Joseph is the head of school at Yeshivah of Flatbush Joel Braverman High School.

“We Need to Be There, No Matter What”

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In 2000, not long after the breakout of the Second Intifada, I led a group of members in my synagogue on a solidarity mission to Israel. Tourism in Israel had almost completely dried up in the wake of suicide bombings and other terror attacks, and we felt the need to show our support for Israel. I distinctly remember the deeply emotional thoughts Rabbi Shlomo Riskin shared with us. “Americans need to make a choice,” he stated passionately. “Is Israel Disneyland or the Motherland?” He went on to explain that the former is a place you visit when the weather is good, the deal is right and the lines are short. You visit your mother when she needs you most.

Over twenty years later, that exhortation stuck with me, because among my first thoughts after getting word of what happened in Israel on October 7 was, “The Yeshivah of Flatbush has to send groups of students and faculty to Israel, no matter what. We need to be there for Israel.”

Certainly, we had to answer questions such as, was it safe for us to go? Could we help in any way? Would we be more of a burden to people than a support? In the second and third week of October, the answers to these questions were far from apparent, but the resolve of our leadership team grew stronger as we discussed it internally. Love for Israel and its people are at the beating heart of our school. How could we not be there for them in their time of greatest need?

Two critical components drove our decisions. First, one trip would not suffice. Early on, it was obvious that the war would not be a quick one. We wanted to do our best to provide a “continuous presence” in Israel, not just a “one-time thing.” Second, our trips would be about students. Staff and parents were welcome to join, but we would run the trips with a focus on students. We wanted Israel to see that our students cared about her and we wanted to teach all of our students, those who would make a trip or not, that being in Israel at a time of distress is an essential, enduring and uncompromising value.

Impacting Israelis

Six months later, our four missions with over 100 students and another 50 or more adults who accompanied them have proven that our commitment was well worth the time, energy, worry and resources dedicated to these initiatives. During that time, our school undertook countless activities to reinforce love for Israel in our students. Our dedication to these trips exponentially empowered everything else we did.

As anyone who has been in Israel since October 7 can testify, Israelis profoundly appreciate the visits of those who do not live there. The obvious comparison is the power of a shiva call, where the presence of a comforter strikes the deepest of chords with a mourner. The impact we have on Israelis is immeasurable. Our brief time sharing a smile, a hug, a kind word and the like creates unbelievable amounts of love. There is no doubt that being in Israel makes “all the difference in the world.”

For that, as we say at the seder table, dayyenu—it would have been reason enough to praise the value of our missions. As an educational institution, however, our primary responsibility is the education of our students. As important as it is to impact Israel, it is more important we impact our students. In this, I believe we were even more successful than whatever we accomplished for Israelis.

Impacting Students

First and foremost, I think back to the mindset of many American Jews in the second and third week of October. To my great distress, far too many members of our communities were heading in the other direction. Those who were in Israel over Sukkot, perhaps understandably, scrambled to get the first flights out of Israel. Many parents who had children studying in Israel brought them home. Most people canceled previously planned trips.

It was important for us to change that narrative; our trips did that. In just my local community, I am aware of over 40 missions to Israel since October 7. I imagine the wider Jewish community has sent at least ten times that amount. Our commitment to be in Israel as early and often as we were, along with the commitment of other like-minded groups, has changed the hearts and minds of our people. That is our core mission as educators.

For the students who made the journey, the experience was life-shaping. Whether it be visits to the rehab wing at Tel haShomer, seeing firsthand the difficult work at Machaneh Shura, standing in Har Herzl for azkarot or paying shiva calls to grieving families—our students learned lessons about areivut and ahavat Yisrael which could not be obtained in thousands of classroom hours. 
Less expected, but not less powerful, was the impact that our trips had on the students who were not able to make the trip. There is a palpable sense of pride and love of Israel that was felt by our entire student body and their teachers. When people we connected with in Israel have visited the US and our school, the bonds of love are felt not only by the students who initiated the connections, but by the entire student body.

Perhaps naively, I’m hopeful that the war will come to a positive conclusion in the not-too-distant future. With a high level of confidence, I believe that we seized the crisis as an opportunity to make a difference in Israel and in the lives of our students.