Week 2 NY physician volunteer at Hadassah hospital for month of December

Written after the second Shabbat in December

Summary and thoughts about past 7 days in Israel, written after Shabbat 12/16/2023

If you have no time to read this next section, skip to the second part of this letter starting with “wake up part”

Work at Hadassah Hospital Ein Kerem is proceeding fine. Last week for 1 day I supervised a GI fellow at the clinic, and it was useless for me because I don’t understand fluent medical Hebrew. Fortunately the GI fellow I was supervising was very smart and didn’t need me. For 3 days this past week I supervised fellows trying to do colonoscopies, but when I encountered high risk patients I performed the procedures myself. On Monday morning I am giving the GI department of Hadassah a lecture for ½ hour. It will have to be in English, but I could give it in Hebrew if I had 2 hours.

For 2 nights I attended the Hannukah lighting ceremony at the Kotel to avoid the loneliness of lighting alone. On Monday night near the Kotel, students from Yeshiva University lit a Hannukiah for each captured Israeli, and next to each was a picture of the hostage. More about the hostages later. On Tuesday night I attended the lighting ceremony with old friends from Boston years, Howie and Judy , who made Aliyah about 1980.

On Wednesday I walked to Mamilla to have brunch with my machatunim Uri’s parents, and at 2 PM I had a fascinating interview with Mordechai Beck, a Talmud scholar, Israeli artist especially of wood cuttings and now lecturer on Talmud to Anglos. He made Aliyah years ago, and we discussed my Haggadah in detail – he read it and actually underlined the parts he found fascinating – fortunately I saw there was a lot of underlining. He found only one small error, which is great as I couldn’t get a rabbi to review the Haggadah before printing. (no offense to any rabbi who is reading this). He is going to write an article about the Chinitz Zion Haggadah to be published in the Jerusalem Report, perhaps in Feb or March. He has invited me to continue our discussion at his house on Sunday afternoon after work. He wrote a 6 page essay on the 5 rabbis at B’nei Brak, and I have to study it before seeing him again.


On Thursday eve I took a taxi to Raanana, and slept at a friend’s house, Dr Roee , one of the foremost ENT surgeons in Israel and well known in the world. He invited me to join him and his team for his weekly Friday volunteer job – he and his team (4 total )drive to outside Gaza and establish a walk-in clinic for soldiers with ENT problems (mostly wax in ears and sore throats from screaming). He has a portable intranasal scope.The first clinic was at the Keren Shalom crossing, and we saw a lineup of at least 40 trucks waiting to enter Gaza to deliver aid. The skyline over Gaza is a constant cloud of thick dust. We passed a fake but highly realistic looking Gaza city where the soldiers practice their warfare. For the afternoon we moved to a “recreation area” where soldiers who were fighting in Gaza (less than ¼ mile away) are given 24-48 hour leaves to spend the time taking a shower, getting decent food, doing laundry, getting clean clothes, and attending medical clinics set up in a small tent. The soldiers all sleep in huge tents that hold about 200 beds each, and they are crammed in, about 1 foot apart from each bed. The soldiers consider these 24-48 hours luxury. Then they reenter Gaza. We knew some will never return.

Regarding the soldiers: there are thousands everywhere on the Gaza border. They often spend 2-3 weeks in Gaza at a time in dangerous and horrible conditions – poor food, no sleep, no shower for 2 weeks but they use baby wipes over their entire body every 3 days, and have enough underwear only to change every 3 days. I was told they are not allowed to take off their shoes while serving in Gaza. Bathroom breaks while on duty means going in a pail. Yet when we saw them they were smiling, not discouraged, joking around with friends, and very very young.

In the Israeli army, unlike others, the experienced soldiers and their commanders “go in” first, and the young ones follow. That is why many Israeli soldiers who are killed/wounded in Gaza are either in the מילוים or are officers, mostly in their late 20s or in their 30s, and not in the late teens.

The tragedy of 3 hostages being killed by friendly fire in Gaza yesterday has caused an unofficial day here of mourning and shock. I suspect that as a result of today there will be more of an impetus to negotiate another cease fire and release of all the hostages. Before yesterday most Israelis believed that Hamas was not releasing hostages because they had all been killed, but clearly that is not the case. We need to all pray that the Israeli unity government makes the correct decisions. No one knows what is the right thing to do now, and if anyone says he/she knows, ignore that person. I was an observer at the ENT clinic, but I did wear my ID badge saying I was a professor, and I gave advice to a senior health professional at one of the bases regarding how to treat the many soldiers who contracted a diarrhea illness while serving inside Gaza.

While the sun was setting in a beautiful glow over Gaza, we drove to the site of the Nova festival where over 360 Jews were massacred. On the road leading to the Nova festival are many structures about 100 yds apart called Migunit, מיגונית – small concrete structures which serve as safe rooms when there is a rocket attack. There is under 30 seconds to run to shelter when a siren goes off. These מיגונית were literal death traps as terrorists murdered everyone hiding in them on October 7 (exactly 50 years after the Y K war). Those that fled into the scattered trees and brush had a better chance of survival. Those that tried to escape by car were trapped by terrorists blocking the road and they were mowed down. The festival was spread over a huge area, but in the center of the decimated area is now a memorial. It is impossible not to cry there. A picture of each hostage or murdered person is placed on one of the 240 5 foot high sticks in the ground, about 5 feet from each other. The pictures have no names, and it seems they are staring at us, saying “where were you?” and “why did it take you so long to come?”

While we were crying, 3 rockets from Hamas sailed over our heads on the way to Jerusalem. We were so close to Gaza and to us that heard the rocket boom and saw their flight path, and it sounded like fireworks we hear on July 4. 15 minutes later I got an Whatsapp message from Uri’s father, who was asking if I was OK after the Jerusalem attack. I had not told anyone but Shari’s cousins in Moshav Mazor that I was going to outside Gaza. I didn’t want anyone to worry. Everyone else thought I was still in Jerusalem. For the past 4 weeks Jerusalem had no rocket attacks on the theory that Hamas didn’t want to inadvertently flatten the Al Asqa mosque, but that theory was shattered last night.

Friday eve I had dinner with Roee’s family in Rannana, and Saturday I spent with friend David and his family in Yedidya. (Even if you think you know this David , you don’t). When I arrived the family was playing rummycube, laughing and joking, but 1 day later 2 of his sons will be sent into Gaza again (and again and again), and one is in the SEALS.

I want to tell you about my impressions and thoughts about my encounter with the two families of Roee and David. For them, I represent American Jewry, and fortunately I became an expert from the knowledge I obtained from writing my Haggadah. They are incredulous that there are many American Jews who are antizionist. I explained the progressive left wing ideology, and as they got angrier and angrier, I had to remind them that while I explain their behavior, I do not defend it at all. I had to explain our university system, and the overwhelming progressive left faculty at many universities. (and I told them the famous adage: those who do, do, and those who can’t, teach)

These two families are the epitome of Zionism in Israel – the fathers (my friends) were heroes in countless battles in official and unofficial antiterrorist wars. Roee was a navy SEAL, and he is very humble about his activities while a SEAL,(one of his stories is in my Haggadah) and David was a military helicopter combat pilot. David was very active in the Lebanese wars, and he remembers fighting in Lebanon, and then on return within one hour he’d fly over his home and then over all the people swimming at the Tel Aviv beach. The 6 sons of David and Roee are almost all in the מילוים(reserves), serving on the very front lines and I mean VERY front lines in Gaza and in Jenin/Schechem. 2 are Israeli navy SEALs. They tell their parents every 2 -3 weeks that they will not be able to communicate with them for a while. No further questions asked. The parents know what that means. Their wives understand, their infants do not. The fighting in the West bank is within a 45 minute drive from their house, the fighting in Gaza is 1 1/2hour drive. Yet we see many people in parks enjoying the wonderful weather, or just strolling on the streets. Especially innumerable families playing games outside, when within 1 ½ hour drive Israelis are sacrificing their lives. Roee at the ENT clinic outside Gaza said multiple times that these soldiers are so young, and perhaps tomorrow some will be dead.

In America I find that the most fervent Zionists are usually (but not always) members of traditional but not haredi synagogues, as I see the same people at meetings for AIPAC and FIDF, with limited numbers of secular Jews ( I did NOT say absent)

But in Israel there is NO divide – the 2 families that are my friends here are quite secular – one doesn’t even light Hannukah candles, and one on Friday eve lit the Hannukah candles again on the 9 th day to celebrate with 2 yr old grandson, while there was no hint of Shabbat: no challah, no wine, no shabbat candles. Yet here I am facing young men who may not be with us soon, but they are cheerful, confident, wise, mature and humble. I advised one not to be the “first one” and he told me his father had given him the same advice.

Yet these two families with no connection to religion love Israel with all their hearts. They hate Netanyahu and his coalition, they loathe the current budget, but they will never abandon Israel. They say there is no place other than Israel that they would rather be. I will never be critical of their complete absence of religion, and I will never impose my religious practices on them when I stay at their house. They thank me for volunteering profusely, and want to know how many American Jews are like me. I told them many, many.

One major source of their love for Israel is their life long friends. While serving in the IDF each bonds with his/her group so tightly that they are one unit, while in the IDF and for the rest of their lives. These bonds are unbreakable. I envy such friendships. Shari’s cousin survived a long battle with cancer 8 years ago. He had been a tank commander. While he was hospitalized for about 6 months, each one of his tank teammates took turns farming his extensive fields, for every day he was ill, and this lasted more than 6 months. No friendship exists like this in the US. I asked David’s wife what keeps her here in Israel, and her answer: “I will never leave my friends.”

This is a profound contrast to my visit to a haredi niece , who refuses to have the children join the army, and their oldest son, now 17, goes to Talmud study all day (nothing secular) to do his “duty” for Israel, which is to pray. In this I was disgusted, but I had to refrain from saying anything because I would be hypocritical as I have not moved to Israel and have not sent my children to the army.

My message is that in contrast to Jews in America, in Israel there is no relationship of love for Israel and observance of Judaism. Only a few Israelis are abandoning Israel, yet hundreds if not thousands of American Jews abandoned Israel before October 7. The respect I have for the Israeli people, and especially the soldiers and their families has reached the highest level I can ever provide. Am I having these two families represent all Israelis? I hope so.

My biggest problem now is that I have to translate most of this letter into Hebrew as my ulpan homework. My return date is Dec 29

For those of you who reached to the end, Shavuah tov

Originally published in Times of Israel