"A month ago, we planned to send our kids to Nahariya for release," Eli Moyal, mayor of the Gaza-adjacent, Qassam-besieged town of Sderot, tells me.
It was a great idea -- last summer I took my kids to Nahariya for vacation. We played on the beach and took a speedboat to the Lebanese nautical border. As an Israeli gunboat off the coast at Achziv waved us past, we joked about not having to worry about the Lebanese navy.
Yet at the very moment Mayor Moyal was meeting with me, Nahariya residents were racing for bomb shelters for the fourth straight week. My travel companions, John Fishel (president of The Los Angeles Jewish Federation) and Rabbis Marvin Hier [left, short sleeves; I'm on the right in blue], Abraham Cooper and Meyer May (deans of the Simon Wiesenthal Center), were visiting Nahariya and scrambling underground. That gunboat was now likely off the coast of Lebanon, doing heavier duty than waving at American tourists.
How bizarre, I thought, that I was sitting at that moment in relative "safety" -- one mile from Gaza in Sderot.
For the past few weeks, I had thought of little else than traveling to Israel. Visiting Israel during the conflict had become essential to me. I wanted to show solidarity, to see what CNN and the Internet couldn't (or wouldn't) show me and to learn more about how Israelis cope in time of war.
But it was deeper than that. Rabbi David Wolpe of Sinai Temple had challenged the community directly: The survival of Israel is the central issue for modern Judaism, he declared -- where will you stand? Within a week, 40 of us were standing with Rabbi Wolpe in the customs line at Ben-Gurion Airport.
(Simultaneously, the Simon Wiesenthal Center leaders convened their own emergency mission to the front lines. I was privileged to hitch rides with both groups through the northern and southern fronts.)
Just one year ago, we had proudly taken our first family vacation in Israel. The places where my kids had the most fun -- Haifa, Nahariya, Rosh Hanikra, Safed, Kiryat Shemona -- were bearing the brunt of the Katyusha attacks.
Last year, my kids romped through the back alleys and stairways of Safed and had to be torn away from the candle shop. Even kids can't help but appreciate the spirituality and hilltop-village charm of the place.
This year, Safed was a ghost town. The stores were shuttered, and only the occasional Hasid wandered the streets. Rabbi Hier and I inspected Katyusha damage on byways near centuries-old synagogues, the blasts from the ball bearings Hezbollah packs into their warheads pockmarking the top floor of buildings all around.
Last year, we had waited in tourist traffic on our way into town. This year, traffic was held up by trucks transporting Merkava tanks to the front. Even in the eye of the storm, there were uplifting stories. The director of Safed's provider of emergency assistance to the elderly told us of a Holocaust survivor from southern Israel who called up and said: "I've been through much worse"; drove to Safed; slept at the aid center, and delivered packages to homebound elderly residents.
Or take Kiryat Shemona. Last year, a highlight of our family trip was at the nearby Manara kibbutz as we ziplined, tobogganed and rode the cable cars up and down the hillside from the Lebanese border. We waited in long lines all day and checked into a crowded local hotel that night.
This year, just about the only persons left in town were the rabbi at the yeshiva -- who proudly does not descend into his shelter -- the rabbi's Beverly Hills-born wife and a handful of mainly destitute locals. We stood on the balcony of the rabbi's house and listened to the loud, steady booms of Israeli artillery firing shells above us deep into Lebanon.
As I drove south that night, fresh smoke started to billow at the top of the Manara cable car from a Katyusha strike. It broke my heart -- one of my kids' fondest memories had just been torn apart by a missile. A large, grapefruit-red sun set over the Mediterranean as I turned east toward Jerusalem.
One evening, Rabbi Wolpe invited his friend, Rabbi Danny Gordis, to speak to the Sinai Temple group. Rabbi Gordis had made aliyah from Los Angeles a few years back, and he addressed head on the question the 40 of us had been asked too many times by our family and friends before we'd left home -- "Is it safe for you to visit Israel now?"
"Do I feel safe?" Rabbi Gordis asked. "It doesn't matter if I feel safe, because it's not about me. The Jewish people haven't survived for centuries because they did what they could to feel safe. They did what they had to do so that the Jewish people would survive."
My friend, Craig Taubman, turned to me and told me that when he kissed his kids goodbye at the start of this trip, they asked him to be safe.
"Don't worry about me," he told them. "I'm going for you."