A Mission to Israel: Ellen Miller

older woman sits at a table packing cucumbers

It’s Monday and my head is spinning. We’ve been here 4 days and I feel like I’ve been here for a month. All the people we’ve met and all the stories we’ve heard. So many meaningful experiences. It’s mentally and physically exhausting. Even though a 6am wake-up call is never my finest hour, I look forward to it as I’ve been dreaming about the most delicious Israeli breakfast all night.

After a warm welcoming Shabbat at our sister congregation, Or Hadash in Haifa, Friday night, we had as warm a Shabbat morning experience at Kibbutz Gezer. After an energetic Shabbat service with the rabbi and congregation there, we met the brother and sister-in-law of two hostages in Gaza. They told the story of wife of the hostage couple who, as she was being released, grabbed a child she didn’t know and took her to “safety.” The intensity of their words affected me in a way that I froze with sadness and empathy. It was impressive that this family has chosen to tell their story over and over, rather than fall into silent despair.

The purpose of our visits is to show support and give hugs. Tears flowed on both sides along with our embraces.

After lunch in one of my favorite places – Jaffa – we participated in a moving Havdalah in Hostage Square. We were invited into a crowded tent with posters of hostages’ faces, closing Shabbat with their friends and families, alongside our friends in the Reform Jewish Community – another emotional moment experienced through hugs and tears.

As much as I love Tel Aviv and Jaffa, I never feel like I’m in Israel until I see Jerusalem from Mount Scopus. WHC’s favorite tour guide in Israel, Yael Friedman, invited Rabbi Shankman and me to join her for dinner. She drove us to a tasty restaurant on Mount Scopus overlooking Jerusalem at night. Breathtaking! Yael shared her experiences of October 7th. She was flying nonstop home and her plane was diverted to Warsaw where she was told that they’d get her on a flight home in a week. Her experience as a tour guide advocating for her guests served her well to get herself home. She convinced someone to get her on a flight home the next day.

Traumatic as that was, she now lives a life, not as a tour guide, but temporarily as a woman dedicated to taking care of her family at home. Her husband is serving in Gaza, and her daughter is on the front lines. She is hopeful and looks forward to any Shabbat they can come home to celebrate together. She talked about the way she, her children, and her parents are coping. She is engaged in an online Master’s program, agreeing that it’s as much for learning as distraction. Yael is beautiful and her smile through her tears is somehow comforting.

In our WHC tradition, we participated in an agricultural project. I don’t think I’ll ever look at a cucumber the same way. Our team — Rabbi Shankman, Jim Salander, and I sorted the cukes by grade and then arranged them in “perfect “ rows in clean boxes ready for supermarkets. Despite the torrential downpour, our group was protected from the rain and proudly sorted and packed 4,000 pounds for distribution in Israel.

Tomorrow will bring more conversations, learning, tears and hugs, and more hours traveling on the bus. I’m looking forward to all of it – and shopping with Rabbi Shankman!