A weekly glimpse into the Israel you won’t read about in the news
By Sivan Rahav Meir
Translated by Yehoshua Siskin
These days, when there is so much advice going around on how to cope, here’s another suggestion: Come to the Western Wall. Just come. Last week, I witnessed the profound impact of visiting this holy site.
Every week, I connect with hundreds of women via Zoom for a study session. Last week, though, we gathered in person at the Western Wall. For many, it was their first visit since the onset of the war. One woman from Kiryat Shmona expressed her feelings: “How could it be that I haven’t come until now? I feel incredibly strengthened!”
Shortly before we arrived, soldiers from the Golani Brigade, stationed at Mount Dov on the northern border, came to pray and give thanks. They were joined by soldiers from the Shura army base and Zaka volunteers, who had endured harrowing days and nights identifying bodies of the fallen. A couple of weeks earlier, a massive gathering of 50,000 people assembled here to pray for the safety and release of the hostages. Nearly every day, a new group arrives — survivors of the Nova festival, evacuees from the south and the north, wives of reservists, and just everyday Israelis.
During our visit, a woman from Spain approached Racheli Hadad, the supervisor of tours at the Western Wall, and myself. A Jewish woman, feeling a deep need to be at this holy site during these times, had simply purchased a plane ticket and come.
Soli Eliav, director of the Western Wall Heritage Foundation, shared a touching story. Recently, five youths who were suffering from trauma, accompanied by their mentor, found comfort for the first time in the presence of the Wall’s ancient stones. “There’s something in Jerusalem that soothes and heals,” he observed. “It connects us to the essence of our current actions and all that is unfolding around us. It’s no coincidence that so many chapters of Psalms describe the pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Like the pilgrims of old, may we too ascend to Jerusalem with great joy.”
Celebrating in Trying Times
In these uncertain and difficult times, many grapple with how to joyously mark special occasions. The Yarchi family from Talmon found a unique way to celebrate their son Amitai’s bar mitzvah by sharing it with a displaced family from the Gaza periphery. Shira Yarchi, Amitai’s mother, shared her thoughts:
“As Amitai approached his bar mitzvah, we wanted to imbue the event with a deeper sense of meaning, connection, and unity. We reached out to a family from the Gaza-border community of Kibbutz Magen, which had been evacuated to a Dead Sea hotel and who were also celebrating a bar mitzvah. This led to a joint celebration.
“During a visit to the Dead Sea, we met the Levin family, including their son, Yuval. Our families instantly connected and formed a bond. The following Friday, both boys, Amitai and Yuval, attended my father’s synagogue in Ra’anana, where they donned tefillin (phylacteries) together, marking a significant milestone in their lives.”
Yuval’s mother, Maayan, added her perspective: “Ever since the war began, we’ve been displaced from our home. Organizing Yuval’s bar mitzvah was bittersweet. But when the Yarchis proposed a joint celebration, it was a gesture that touched our hearts. The boys have so much in common, and celebrating together, especially the moment they put on tefillin, brought an added layer of significance to the entire event.”
Mazal tov, Amitai and Yuval. Your first mitzvah was performed together, in a special partnership. Welcome, as men, to Am Yisrael!
Voice of Courage from the Rehab Ward
During a recent visit to the rehabilitation department at Sheba Medical Center near Tel Aviv, I encountered profoundly inspiring individuals.
Amichai Shindler, who lost both hands while rescuing Kibbutz Kerem Shalom from the terrorists on October 7, expressed his optimism with a smile: “I am waiting to get prosthetics for my hands so that I can hug my children.”
Yehonatan Ben Hamo, who lost his leg to an RPG missile in Gaza, shared his philosophy: “You know the saying, ‘I came to give strength and left strengthened’? That’s my goal for everyone who visits me. I aim to empower them. My role extends to offering support and reassurance to all the newly injured people who arrive here.”
These statements embody the remarkable spirit prevalent among the wounded and their families. Despite enduring significant challenges and pain, they radiate hope, a zest for life, and even humor.
From the Dungeons of the KGB to Tunnels of Hamas
I had the privilege this week of speaking with Natan Sharansky, a prominent figure who endured nine years in a Russian prison due to his opposition to the Soviet regime and his active advocacy for emigration rights, particularly for Jews seeking to make Aliyah.
Earlier, Yaron Or, father of Avinatan Or, currently held hostage in Gaza, had shared his thoughts in a media interview, saying, “These days, my mind often turns to my son and to Sharansky, from whom I draw considerable strength.” Moved by those words, Sharansky reached out to Yaron, offering words of solidarity and resilience:
“When I was in prison, I derived strength from many sources, first and foremost, my wife Avital. I felt her presence even though we never met during that period. The Jewish nation was also a source of great strength; knowing that people were praying for me helped me hold on.
“I always kept with me a copy of Psalms, written by King David, and that, too, gave me strength. I felt as if King David’s words were directed specifically to me and my distress.
“After enduring many years in confinement, the realization dawned on me that it wasn’t just King David who empowered me; I was empowering him! The previous generations were observing my struggle and I was upholding their legacy. I couldn’t let them down. I was connected to our glorious past and to the promise of our even more glorious future; I was part of our magnificent story! This held true as a prisoner of Zion in Russia and it resonates just as strongly regarding the hostages currently held captive in tunnels in Gaza. We are all small yet significant parts of a grand and enduring story.”
Greetings from New Jersey
We recently spent Shabbat in Tenafly, New Jersey, together with the local Israeli community. Just minutes before Shabbat, we were joined by Ran and Orly Gilboa, parents of Daniela Gilboa, who is being held hostage by Hamas. They had just arrived from significant meetings in Washington. Suddenly, the name “Daniela bat Orly” – one of the Israeli hostages I’ve been praying for – took on a deeper, more immediate meaning.
At the Shabbat meal, which drew hundreds of participants, Rabbi Yitzhak Gorshevitz, the Chabad emissary of Tenafly, invited everyone to dedicate the “Eshet Chayil” song to Daniela, as a prayer for her swift return. “Eshet Chayil” or “A Woman of Valor,” is a chapter from Proverbs traditionally sung every Shabbat. It is an ode to the mother, the wife, and the women of the nation, verse by verse, in the order of the aleph-bet. On this occasion, the Rabbi urged us to direct this heartfelt song towards Daniela, sending these powerful words from New Jersey all the way to Gaza:
“A woman of valor, who can find… Her candle burns throughout the night… Strength and dignity are her clothing… Let us praise her for her achievements…”
This marked the start of a profoundly meaningful and stirring Shabbat. In a conversation with Orly, I asked her what was the source of her strength during these difficult times. She shared that it was precisely these acts of solidarity and mutual responsibility from around the globe, prayers and good deeds from people who are strangers, yet deeply connected on the soul level, that provided her with the fortitude to endure each day.