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Emphatically Listening

I am writing this message from Jerusalem, where I have been all week.

Like many of you, since October 7, I have been longing to get to Israel. I have wanted to see my close friends and family members in person, even though I already know that they are okay, and also not okay. I have felt similarly about the country, the land, and its people. I want to see that they are okay; I even want to see how they are not okay. I also felt a sense of responsibility to show up on behalf of our community. I registered as soon as the Shalom Hartman Institute announced a mission for alums of its rabbinical and day school leadership programs. Still, I immediately felt ill at ease about this trip. Are these many missions helpful or burdensome to the country - to a country spread so thin trying to function while at war? Do they help the visitor more than the visited? I keep hearing from everyone- my friends in Israel and my people who have visited in the last two months- that Israelis appreciate these visits. But, really?

I set out to make myself useful by delivering packages directly to Beit Rabban's family members in Israel. This seemed like an objectively helpful act given the famously terrible postal service during peace times, let alone war times. It has been a privilege to meet up with Beit Rabban's grandparents and family members and to witness their delight in receiving such thoughtful cards and gifts from their family in NYC. You packed up rays of sunshine, and I watched the rays reflect on your family members' faces when they opened these packages. This was undoubtedly worth the trip!

It has been worth it in many other ways as well- ways I could not have anticipated.

On our program's first night, we sat with volunteers running Edut 710 (Testimonials of October 7). Within a few days of October 7, Dr. Ohad Ufaz, a professor of documentary filmmaking at Oranim College, launched this initiative to record and archive as many testimonials as possible from survivors of the massacres. He and his partner in the initiative, Rav HadasRon Zariz, explained the initiative to us, starting with its mission and philosophy. Dr. Ufaz is a disciple of the late Dori Laub, a Holocaust survivor, and psychiatrist who pioneered Shoa testimonials by co-founding the first ongoing project to record and archive Holocaust survivor testimonies in 1979, the Holocaust Survivors Film Project. Inspired by Dori Laub, Ohad believes this work rests on empathic listening techniques that help witnesses share their testimony as a way of dealing with trauma. He explained that while the archive is the overall goal, the goal in each interview is for the witness to be listened to and feel listened to. The filmmaker's role is to provide the most trauma-sensitive structure possible in facilitating this without interruptions or interference for as long as the person wants to speak. It is a testimonial that must begin with the day before the trauma started and end with where the witness/survivor is at this moment, out of danger. The testimony of every survivor/witness is essential, each person on their own timeline. So far, a team of over 300 trained volunteers has documented 380 testimonial videos, each edited down to 5 minutes. Ohad talked about the loneliness of a trauma survivor and the right of each person to be listened to. He spoke about how grateful people are for uninterrupted listening. He also talked about the many people who start by explaining that they have no story to share because their pain was relatively mild and end up telling harrowing stories from 10/7. Like the mother who spent "only" 20 hours in a safe room alone with her babies and, therefore, didn't have a story to share. He shared how grateful people are to them for listening. He ended by instructing our group to listen empathically this week; this is why we arrived. He thanked us profusely for listening to his story about his work, explaining how appreciative he was that we showed up to witness and listen.

That's it. I came to listen. I wanted to "do something" that brings people respite and tips the scales slightly toward love. It seems that the most important thing I can do to that end at this moment is to listen- not for the purpose of retelling, or making meaning, or understanding, or fixing, or, or, or… To listen because each person has the right to be listened to. Because a society that is so traumatized is healthier when people speak and know someone has listened to them.

I, and all the rabbis and day school leaders on my trip this week, have leaned into every interaction and experience with this charge to listen empathically- not to ask for details, clarify, or provide pastoral care- just to listen. This week, I have listened to my nieces and nephews, to my friends, to your family members, to my cab drivers, to shop owners, to displaced children, to volunteers, to soldiers, to partners of soldiers, to rabbis, to academics, to activists, to hostage families, to Israelis of all religions from all over the country.

We visited the Dead Sea Hotels housing displaced people from the South, and we saw the schools established in the past two months to serve 2500 new students in a region that previously served a maximum of 500 students. We listened to the staff and students. We listened to a principal from Sderot who has been re-establishing her special needs preschool in a Dead Sea spa. We listened to volunteers from Brothers in Arms explain how they set up situation rooms to serve these communities and worked with them in every way. We listened to the Lubavitch rabbi of the Dead Sea explain how he mobilized. We listened to members and leaders of kibbutzim who were devastated by the massacre. We listened to a group of rabbis providing pastoral care to these communities. We listened to a Palestinian Citizen of Israel describe their fear of both rockets and hate crimes. We listened to soldiers and parents of soldiers, Jews and Druze, who have already sacrificed so much and who continue to do so each day. We listened to families of hostages in Hostage Square- those scheduled to speak and those who requested to when they saw a live mic. We listened to Rabbanut Yisraelit rabbis who lead these families and supporters in daily prayer. We listened to the parents of Hersh Goldberg Polin. We listened to a group of female leaders raising awareness of the unfathomable sexual violence of October 7 through a communal program called Shabbat Dina, specifically scheduled for the week of Parashat Vayishlach wherein Dina is raped and then turns into a silent character.

We listened, and we were thanked profusely over and over again for listening. The amount of gratitude has been emotionally overwhelming. It has felt uncomfortable to be thanked so much and consistently by the very people who deserve the most appreciation. Israelis are holding up this country for all the Jewish people. They are doing the hard work right now; they are the ones who sacrifice, suffer, and persevere. Shouldn't the gratitude go in the other direction? The answer is yes, but at the same time, this has made the Israeli loneliness all the more obvious: each person needs and deserves to be heard. The least we can do by way of gratitude is to listen.

Spending this week in Israel listening has been a zechut and honor. I look forward to sharing what I heard with you when I return.

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