Cindy Sher (far left) and the Chicago contingent of the National Young Leadership Trip to Israel.
We stood together in Independence Hall on the first day of our journey together, the space where Israel first became the Jewish state.
The music began and then 169 of us 20-, 30-, and 40-something Jews—34 of us from Chicago traveling with the Jewish United Fund/Jewish Federation—on our Jewish Federations of North America’s National Young Leadership Trip to Israel, sang the Israeli anthem “Hatikva” together. I had been trying to make a cool first impression in front of my peers, but I couldn’t stand it anymore.
Tears welled up in my eyes for Israel, home to every person in that room, home to every Jew in the world. “Hatikva” means “The Hope,” and this is a place that has always brimmed with so much hope for our people. We are family.
After saying the Shehecheyanu as we embarked on our journey together, we did what any gathering of young Jews would do—we partied. We’d barely yet met, but we were all tied through the thread of our Jewish narrative, brothers and sisters, each of us filled with so much hope for our week and, in a grander sense, hope for our future as a people.
We returned to our hotel rooms that night where our phones alerted us to the news that the three missing Israeli teen boys—Eyal Yifrah, Gilad Sha'ar, and Naftali Frenkel—were no longer missing. Their bodies had been discovered, murdered by Hamas.
I’d visited Israel several times over the course of my life. I’d climbed Masada, I’d floated in the Dead Sea, I’d prayed at the Wall, I’d hiked through the Negev, I’d sipped Israeli wine, and I’d bitten into the world’s juiciest, reddest tomatoes.
But only now, mere miles from where those boys had been found, did I feel it—this place called Israel in my bones. In a few years, those three boys could have been three of the guys on our trip. Those boys are us. We are family.
I’m a big believer in beshert and I think we were destined to be there that week. It meant so much to us that we could stand not just in spirit, but in physical proximity to our Israeli sisters and brothers when they needed us.
During the trip, a small group of us ate lunch on a moshav halfway between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. We shared one of the most delicious meals I’ve ever had in my life, prepared with love by a Moroccan immigrant named Bat Sheva Gabai. During lunch, Rebecca Stern, a Jewish Agency for Israel representative, and an observant Jew and vivacious native New Yorker who made aliyah a couple decades back, told us what it meant to the Israeli people that we were there, especially at a heartbreaking time for Israel. “Thank you,” she told us. We’re all connected, no matter what our level of observance, whether “we wear hats or no hats, sleeves or no sleeves…we are all family.”
I flew back to Chicago the day the rocket attacks escalated. And now, every time I hear Israeli news, which is pretty much around the clock, I feel like I left a piece of myself, my heart, behind. We are family.
There was this moment on the trip, a favorite for many of us. Our group was headed to the Wall to pray on Shabbat, and stopped near the entrance to prepare for the momentous visit. There, we linked arms and started a chorus of the Jewish hymn “Hineh Ma Tov.” And, all of a sudden, from up above, we saw a group of Orthodox men link arms too, and join in on our singing. We knew the same words, the same tunes. We sang in perfect harmony. We may have never met, but we are the same. We are family.
I’ve been singing that song since preschool and yet I never stopped to think about the words until now. “Behold, how good and how pleasant,” the hymn says, “it is for brethren to dwell together in unity.”