By Martin Nachimson
I write these words at the end of July, in the midst of a tumultuous summer—a summer unlike any I can recall in recent years. During these days and weeks of turmoil in which Jews the world over check the news from Israel every hour, the four simple words “Acheinu kol Beit Yisrael” have taken on a whole new meaning for me.
So many have noted the overwhelming sense of unity and togetherness felt from all corners of the Jewish world. But I want to recount the achdut that I, as president of the OU, have been privileged to see.
I saw achdut in a solidarity mission pulled together by the OU—remarkably, in a mere twenty-four hours. To the credit of some of our incredible staff members, including Rabbi Avi Berman, executive director of OU Israel, and Rabbi Judah Isaacs, OU director of community engagement, some fifty participants including prominent men and women as well as rabbis from OU shuls across the United States dropped everything at a moment’s notice to fly to Israel. They left their responsibilities—their families and their jobs—for four frenzied days for one reason only: to show the people of Israel that we have not forsaken them, that we are with them one hundred, one thousand, percent.
I saw achdut in the memorable Shabbat the mission members, led by Rabbi Steven Weil, OU senior managing director, and Rabbi Dr. Tzvi Hersh Weinreb, OU executive vice president, emeritus, spent with the brave and inspiring people of Sderot, the embattled city that bears the brunt of Hamas brutality. Housed for Shabbat at Yeshivat Hesder of Sderot, under the guidance of the indefatigable Rabbi David Fendel who insists on not leaving the city in the face of ongoing attacks, participants experienced a three-hour-long, deeply meaningful Kabbalat Shabbat service. Along with hundreds of yeshivah boys and soldiers, the latter of which was comprised of both religious and non-religious young men mostly from the Gefen Brigade, the visitors sang and danced against the background noise of war in an extraordinary atmosphere of ahavat Yisrael and togetherness.
I saw achdut in the endless stream of packages sent to the makeshift army bases located throughout southern Israel. Jews from across the spectrum—from Gerrer Chassidim to secular hipsters—kept up a constant flow of food packages and clothing for the grateful but exhausted soldiers.
Who in these trying times does not feel a strong bond of brotherhood, a deep sense of shared destiny?
I saw achdut when 20,000 Jews attended the levayah of IDF soldier Nissim Sean Carmeli, a lone soldier from South Padre Island, Texas. A heartfelt plea posted on Facebook called upon Maccabi Haifa soccer club fans to “do a mitzvah and attend the funeral of fallen IDF soldier Nissim Sean Carmeli, so that his funeral will not be empty.” Who could have imagined that so many would respond?
That same terrible day, Max Steinberg, a lone soldier from California, gave his life for his country, for his people. Inspired by Birthright, Max made aliyah two years ago. He found his place in Israel, his mission in the IDF, though he had no family in Israel. But in truth, he did have family—30,000 of his family members came to honor and say goodbye to Max, a soldier they never knew but whom they loved nonetheless.
I saw achdut in the aftermath of the devastating kidnapping of three young innocent boys, when religious and secular came together to pray at bus stations, at prayer rallies, and even in the Knesset.
Months prior to the kidnapping, Israeli society was in the throes of internal conflict. In this atmosphere of ahavat Yisrael that permeates the Jewish people nowadays, it is difficult to recall the bitter strife that threatened to divide the Jewish nation.
Are we a changed people? Have the events of the past few months changed us in a profound way?
Sukkot, known as a holiday of unity, is approaching. One of the central rituals of the holiday is taking the arba minim, the Four Species, together in one bundle and making a blessing over them. What is the meaning behind this ritual? The midrash explains that the Four Species represent four kinds of Jews. The etrog, which has both a wonderful taste and aroma, represents the ideal Jew who possesses both Torah and good deeds. The lulav, whose fruit (dates) have taste but no aroma, represents one who has Torah knowledge but lacks good deeds. The hadas, which possesses scent but lacks taste, represents the individual with good deeds but whose Torah education is deficient. Finally, the tasteless, scentless aravah represents the Jew who lacks both Torah and good deeds.
What is the message of the arba minim? That all Jews—despite our differences—comprise the whole.
I hope and pray that we can internalize the message of Sukkot, that this chaotic summer will have irrevocably changed us. I hope and pray that achdut will remain the eternal legacy of Eyal Yifrach, Naftali Fraenkel and Gil-Ad Shaar, H”yd, who unknowingly set all of this in motion. Despite the fact that their lives ended almost before they began, they left us a precious gift that we barely knew we had—the knowledge that we can achieve extraordinary levels of unity, that we can be k’ish echad, b’lev echad once again. Am Yisrael chai.