Bearing witness in Israel, by Head of School Dr. Jonathan Levy
In late-October, our Head of School, Dr. Jonathan Levy, along with North American rabbis and other educational leaders, spent three days in Israel on a mission organized by the Fuchsberg Jerusalem Centre. Via Zoom while still in Israel, and in-person upon his return, he shared his experiences with our school community. The following is based on a speech he delivered to grandparents on Generations Day.
In our weekly Torah portions, we are in the middle of the stories about Abraham (at first known as Avram until God changes his name) and all of the things that he does to begin to build a nation. When we first meet him, he's a man of some 75 years of age. We don't know anything about his childhood, and this really troubled the commentators. So there are midrashim, ancient commentaries on the Torah, that try to fill in some of the gaps.
One key commentary attempts to explain how Avram comes to realize that there is a God. Using the analogy of a man walking down the road, the Midrash employs a very interesting Hebrew word. It says that the man comes across a Dirah echad, doleket. He sees a dirah – a building of some kind – doleket.
There are two ways to understand what this means. Doleket can be translated as “lit up”, meaning Avram sees the beauty of the world and concludes that there must be something or someone behind it – and at that point, God appears to him.
The other way to understand doleket is “on fire”. In this reading, a man sees a building aflame and is aghast that it has been forsaken by its owner and destroyed. Avram, after seeing the evil in the world – after the generations of the flood and the generations of the Tower of Babel – sees the world on fire and takes notice. And because he notices, he is the man who is picked to start to address it.
Today, the world is on fire. We see it here in Canada, we see it abroad, we see it in Israel. I returned to Toronto on November 2 after having spent three days in Israel. Everywhere I went during my trip I saw examples of acts of heroism, and the most incredible ingenuity and resilience.
I visited Ofakim, a city in the south, 25 kilometers from Gaza where many were murdered. Half of the approximately 35,000 residents have still not returned since evacuating their homes.
I was at the home of Rachel Edery who you may have read about. She hosted terrorists for 17 hours, baking cookies while secretly communicating with the police who were outside, one of whom was her son, stalling so that they were able to kill the terrorists and rescue her and her husband.
I was in Kibbutz Be’eri, two miles from the Gaza border, where I saw the most unspeakable horrors – worse than anything I had ever seen before. The army spokesperson who took us through the kibbutz explained that they plan to leave it as is: they want the world to see, to witness, because there are already those who are denying what happened.
We went to the army base where they brought the bodies from that awful Black Shabbat, to try to identify the victims – an almost impossibly difficult task.
I met Jon Polin and Rachel Golderg Polin. They were on the cover of Time magazine, they spoke at the UN. Their son, Hirsch, was kidnapped. At this time, his whereabouts and health are still unknown. On October 7, Hirsch's friend, Anner, led 29 people to a bus shelter to hide, and as grenades were being thrown at him, he picked them up and threw them back. He was killed, but a number of others managed to survive that ordeal.
In a Jerusalem hospital, I met 23-year old Har-El, whose last name was withheld and whose picture we were not allowed to take. On October 7, he heard the call over the radio, picked up his first-aid kit and rifle and drove south from Jerusalem. He wouldn't tell us how many terrorists he killed. He bandaged a number of people until he himself was shot in the arm and was evacuated. He apologized to us for having left the battle so soon and for not staying and helping more.
We met Michal, a mother of ten, who was in the hospital too. She was on an army base on October 7, helping to make Shabbat for the soldiers when the attacks came. Trained as a nurse, she spent hours treating people until she herself was shot three times. She spoke of how she had to wait three-and-a half hours to be evacuated.
At this same hospital, within the space of two weeks, they had turned an underground parking garage into a ward with 200 beds. You can still see the parking lines painted on the floor! The people who made this happen are heroes too.
I ask myself: where will the next heroes come from? Who will address this world on fire in the years to come?
Among them will be our children and grandchildren – the 1,326 students at TanenbaumCHAT, the largest community Jewish high school in North America. These are the kids who will grow up to face these challenges, help solve these problems, and protect both the State of Israel and the diaspora. It is they who will need to put out the fires.
So what do we do here at TanenbaumCHAT?
We bring in as many students as we can – 375 in Grade 9 alone this year, 90 of whom have never been to Jewish school before – and we build them up. We teach them our history, our language, our holidays, and our texts, so they are equipped to become future leaders and community members – on campus, in the Toronto Jewish community, in Canada and the world.
We are honoured to have you with us today and proud to show you what we do. Thank you for being here and thank you for your support.
Am Israel Chai