An officer from the Israeli Air Force called the school office looking for the principal of SAR High School. It was Thursday, October 12, just five days after the brutal terrorism that initiated the war on Simchat Torah. I picked up the phone, unsure why he would be reaching out to me. “What can I help you with?” I asked. “I want to thank you,” he responded. Wondering whether this was a mistake, I paused awkwardly, and he explained why he was calling. “This morning, we received a package of letters from students in your school. I wanted to let you know that we have hung the letters all over the base, and the chayalim really appreciate the love your students have shown us.” He proceeded to refer to two specific students’ poignant messages. I was moved by the officer’s overwhelmingly kind gesture, and I was amazed by the extent to which the smallest efforts – in this case, letter writing – could make such a big difference.
That day, I decided that I needed to visit our SAR graduates living in Israel, studying in Israel, and serving in Tzahal. I went along with my friend and the principal of our lower school, Rabbi Bini Krauss. It was a quick trip, just two days. But these were two of the most incredible and meaningful days of my life. Meeting with graduates studying in yeshivot and seminaries was wonderful, and I was so happy to see them thriving and contributing despite the horrors of October 7 and the subsequent days. But visiting alumni chayalim and former teachers on their bases was unlike anything I have ever experienced. We brought fifteen duffle bags of supplies to distribute to chayalim. These bags included about 200 pounds of beef jerky, a thousand energy bars, clothes, toiletries, and more, all donated by the SAR community. The supplies were well received and appreciated. But what really got the chayalim excited were the hundreds of letters from students of all ages. The pattern repeated itself everywhere we went. From the group of chayalim serving in the artillery corps near the Lebanese border to the infantry soldiers stationed just outside of Gaza, we found the same response: Beef jerky is great. Cliff Bars are great, too. They even appreciated the SAR Sting swag. But the letters and the artwork? That’s what the soldiers really clamored over.
In a world where digital communications move at lightning speed, there was something comforting about the analog letters schlepped across the ocean and the tactile experience of taping a child’s artwork to the walls of an army base. In a world that has reaped the benefits of Zoom, which has made our world so much smaller and more instantaneously connected, there was something invigorating about trekking to an outpost in the middle of the Negev and embracing those heroic former students serving in Tzahal. Zoom is an excellent tool for communicating information. Showing up in person, though, is the way to communicate appreciation.
I was overwhelmed with pride when I met with these heroic alumni who so eloquently and enthusiastically spoke about their love of the Jewish people and of their commitment to defending the State of Israel. I went to show them how proud we are of them and how much we appreciate them. I was not prepared for the appreciation that we received in return. I don’t think I’ve ever been made to feel as good about just showing up as I was on this trip. The chayalim seemed to know that our tangible presence with them represented the whole SAR community, and the letters we carried to them bore the weight of our current students’ love and fears and tefillot.
The chayalim in Israel know that they are defending the State of Israel as well as the state of Judaism. Not only are the chayalim protecting the citizens of Israel, but they are also defending Jews worldwide who look to Israel as a beacon of hope and inspiration. They are showing up for all of us, and they appreciate it when we are able to show up as well.
One of SAR High School’s beloved Ivrit teachers, who returned to Israel with his family only a few months ago, was called up on milu’im, and we were able to meet him on his way to the base. We coordinated our travel so that we would arrive at a roadside parking lot around the same time so that we could embrace, show appreciation, and deliver the food, supplies and letters. It was an emotional reunion. He gladly placed the duffel bags in his car and accepted a folder with a couple hundred letters. Eventually, after taking a few photos to share with the students back at school, we parted ways. He continued to his base, and we drove further north looking for more students.
When I arrived back in New York this past Wednesday morning, I turned on my phone and noticed a Whatsapp message from this teacher thanking me for the supplies. He also sent me photos of the walls of his army base covered, from floor to ceiling, wall to wall, with the children’s letters, along with the following message:
“All of the letters have arrived. My friends read them and are so moved by them. One soldier said to me this morning that he hasn’t seen his children in eighteen days and that the letters reminded him of his own home and his children and the reason why he’s here for these past eighteen days of battle. I’m here for Israel, but I am also fighting for the children in New York.”
May the brave chayalim be successful and safely carry out the missions before them. May we in the diaspora be successful in our mission of supporting the State of Israel and her chayalim.