Local rabbi recalls recent trip to Israel amid fighting

The latest cease fire between Israel and Hamas has been shattered, and violence is once again erupting in the Middle East. It is a sad but familiar tale that had Am Shalom Rabbi Steven Lowenstein feeling compelled to visit the troubled region in early August.

He went to Israel to take part in a bar mitzvah of a local family. The ceremony was at the top of Masada in southern Israel, where 900 Jews escaped the destruction of Jerusalem and held out for three years in the first century A.D. It is now a popular tourist attraction.

Lowenstein estimated the temperatures to be well above 100 degrees for the ceremony, but the heat was a small side aspect to the greater symbolism.

“Where a young man read the Torah, beautifully reaffirming his commitment to a modern Jewish state on top of this ancient mountain, it combined the old and the new.” Lowenstein said.

While he was there for less than 48 hours, he said his roughly 40th trip to Israel also included a trip to Har Herzl Military Cemetery [Israel’s national cemetery] where he saw the graves of soldiers who had recently been killed in Gaza and whose names had just been read at Sabbath services in Glencoe.

“It’s an image I will always carry with me,” Lowenstein said.

He described his experiences to an audience of about 35 in the Am Shalom library Aug. 11. This latest violence in the Middle East has left an estimated 67 Israelis and more than 2,000 Palestinians dead.

Lowenstein pointed to the tunnels in the Gaza Strip that were used by Hamas militants to enter Israel as a reason why this conflict does not resemble previous ones.

“Israel is now playing a very different war in a different theater,” he said. “The tunnels had to be dismantled.”

Despite the changing nature of this conflict, Lowenstein lauds the work of the Israeli military. “They are notorious for strong, quick and decisive actions,” he said. “That is what made Israeli soldiers what they are.”

At the same time, Lowenstein conceded Israel was not doing well in terms of public relations. “There is nothing worse than seeing children and there is nothing worse than seeing babies,” he acknowledged. “It is very apparent that Israel is getting bashed.”

Lowenstein feared this issue would only exacerbate feelings of bigotry that he believes are on the rise right now.

“There is a lot of Anti-Semitism in the world and there are a lot of people saying the Jews deserve this,” he said.

Moreover, he is not very optimistic about ever achieving peace with Hamas.

“They are not going to change their charter anytime soon,” he said. “It is about the destruction and annihilation of the Jewish people and the State of Israel. It is as clear as day what they want.”

The Am Shalom rabbi detected there isn’t a lot of support for the American government and the way the White House has handled the situation. “Kerry and Obama aren’t playing well in Israel right now,” he said.

Lowenstein was particularly dismayed that this latest setback in the elusive Mideast peace process comes at a time of great culture and civic activities throughout the country.

“Israel has so much going for it now,” he emphasized. “It is so alive, it is so thriving.”

Reaction to the Lowenstein speech was philosophical, bordering on melancholy.

Highland Park’s Phyllis Lebbin pointed out there are many Palestinians who have a different outlook than Hamas, yet their lives are being damaged because of the actions of the militant group.

“I keep wishing the other Palestinians would react to what has been done to them,” Lebbin said. “It is war versus good living conditions.”

Then there was the perspective of Holocaust survivor Margot Walton.

“Nothing was learned from six million Jews getting killed,” she said. “We have to support Israel.”

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