Chief Rabbi Sir Ephraim Mirvis has returned from a whistle stop visit to Israel convinced of one thing: “Before October 7, we were a disunited people, particularly in Israel, on matters relating to judicial reform and other issues”. But after “the horrific attacks” on southern Israel, the chief rabbi believes “we are now mishpoche, all part of the global Jewish family”.
Sir Ephraim went to Israel as chief rabbi “to express solidarity with the state, which was very much appreciated”. He had been “inspired” by some of the people he met and the projects he saw, and said repeatedly that “the sense of unity was very powerful, very palpable. I did not feel that we [in the UK] and people in Israel were two communities — but that we were one single entity”.
During his visit the chief rabbi met families whose relatives had been taken hostage, British gap year students and British soldiers, as well as witnessing “chesed”, or “loving-kindness” projects. “I came away really inspired”, he said. “When in Israel, what immediately hits you is the centrality of the hostage issue. Everybody is fully engaged with the tragedy of the hostages. Those photographs of the hostages surround you when you come off the plane at Ben-Gurion Airport, in the streets of towns and cities”.
But the chief rabbi said that a lesser-known issue was the situation of displaced Israelis, an estimated 200,000 of whom had been forced to leave their homes. “I went to a supermarket to buy something and the cashier asked me if I would like to add 10 shekels to help displaced families. I said, of course, and that’s become a standard question”.
He visited an “absolutely extraordinary” distribution depot housed in the Bezalel art centre in Jerusalem. “They’ve taken in items donated by Jewish people around the world, and are distributing them to soldiers and also displaced families”. He met a British man who owns a number of apartments in Jerusalem and has given them over — free-of charge — to around 70 displaced Israelis.
The chief rabbi spoke warmly of the “resilience” of Israelis in the face of such great tragedy. “Yes, there is a lot of nervousness but the resilience is so inspirational. I was with a family whose son was seriously injured”. That injury, the soldier’s parents told Sir Ephraim, would have exempted their son from returning to serve in a combat unit.
“But he came to them last week asking them to sign their agreement to his return to the front line. When his parents said that he should be exempt, he replied: this is the person you raised me to be, to be loyal to my country and to do what I can for others”. The parents signed the army papers. That’s the nature of the spirit of Israel right now.”
The chief rabbi’s visit took place in parallel with a tight-knit solidarity mission by the United Synagogue.
One of the most “impactful” places visited by both Chief Rabbi Mirvis and the United Synagogue group was the Shura army base in central Israel. Shura is the facility for the army’s chevra kadisha, the unit which looks after the bodies of the dead prior to burial.
Normally, the chief rabbi said, Shura would only work with the bodies of soldiers. But such were the numbers of the dead following October 7 that Shura looked after “soldiers, civilians — and even some terrorists’ bodies. The state of desecration is such that there are still 150 bodies not identified”, the chief rabbi told Jewish News. He said those working on the base were “incredibly heroic people who have been to hell and back.”
The IDF rabbis – including Rabbi Bentzi Mann, formerly of Mill Hill East Jewish community, Tribe and JFS – had to identify hundreds of civilian victims of the October 7 Hamas massacre and prepare them for burial. Jo Grose, the United Synagogue’s chief executive, said: “As we heard the experiences of Rabbi Mann from that first week of horror, I had to remind myself that he wasn’t talking about something which happened in the Shoah but only last month, in contemporary Israel.”
The chief rabbi reflected that although the base is known colloquially as “Sha’arei Gehinnom”, the “gates of hell”, Shura should really be known as “Sha’arei Shamayim”, the “gates to heaven”.
Rabbi Pinchas Hackenbroch, senior rabbi of Woodside Park Synagogue and chair of the US Rabbinic Council, laid a wreath on behalf of the United Synagogue.
Rabbi Barry Lerer, senior rabbi of Central Synagogue, said: “We were told that some of the bodies were so badly mutilated in the events of 7 October that they had to be taken to America to be identified, showing how far Israel will go to make sure each body is treated with respect, to find out to whom each body belonged and to give each victim a proper burial with the correct name”.
The US group were also shown “the world’s largest ‘Aron Hakodesh’ (Holy Ark), a vast warehouse full of Sifrei Torah which are taken to army units around the country. With 300,000 people called up you can imagine how many demands there are for a Sefer Torah. A sofer, a religious scribe, sits at the base all day, repairing any Sifrei Torah which are damaged. So in the same place that we saw bodies be prepared for burial, we saw that Judaism, the Jewish people and the Torah live on. Am Yisrael Chai.”
Reflecting on the trip, Jo Grose, the United Synagogue’s chief executive, said: “In many ways our visit showed it is still the Israel we know. The sun still bounces beautifully off the Jerusalem stone, the lemons are still growing on the trees. The horns of the cars are still sounding, and people rush along the streets to get to shul. But this is also a new Israel. I expected to encounter a country enveloped in total sadness, and while this is a country still in deep grief, our time here revealed a people that is unified, brave and filled with chesed (acts of loving kindness). Our small group from the UK came to show our solidarity with the people of Israel. In turn, they have strengthened us and we were struck by how often we were thanked for coming by those we met.”
Those who went on the US mission were: Rabbi Pinchas Hackenbroch, senior rabbi, Woodside Park Synagogue and chair of the US Rabbinic Council; Rabbi Elchonon Feldman, senior rabbi, Bushey United Synagogue; Rabbi Barry Lerer, senior rabbi, Central Synagogue; Rabbi Nicky Liss, senior rabbi, Highgate Synagogue; Rebbetzen Eva Chapper, senior rebbetzen, Borehamwood and Elstree Synagogue; Michael Goldstein, president, United Synagogue; Jo Grose, chief executive, United Synagogue; and David Collins, US chief operating officer.
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