We have duffel bags full of toys for the children stuck inside shelters in Southern Israel. We have suitcases full of packages for IDF soldiers. There are 23 of us who are going on this solidarity mission, and we are all gathered now at the airport gate at JFK. Psychologists, lawyers, surgeons, businessmen. Wives, husbands, fathers and mothers. We have cleared our schedules, left behind our lives for four days to fly to Israel and help.
On the way to the airport, I stare out at the skyline of Manhattan and wonder if I am really doing the right thing. Leaving my children and my husband. Leaving our quiet, tree-lined New England town to go to a Land that is being bombarded with rockets day and night. Will my presence really matter? Does Israel really need me?
I haven't been back to Israel since we moved back to America two years ago. The last time I was there it was the only home I knew. Now the realization suddenly hits me as the plane touches down in Tel Aviv, and I gaze out the window: I am now a visitor in my own home. I am a tourist. A stranger in a place where I used to belong. This, I thought, this is Tisha B'Av, the Ninth of Av that commemorates the destruction of the Temple. Coming home and knowing you are not really home. Belonging nowhere. Hearing the sirens as soon as we land. The alarms going off on our phones. The constant, unspoken message all around us: We are in danger. And we don't know when it will end. The menace is everywhere now.
Our Temple is not rebuilt this year; instead it is being destroyed all over again. Right now, before our very eyes. It is falling apart. Like a child who can no longer go back home. Like a nation that has lost its way. Like a land devoid of peace. Like a heart that is so numb, it doesn't even know that it is broken.
I stare at our duffel bags full of toys and packages. How does a terrified child learn how to play again? What will a soldier about to go into Gaza do with these suddenly inadequate packages from New York? I want to give them something else…Hope? Faith? A miracle?
What am I doing here? The passport official looks down at my passport and then up at me as she stamps it. "Todah, thank you. Kol hakavod that you came." She smiles. I try not to cry. This is Tisha B Av.
We head straight to Netivot, a town 10 kilometers from Gaza, where we bring the toys to dozens of children in a shelter. The shelter is in the basement of a school, and the room is small and empty. There is a table with a few scattered games and an Aron Kodesh at the front of the room. The wall is plastered with signs in Hebrew. "God Is With Us Always." "We are believers and the children of believers." "Am Yisrael Chai." The children smile shyly at us. The mothers look exhausted but grateful that we have come. I cannot imagine how they manage each day with no camp and constant sirens sending them into these concrete rooms. We tell the children how Jews are praying for them all over the world, day and night. How they are our brothers and sisters, and we came because we don't want them to think that they are alone.
We open up the duffel bags and begin to give out the toys. Their eyes light up. The men and the little boys begin to sing Am Yisrael Chai. But I notice a little girl in the corner who hasn't received a toy. I bring her one and ask if she is okay. She shakes her head, tears fill her eyes. "I am afraid," she tells me in Hebrew. "I can't play outside anymore, and I am afraid to fall asleep at night." She looks down at the toy in her hands and thanks me. Outside the streets are deserted. The playgrounds are empty. The town is silent. This is Tisha B Av. Empty streets and children who are afraid to close their eyes at night.
Later that day, we sit with soldiers under a tent near the Gaza border. We eat with them and give them packages that we have brought with us. The soldiers thank us and ask us about New York. Some of them are so tired that they collapse on army blankets on the ground. I watch them sleep. I wonder what they have seen today, what they have been through. We hear explosions in the distance; they sound like fireworks rising up through the sunset. The leader of our group, Rabbi Jonathan Morgenstern, marks the completion of a tractate of Talmud he has just finished. He dedicates the siyum to the soldiers, to their safety and courage. He holds up a Jerusalem flag that he carried last year when he visited Auschwitz. He stood there at the gates of death and recited Kaddish with the flag draped around his shoulders. Now he drapes the flag around his shoulders here, in this tiny field next to a raging war. When he is done, he says Kaddish. All the soldiers stand, some with kippahs, some without.
An army medic helicopter shoots across the sky. Soldiers have just been killed not far from us. Others badly injured. The words of Kaddish echo around us. We bow our heads. We try not to cry. This is Tisha B Av. When the lives of our sons are cut short without warning.
On our way back to Jerusalem, I stare at all of the familiar landmarks that look eerily different to me now. The streets are so quiet. The air feels changed. Heavier, uncertain, guarded. I want to walk to the Kotel, the Western Wall. The tour guide tells me he's not sure it's a good idea. This is Tisha B Av; wondering whether I can make it to the Wall to pray when I am five minutes away from it.
I stare from afar at the walls of Jerusalem, so peaceful and incandescent against the night sky, and I feel the depth of the destruction of what we have lost. And I mourn for Jerusalem. I mourn for the gap where our Temple used to stand. I mourn for the empty streets and terrified children. I mourn for the soldiers with their exhausted hearts hiding behind brave smiles. I mourn for the little girl who is afraid to go to sleep at night. And I mourn for my home which is no longer my home.
This is Tisha B Av. Yearning for a place that no longer exists. Trying to get back to a time that has passed long ago. Begging for life, begging for peace as explosions echo through the land. Lives sputter and disappear before our eyes. Our beloved Temple is in flames.