Left to right: Rabbis Susan Tendler, Hannah Dresner, Philip Bregman, Carey Brown, Andrew Rosenblatt, Jonathan Infeld, Philip Gibbs and Dan Moskovitz in Israel last month. (photo from facebook.com/jewishvancouver)
Eight Vancouver-area rabbis recently visited Israel where, among many other things, they handed out cards and letters prepared by Jewish day school students and members of Vancouver’s Jewish community to soldiers and other Israelis. The response, according to one of the rabbis, was overwhelming.
“I saw soldiers taking these cards and then dropping down to the sidewalk and crying,” said Rabbi Philip Bregman. “Holding them to their chest as if this was a sacred piece of text and just saying, ‘Thank you. To know that we are not forgotten….’”
Bregman, rabbi emeritus at the Reform Temple Sholom, was almost overcome with emotion while recounting the experience, which he shared in a community-wide online presentation Dec. 17. The event included seven of the eight rabbis who participated in the whirlwind mission, which saw them on the ground for a mere 60 hours. Rabbi Andrew Rosenblatt of the Orthodox Congregation Schara Tzedeck was part of the mission but did not participate in the panel because he extended his time in Israel.
According to Ezra Shanken, chief executive officer of the Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver, who emceed the event, the Vancouver mission was unique in Canada and possibly in North America for bringing together rabbis from across the religious spectrum. The close connection of most local rabbis, facilitated by the longstanding Rabbinical Association of Vancouver (RAV), set a foundation for the mission, which took place in the second week of December.
The eight rabbis transported 21 enormous duffel bags, filled with gear like socks, gloves, toques and underwear, mostly for military reservists.
Shanken, who visited Israel days earlier with Federation representatives and five Canadian members of Parliament, said nothing prepared him for what he encountered there. Bregman echoed Shanken’s perspective.
“It’s one thing to have that as an intellectual understanding,” said Bregman, “It’s another thing when you are actually there to witness the absolute pain and trauma. People have asked me how was the trip. I say it was brutal.”
The reception they received from Israelis was profound, several of the rabbis noted.
“I’ve been to Israel dozens of times,” Bregman said. “People are [always] happy to see us. Nothing like this.”
Rabbi Dan Moskovitz, senior rabbi at Temple Sholom, said the mission was to bear witness and also was a response to what rabbis were hearing from congregants about the centrality of Israel in their lives. He told the Independent that he was able to connect with two philanthropists in Los Angeles who funded the mission. Rabbi Carey Brown, associate rabbi at Temple Sholom, and Rabbi Susan Tendler, rabbi at the Conservative Beth Tikvah Congregation, in Richmond, handled logistics, with input from the group.
The unity of Israelis was among the most striking impressions, said Brown.
“It’s so all-encompassing of the society right now … the sense that everyone’s in this together,” she said. The unity amid diversity was especially striking, she noted, when the rabbis visited the central location in Tel Aviv known as “Hostage Square.”
Brown said Israelis asked about antisemitism in Canada and seemed confounded by the fact that there is not more empathy worldwide for the trauma their country has experienced.
Tendler reflected on how Israelis were stunned and touched by the fact that a group of Canadians had come to show solidarity.
The rabbis were able to experience a microcosm of Israeli society without leaving their hotel. At the Dan Panorama Tel Aviv, where they stayed, they were among only a few paying guests. The hotel was filled with refugees from the south and north of the country who are being indefinitely put up in the city.
Several rabbis spoke of incidental connections in which they discovered not six degrees of separation between themselves and people they ran into, but one or two.
Rabbi Jonathan Infeld of the Conservative Congregation Beth Israel, who is chair of RAV, told of being approached by members of a family staying at their hotel who heard they were from Vancouver. They asked if the rabbi knew a particular family and he replied that he not only knew them but that a member of that family had just married into his own.
Likewise, Tendler ran into people who went to the same summer camp she did and the rabbis found many other close connections.
“The idea [is] that we are spread out but, at the heart of it all, we honestly really are one very small, connected people,” said Tendler. “We are one family, one community and that was the most important, amazing thing of all.”
Close connections or not, the rabbis were welcomed with open arms. Rabbi Philip Gibbs of West Vancouver’s Conservative Congregation Har El told of how he was walking past a home and glanced up to see a family lighting Hanukkah candles. They insisted he come in and mark the occasion with them.
Gibbs also noted that the political divisions that had riven the society before Oct. 7 have not disappeared, but that the entire population appears to have dedicated themselves to what is most important now.
The rabbis met with scholars, including Israeli foreign ministry experts and many ordinary Israelis, including Arab Israelis, as well as the writer Yossi Klein Halevi, who told them that many Israelis feel let down by their government, intelligence officials and military leadership.
The rabbis traveled to the site of the music festival where 364 people were murdered, more than 40 hostages kidnapped and many more injured on Oct. 7. They saw scores of bullet-riddled and exploded vehicles. All of them will be drained of fuel and other fluids before being buried because they contain fragments of human remains that ZAKA, Israel’s volunteer rescue, extraction and identification agency, could not completely remove from the vehicles.
Rabbi Hannah Dresner of the Jewish Renewal-affiliated Or Shalom Synagogue was not the only rabbi to compare the mission with a shiva visit.
“I was just so amazed at the care that was being given, that each of these vehicles was now being siphoned of any remaining flammable materials so that each one of them could be buried according to our halachah,” Dresner said, “so that none of the human remains would be just discarded as junk. I found that overwhelmingly powerful.”
Relatedly, the group visited an exhibit at Expo Tel Aviv, which recreates the music festival site and features unclaimed property from the site, including the historically resonant sight of hundreds of pairs of shoes.
The rabbis visited Kibbutz Be’eri, where more than 100 people were murdered, and saw the devastation and destruction, some of it not from Oct. 7 but from days after, when explosives planted on that day detonated. It was also at this kibbutz that the Israel Defence Forces found a copy of the Hamas playbook for the atrocities.
“It sounded as if it could have been written by Eichmann or Hitler,” said Bregman. “[The intent] was not only to destroy the body but to destroy the mind, the soul, the psychology, the emotional and spiritual aspect of every Jew.”
The plan included strategies for setting fire to homes in order to force residents out of safe rooms, then specified the order in which family members were to be murdered – parents in front of their children.
While the trip may have had the spirit of a shiva visit, the mood of the Israelis, Dresner said, was “can-do resourcefulness.”
“It’s felt to me over the past couple of years that Israelis have been kind of depressed,” she said, referring to divisive political conflicts. “But they are full force embracing their ingenuity and turning the energy of the resistance movement into this amazing volunteer corps to supply really whatever is needed to whatever sector.”
Groups that had coalesced to protest proposed judicial reforms pivoted to emergency response, she said, ensuring that soldiers and displaced civilians have basic needs met and then creating customized pallets of everything from tricycles to board games, bedding and washing machines, for families who will be away from their homes for extended periods.
The rabbis also went to Kibbutz Yavneh and paid their respects at the grave of Ben Mizrachi, the 22-year-old Vancouver man and former army medic who died at the music festival while trying to save the lives of others. They had a private meeting with Yaron and Jackie Kaploun, parents of Canadian-Israeli Adi Vital-Kaploun, who was murdered in front of her sons, an infant and a 4-year-old.
On the final evening of their visit, the rabbis hosted a Hanukkah party for displaced residents of Kiryat Shmona, the northern Israeli town that is in the Vancouver Jewish community’s partnership region.
At the party, Temple Sholom’s Rabbi Brown spoke with a woman whose two sons are in Gaza fighting for the IDF.
“I told her that we do the prayer for tzahal, for the IDF, in our services in our shul,” Brown said, “and she was so surprised and touched, and she said, ‘Keep praying, keep praying.’”