth El congregants go on next summer’s trip and make a loud statement. We stand with Israel.

This blog entry is an abbreviated version of Hazzan Fradkin’s sermon from Shabbat on December 9. Watch the video below to hear more about his experience in Israel.