Kenny Levy is the former President of NFTY-SW, and a freshman at Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo.
Following graduation, my summer began and went on as normal, but I felt that something was missing. Throughout high school I became very involved in the North American Federation of Temple Youth (NFTY). I had the privilege of being a member of two Southwest regional boards, first as Communications Vice President, and then as President. As my time in NFTY ended, I felt like there was something more for me to do. I knew that I needed to find the next steps in my Jewish life.
The opportunity to participate in a solidarity trip to Israel through the Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA) was brought to my attention. I thought about the possible risks of going to Israel during this difficult summer that they have had. However, I knew that this trip, although not a typical first-timer’s trip to Israel, would be one that would help shape who I become as a person beyond NFTY.
On my first day in Israel, as I sat on the beach, I thought about all the people around me. There were people riding bikes along the boardwalk, runners kicking up sand as they passed by, and children playing in the Mediterranean Sea. Meanwhile there were hundreds of soldiers in the south fighting for these bikers’, runners’, and children’s safety. Daily life goes on in Tel Aviv, as war is fought only 44 miles away.
Over the next four days I was able to meet and hear from IDF soldiers, pilots, family members of fallen soldiers, students, teachers, and military officials in Tel Aviv, Sderot, and Jerusalem. In each of these places, I experienced the profound compassion and pride that Israelis have for their country.
In Tel Aviv we visited Beit Halochem which is the Disabled Veterans Center, treating veterans who suffer from PTSD through art therapy. We had the chance to meet with one of the members and he showed us a few ceramic sculptures that he had created based on dreams and memories he has had after many months as a Prisoner of War in Syria. One particular sculpture was a representation of a torture device that was used to stretch his feet and legs backwards far over his head. He was placed in this device and then interrogated by Syrian terrorists. Hearing what this man had experienced and seeing the images that go through his head was something that will stick with me forever.
The next day we went farther south to Sderot. We visited a school where the principal shared with us that a 14 year old student living in this area has heard nearly 700 sirens in their lifetime. That fact was very difficult for me to hear, realizing that this is the reality of their lives. They are constantly in fear of having to run for shelter in the event of one of these sirens. While we were crossing between buildings, a siren began. As we were rushing inside, a loud sound exploded from behind us. I looked back and it was an Iron Dome missile firing off. We made it inside before hearing a loud ‘boom.’ This was the interception of the Hamas rocket. Knowing that we were this close to a siren and a missile and only having 15 seconds to make it into the next building, my heart skipped a beat. This made me think back to that 14 year old. 700 times in their life their heart has skipped a beat. Even if this reality has become a part of their daily life, I cannot imagine the fear that each siren has brought to these children.
Being an American in Israel, during this time of war, is very humbling. Relying on technology to hear a siren, pulling your car over on the side of the road to get out and hit the deck, having only 5 to 15 seconds in some places to rush to a bomb shelter, and not even knowing when it will be a safe time to take a shower have all beco
me routine for Israeli’s.
At the school we heard from a 16 year old girl named Yam. She told us one of the most unsettling things I have ever heard. She said that she and many Israelis have been given the impression that Americans “hate” them because of how Israel has defended itself against Hamas. These Israelis have heard from the American media, how thousands of civilians in Gaza have been killed at the hands of the IDF. What has not been reported, is the fact that Hamas has been using these civilians as human-shields, and that the IDF makes many attempts to alert these civilians prior to advancing on a target. These efforts of the IDF to protect civilians in Gaza have been overlooked by the media. Yam continued saying how important it is that we, as Americans, take the truthful information and first-hand accounts of the actions taking place in Israel home and to each of our different communities. We assured Yam that what she had learned about “American’s hatred towards Israelis” is absolutely untrue. We also promised her that we will take what we learned back with us and be the ambassadors that Israel needs.
In Jerusalem at the Mt. Hertzl Memorial we attended a service for a 20 year old boy who had been killed in Gaza. As I walk around the grave sites of many of the 64 men and women who have fought and died during this war, I was struck to see the ages of these soldiers. Many of whom were around my age when they were killed.
We then ended our trip with a walk through thetunnel-like alleyways of the Old City and arrived at the Kotel. From the top of the steps the view was incredible. I was looking out on the entire Western Wall with the Dome on the Rock in the distance and a view that went on for miles (or kilometers as they would say in Israel). We descended the steps and approached the Wall. The moment I reached out to touch the sacred stone, I felt like I was back at the URJ Kutz Camp standing at the edge of the Teatron, looking out at Lake Rolyn and listening to the chirping of birds. But here it was hundreds of people around me, all whispering their own prayers. As I entered the inside part of the Kotel, the voices echoed and bounced off the walls as all of the different cultures and sects of Judaism came together in one constant hum and the sounds of prayer created a sense of wholeness that enveloped me.
This trip was definitely not the typical first-timer’s trip to Israel. It was difficult and emotional. It was heavy and a lot to take in. And I would do it again in a heartbeat. It was an experience that I will never forget and it has sparked my passion for my Jewish life and to be an advocate for Israel, as one chapter in my life closes and another begins to open.