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Rabbis and lay leaders on OU Mission to Israel bring ‘chizuk’ to hundreds impacted by war

Trip in partnership with OU Israel pairs 24 Diaspora shuls with Israeli citizens and communities personally affected by war.

Rabbis and lay leaders from 24 American shuls participated in the OU Mission to Israel. Credit: Courtesy.
Rabbis and lay leaders from 24 American shuls participated in the OU Mission to Israel. Credit: Courtesy.

In a show of chizuk, 24 American shul communities are pairing with individual Israeli citizens, families and communities directly impacted by the horrific events of October 7, thanks to an initiative spearheaded by the Orthodox Union’s Department of Community Engagement. 

The project began with a recent Israel mission organized by the department and OU Israel for 42 pulpit rabbis and lay leaders representing a broad spectrum of Orthodox communities in Florida, Washington, Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey and Maryland. Over three jam-packed days, participants visited bereaved, wounded and displaced citizens and chayalim in hospitals, at their homes and on the frontlines in Sderot, Shlomit, Ashkelon, Kiryat Arba, Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Alon Shvut and Chevron.

The trip included stops at Sdreot’s now-destroyed police station; Sheba-Tel Hashomer and Hadassah-Ein Kerem hospitals; and the northern Tziporit military base, where the group heard from Rabbi Binyamin Machluf, who commands its Rabbinic unit that identifies victims and attends to kavod hamet. Other impactful speakers during the mission included Israel’s Ambassador to the Republics of Armenia and Moldova  Joel Lion, Sderot Mayor Alon Davidi, and Executive Chairman of the Mizrachi World Movement Rabbi Doron Perez whose son is missing and whose other son was injured in battle.

L-R: OU Israel Executive Director Rabbi Avi Berman, OU National Director of Community Engagement Rabbi Yaakov Glasser and other rabbis and lay leaders, hear from Israeli police officer Hodaya Harrush, who had returned for the first time to the Sderot police station where her late husband was one was one of the first police officers to fall in the heroic defense of Sderot.

“In the aftermath of October 7, the OU is actively working on initiatives to meaningfully support our sisters and brothers in Israel,” says OU Department of Synagogue Initiatives Director Rabbi Adir Posy. “One of those is to bolster communities distinctly affected by the horrors of Simchas Torah. As a shul- and community-based organization with a network throughout North America, the OU felt that a mission would be a wonderful first step in personally conveying our messages of chizuk on behalf of kehillot in Chutz La’Aretz. We want them to know that they are not alone. They are in our hearts, tefillot and minds.”

Remarkably, many of the mission participants reflected that the very people and communities they had come to support actually gave them chizuk instead.

Jonathan Savage of Beth Jacob Congregation in Columbus, Ohio, was moved by the gevura of the Steinberg family of Shomria, who lost their son, husband and father Colonel Yonatan Steinberg on October 7. 

“To see their strength and courage after going through their loss really brings home what the people in Israel are all about,” he says. “To see what they’re able to do, to take tragedy and turn it into strength and courage for our people is beyond heroic. It brings home an incredible  message. We came to give them strength, and we left with a lot more strength that they have given us.”

Meeting with citizens and chayalim personally enabled participants to forge meaningful relationships with them and to learn about their unique needs. Each shul community has “adopted” individuals, families or communities whom they will support both immediately and long term. For many, that support will come in the form of keeping loved ones’ memories alive through shul learning programs, or translating and publishing victims’ divrei Torah, for example. Other chizuk may be offered via calls to individuals and families before Shabbatot and yamim tovim, gifts for their children, or fundraising, as their needs change over time.  

OU Special Assistant to the Executive Vice Presidents Rabbi Yisroel Motzen notes that the pairing initiative is in addition to shul communities’ ongoing efforts which began immediately after the war started.

“The shuls that went on the mission are only doubling their existing efforts now that they’ve met with those personally affected,” he says. “The trip only energized participants to do more and have an even greater connection to Israel.”

Congregation Rinat Yisrael’s Rabbi Chaim Strauchler and Vice President Michael Richmond joined the mission on behalf of their kehilla in Teaneck, New Jersey. Rabbi Strauchler says that beyond representing his shul, he went to represent American Jewry.

“We did not so much show our support as much as communicate our very identity,” he says. “We are one klal. We are one people. When one part of a body experiences suffering, pain or stress, the entire body is affected. We must be there for one another b’eit tzara.” 

For Rabbi Strauchler, the most meaningful part of the trip was witnessing the strength of the Israeli people and the families in particular who have lost loved ones.

“They displayed a super-human emuna, at an Avraham Avinu level, kavayachol. They saw themselves as part of a tzibur in which their loss was Am Yisrael’s loss, their story Am Yisrael’s story, and therefore Am Yisrael’s ultimate victory will be their personal salvation. They are not alone in their suffering. There is so much that our communities can learn from their example; about living life as part of a nation and part of that nation’s story.” 

Rinat Yisrael has linked with the community of Shlomit, which saw four of its young men fall in battle as they rushed to successfully defend the nearby community of Prigan. The shul has raised money to help citizens in their resettlement and sent packages for 82 families with Rabbi Strauchler and Richmond containing winter clothing, art supplies, and toys. In the coming weeks and months, Congregation Rinat Yisarel will dedicate its parent-child learning programs to Shlomit residents, among other projects in development.

Rabbi Avraham Shmidman of Philadelphia’s Lower Merion Synagogue joined the mission together with shul member Justin Danilewitz.

“I participated in this mission so that I could offer encouragement to those in pain during these difficult and dark times and to learn firsthand from peoples’ experiences, with the intent of determining how best to help them going forward,” says Rabbi Shmidman. Like Rabbi Strauchler, Rabbi Shmidman was also touched by the unity, strength and humility of Israeli citizens.

While the mission was marked by many meaningful experiences, a chance encounter with a young boy at the hotel where the group was staying stands out in particular for Danilewitz.

“The boy was one of many displaced evacuees living in our hotel,” he says. “He told me he was from Moshav Yakhini and I told him I was from America. He then asked whether I too had been evacuated. The innocence of the question, and his thought that American Jews in his hotel must logically also be evacuees, left a strong impression on me.”

For Danilewitz, participating in the mission together with Rabbi Shmidman and so many like-minded peers from the States who share the same affinity for Israel and its people made the trip even more special.

“There is nowhere else in the world I would rather have been than supporting Am Yisrael in Eretz Yisrael, giving the entire people of Israel an enormous spiritual “hug,” and being on the ground to show our support and love.” 

It was Racheli Fraenkel who actually inspired the Rabbinic mission, says Rabbi Motzen. On a recent OU Chizuk Call, the educator and mother of Naftali Fraenkel, hy”d, recounted how meaningful it was when she met North Americans who had davened on Naftali’s behalf when he was kidnapped in 2014.

“When Racheli visited different communities in Chutz La’Aretz, people would say, ‘You don’t know me, but I know you,’” says Rabbi Motzen. “She would reply, ‘I know exactly who you are. You were with me during the hardest time of my life.’”

Fraenkel relayed that every single Jew knew about her son and cautioned that people could get lost in the numbers, rather than focusing on victims’ names and life stories.

“Racheli believes each of these victims deserves a Yad Vashem,” he says. “Each should have someone who really knows who they are. Her words were the impetus for this mission. The OU felt that if we could send representatives from 24 communities and each would adopt one person or family, we could develop that personal connection with those who are suffering.”

Many of the bereaved families are hoping their losses will motivate Klal Yisrael to unite, says Rabbi Posy, so that the deaths won’t be in vain.

“This was one of the mission’s objectives,” he adds. “We hope this initiative will have a ripple effect. Each of the 42 participants has their circle of influence, both personally and communally. Our goal is to create a general movement of care for the people affected on Simchat Torah and the memories of the precious neshamot we lost.”

The reception of the rabbinic and lay leadership mission was overwhelming.

“We told people that we came from America just to give them a hug and support, and they were simultaneously shocked and so incredibly moved,” says Rabbi Motzen. “The tough Sabra veneer fell away. People were so appreciative that strangers from across the world came and that Klal Yisrael will continue to be there for them.”

OU Managing Director of Community Engagement Rabbi Yaakov Glasser says the mission would not have been possible were it not for the help of the OU Israel team.

“The transformative experience of bringing North American community leaders to Israel was entirely a result of our extraordinary partnership with OU Israel Executive Director Rabbi Avi Berman and his team. Together, we planned a journey that brought the spiritual, pastoral, and organizational strengths of American rabbanim and lay leaders into shiva homes, hospital rooms, and displaced communities. The ongoing presence and impact of OU Israel in the communities and personal lives of Jews throughout the country was felt and experienced everywhere we traveled. The strength and reach of the broader OU family will carry the impact of this mission far beyond its conclusion.” 

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CONTACT:

Rabbi Adir Posy
National Director, Orthodox Union Department of Synagogue Initiatives
(212) 613-8184
posya@ou.org

About the OU Department of Community Engagement

The Department of Community Engagement provides vision, leadership, and programmatic support to Orthodox communities and congregations throughout North America. Our goal is to strengthen our communities, member congregations, and their constituencies, by providing religious, educational, social, and cultural programming on relevant and timely issues that impact upon the lives of individuals and families.

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Founded in 1898, the Orthodox Union (OU), or Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America, serves as the voice of American Orthodox Jewry, with over 400 congregations in its synagogue network. As the umbrella organization for American Orthodox Jewry, the OU is at the forefront of advocacy work on both state and federal levels, outreach to Jewish teens and young professionals through NCSY, Israel Free Spirit Birthright, Yachad and OU Press, among many other divisions and programs.
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