Fresh from a visit to Israel, Rabbi Ben Goldstein described a population resilient and unified around the Gaza war, but concerned about intolerance within its borders.
“Extremism is growing,” said Goldstein, speaking to close to 70 people at the JCC of Central New Jersey in Scotch Plains on Aug. 6.
Goldstein, rabbi of Temple Beth-El Mekor Chayim in Cranford, was the only NJ rabbi among 45 Conservative religious leaders taking part in the July 19-27 trip organized by the Rabbinical Assembly and the Masorti Foundation.
Yuli Edelstein, the speaker of the Knesset, told the group the revenge killing of Palestinian teenager Mohammed Abu Khdeir by Jewish radicals “did Israel more harm than Hamas did in 20 years.”
Nevertheless, Goldstein said, the country is as wonderful as ever, and for the most part, felt totally safe.
The rabbis traveled south to Be’er Sheva and Ashkelon and Sderot, enduring sirens and a few rocket scares. They headed north, for a taste of relative calm, meeting community figures and regular folks, as well as Israeli leaders including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, Knesset Member Dov Lipman, and Jewish Agency head Natan Sharansky.
While urging people to show their solidarity by visiting Israel, Goldstein acknowledged that it was relatively easy for him because he went alone, without his family. “My wife was the one who was brave, to let me go,” he said.
Only in the southern region did they hear the sound of missile warnings. Goldstein posted a video of his group ducking down in a bus as a siren sounded. “Just as well we had the training,” he can be heard saying.
On a grimmer note, he said, a furor over prisoner exchanges has led to a deep debate in Israel over army protocol calling for the massive use of force in an effort to rescue a captured soldier.
One of the most impressive people they met was Rachel Frenkel, whose 16-year-old son Naftali was one of the three students kidnapped and killed in June. “When she talked about her son, there wasn’t a dry eye in the room,” Goldstein recalled. “She said, ‘The loss is endless, but the love is endless too.’
“We heard a lot of great speakers, but she might have been the best. We were honored to hear her.”
The group also paid a shiva call to the family of Bar Rahav, a 21-year-old combat engineer and member of Israel’s national water polo team, killed in Gaza on July 19. His parents were grateful for the visit.
“They said it girded their strength,” Goldstein said. “And that encapsulated the purpose of the mission; that was the whole reason we were there.”