Last week, I joined a group of brave Israel Defense Forces in Gaza. Riding across the border was one of the most terrifying moments of my life: Full military gear, armed escorts, machine guns drawn, bullets in chambers. I witnessed the daily risks our soldiers take while defending the Jewish homeland.
We passed the border fence Hamas terrorists broke through on Oct. 7, the pockmarked houses and rubble of villages, and came to the outskirts of the area in which the IDF was actively operating.
I was amazed by the professionalism, speed and dedication of the soldiers. During my visit, Hamas attacked a patrol nearby. Ten minutes later, a military ambulance that extracted two wounded soldiers pulled up in front of our jeep. As we prayed for the soldiers’ well-being, a helicopter was called and in just a few minutes the wounded were medevacked to the nearest hospital and have since fully recovered.
As president of Yeshiva University, I came to Gaza with our rosh yeshiva, Rabbi Meir Goldvicht—in coordination with the IDF—to tell our soldiers about the global support for their safety and their mission. I told the soldiers that Jews and people of moral conscience all around the world are praying for them and shared with them the belief that they are serving as God’s messengers in this battle against Hamas, which is a battle for humanity against evil.
The soldiers were very aware of the grave danger they faced, but their morale was sky-high. They embraced their mission to defend Israel in this existential battle. They gave me a tour of the terrain to better understand the battle zone, took me into their tanks to show me how they lived and expressed to me their appreciation for the global Jewish community, which had donated so much of their top-notch military gear.
I ended our visit to Gaza by singing “Am Yisrael Chai” with the soldiers in the very villages from which the terrorists attacked Israel. It was a stirring example of the enduring message of the song “Am Yisrael Chai”: The people of Israel live, now and forever.
As inspired as I was in Israel, I was also profoundly pained by the deep sense of loss and tension that gripped the country. Each soldier that falls in battle is a national tragedy, but recent losses hit close to home. I made aliyah 17 years ago, and the community in which I live when I am in Israel, Neve Daniel, suffered a brutal blow when one of its sons, Ephraim Jackman, was lost in combat.
Most of my neighbors there have sons who are currently in Gaza, and while the heroism of their children is certainly a mark of deep pride, the uncertainty of their fate is frightening. A number of our Yeshiva University families who made aliyah have tragically had to sit shiva for their sons who were lost in combat, and my time in Israel included attending a funeral and a shiva, and making visits to bereaved families.
I also met with the families of hostages. Gali and Ziv Berman are 26-year-old twins from the small kibbutz of Kfar Aza. When Hamas attacked, their mother Talia urged them to come into the safe room in their house; instead, they went out to protect their neighbors from the terrorists. Talia told me she emerged from the safe room to find that her two boys had been taken captive.
I have never experienced Israel in such a state. As someone deeply rooted in both Israel and America, I have never felt such a gap in our contemporary Jewish experiences. While the current crisis is felt by all Jews across the globe and the threat of antisemitism is real around the world, the sacrifices demanded from the families in Israel are extraordinary and ongoing.
Returning to America, one burning question was on my mind: Are we worthy of their sacrifices? Do our life choices honor their commitment?
With Israel engaged in a war lasting more than 100 days with no clear end in sight, we need to stand vigilant in our support for the Jewish state. While it is natural for the sense of urgency that gripped the American Jewish community in the first phase of the war to pass, as long as our brothers and sisters in Israel have not returned to normal lives, we cannot return to ours. When klal Yisrael is in pain, we are all in pain. When Israel is at war, we are all called to service.
I had not returned to Israel since I was in Jerusalem on Oct. 7. On that fateful day, my son Yehuda was called up as a reservist and has been serving in his combat unit throughout the war. I was blessed that, during my visit, Yehuda had a day off from the army. Seeing and hugging him for the first time since the attacks was an experience I will never forget.
With all the uncertainty of war, experiencing the incredible character and dedication of our soldiers in Gaza inspired in me great confidence in Israel’s future. One soldier told me that he never previously felt the global embrace of the united Jewish community as he does today. Hashem has a plan. We have the opportunity to write ourselves into it by continuing to fiercely support and embrace our family in Israel.
Together we will rise; together we will win: Am Yisrael Chai.