Rabbi Batsheva Appel: The conflict in Israel is not distant, remote or abstract

It is connected to who we are as a Jewish community.

(Fatima Shbair | The Associated Press) Rockets are fired toward Israel from the Gaza Strip, Sunday, Oct. 8, 2023. The militant Hamas rulers of the Gaza Strip carried out an unprecedented, multi-front attack on Israel at daybreak Saturday, firing thousands of rockets as dozens of Hamas fighters infiltrated the heavily fortified border in several locations, killing hundreds and taking captives. Palestinian health officials reported scores of deaths from Israeli airstrikes in Gaza.

In February 2023, at the convention of the Central Conference of American Rabbis in Israel, I went with a group of Reform rabbis to Kibbutz Nachal Oz, 800 meters from the border with Gaza. I wanted to learn more about the current situation in Israel from the perspective of people living on the border. This kibbutz is in an area, Shaar HaNegev, that includes nine other kibbutzim, one moshav and one town. In the last ten years, the population has almost doubled to 10,000 residents.

At the end of our visit, we were privileged to meet with the mayor of the Shaar HaNegev region, Ofir Libstein. Mayor Libstein spoke of his work to bring peace to southern Israel and Gaza. He said: “If I want a better life, then I need to know that the people on the other side have something to lose or to win.” His project, already a decade in the making, was the building of an industrial area for both low tech and high-tech manufacturing with a land port in the center for import and export with Gaza. He was proposing building a branch of a university there as well as providing medical services for the Gazans. Libstein let us know that he now had permission from the government to build the first building of the Arazim Industrial Zone. As envisioned by Mayor Libstein, this project would have created thousands of well-paying jobs for Gazans. I was skeptical that he would be successful because all I could see were the huge challenges ahead. But I was incredibly impressed by his vision and heartened that he was engaging in work that might eventually help lead to peace in the region.

Mayor Ofir Libstein was killed last Shabbat by Hamas terrorists while he was trying to defend his family in Kfar Aza. May his memory be for blessing.

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I am saddened to have his story end in such a senseless and tragic way before he could prove me wrong about the possibilities of his vision. I am distraught that his story is only one of thousands of heartbreaking stories from last Saturday. I am heartbroken by the number of innocent individuals killed in their homes, at a concert, or fleeing, as well as the number of innocent individuals taken hostage. Using innocent individuals as hostages or as human shields is repugnant. That these acts of terrorism were recorded and have been celebrated angers and mystifies me. I am distressed as I see the names and pictures of people who have been killed or taken hostage, beyond just distress at the stories, as I am learning of the connections of those stories with friends. It is not a distant, remote, abstract conflict. It is connected to who we are as a Jewish community.

This Shabbat, our greeting “Shabbat Shalom!” will have a particular resonance. We will come together as a sacred community to support each other and to keep in mind our individual and collective ties to Israel. We will mourn the loss of life in this war and we will pray for the healing of the injured. We will pray for the hostages to be freed quickly and we will pray for shalom/peace in the region.

Batsheva Appel

Rabbi Batsheva Appel is interim rabbi at Temple Har Shalom, Park City this year.