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Letter from Israel

December 29, 2023

Dear Friends,

The band Counting Crows sing, “A long December, and there’s reason to believe maybe this year will be better than the last…” For us as a global Jewish community, these words act more like a prayer. I must say, despite all the trauma, darkness, and horror we have absorbed, I am encouraged to believe that the coming year will indeed end up better than the last.

As you may know, I am in Israel now for two weeks volunteering. The aftermath of October 7th reverberates through the country, and the protracted mobilization of the army has left many fields untended, as it were, so I join the many volunteers coming to help fill the gaps. I have found there is much more going on in Israel than we realize.

A few days ago, I participated in project “Grilling for Hope” that prepares and serves BBQ meals to soldiers at bases around the country. We went to a base just outside of Gaza where shelling could be heard not too far away. This base is for reservist infantry soldiers, so their ages ranged dramatically. Underneath worn and dusty uniforms are regular people. But it seems there are few “regular people” in Israel. Each has palpable vitality and verve and are eager to build and create. As the soldiers approached and saw the many trays of grilled meats and salads, they seemed overcome and expressed sincere thanks. I felt emotional each time a soldier said thank you to me, as I was filled with profound gratitude for their service. I can’t do anything about Hamas. All I can do is support them in small ways, and they’re thanking me? I guess little things do matter. Underneath the volleys of gratitude is the gravity and reality of the moment: Israel, and by association the Jewish people, are at war. And it has brought us all close together.

Every morning at 6am the media publishes the names of soldiers who fell the day before. Communities around the country have established rituals of collecting along routes to the cemeteries with flags and their solemn presence. Here in Ra’anana, several young men from the community have been buried in recent weeks. Each story is of a vibrant, productive, beloved young person with tremendous potential who has been sacrificed in fighting an evil adversary for the sake of protecting and securing the country. Words fail to express what this means to this country.

There is a reason Israel has ascended so dramatically in 75 years. It is a country that, despite its decades of war, terrorism, and struggle, has a culture of hope. It may seem counterintuitive, but Israel is a country that is mysteriously driven by hope for the future. It is no surprise the national anthem is “Hatikvah/The Hope.”

Here, hope is lived. People marry relatively young and have over 3 children per household. Entrepreneurship seems to be a way of life. Despite the dramatic increase in material comforts, there remains an impressive amount of earthiness and grit among

Israelis. They spend time with each other more than they spend time on screens. Resilience is a reality.

When a population understands that each individual shares a common destiny with its community, that sense of responsibility inspires progress, growth, and, even in dark times, happiness. I see it and I feel it all around me.

For a better understanding of this, I commend to you the recent book by authors of “Start Up Nation,” Dan Senor and Saul Singer: “The Genius of Israel.” It came out just before October 7th, but their analysis of Israel holds up: Israel is an extraordinary country, and it will inspire each of us.

As 2023 comes to a close, let us be inspired by Israel with the audacity of hope that, as the song prays, “maybe this year will be better than the last.” 2024 is likely to be a lively year fraught with crazy politics, a major election, and the anxiety that a lot is beyond our control. So let us be blessed to pay closer attention to one another, to show up and spend more time together. Plan to have more Shabbat meals together, to volunteer a little more, to make more in-person dates with friends. And come more often to spend time together at Mishkon—together we’ll make our prayer a reality.

Wishing you and all you hold dear a healthy and joyous new year.

--Rabbi Katzan

Fri, April 12 2024 4 Nisan 5784