Reflections on a Day with Operation Torah Shield’s Winter Mission
There was no one in the pool when we first came outside. In Jerusalem, from where we had left, it was chilly and wet; in Ein Bokek, where we had arrived, it was warmer, yet a calm, content gray illustrated the sky. Some of the hotel’s residents lounged around in the lobby, but a larger crowd met us in the patio and turf area facing the beach. A couple of the older individuals were sitting on the reclining chairs, and yet, the pool remained empty.
I didn’t quite catch the name of the little girl who kept on climbing on me. I knew that with her at the hotel was a slightly younger sister (confusingly wearing the same sweater as she), a mother and a newborn sibling. The dog, Messi, was there, too. Her family, like all the others there, had been displaced since the start of the war; the first person I spoke to, an older woman speaking rapidly, had lamented how hard the nights are when her family tried and often failed to carve space in the hotel room that’s replaced their home for the third straight month. When I suggested to the girl, after some time running around with her on my shoulders, that we sit down and play with the dog, she gave an emphatic “Lo!,” and, even though my Hebrew is wildly imperfect, I felt confident I understood what that meant.
When I first met the girl, she was playing a Hebrew game of Memory, where each word matched with a letter in the alphabet. She had an air of distance, an iron curtain for a face; the handful of our students who had amicably stayed by her side to play, try as gracefully and wonderfully as they did, couldn’t quite get her to break out of an apparently persistent solemn temperament.
When I got back to Jerusalem I was thinking about why I had found more success with her; why I, out of the students who had spoken to this girl, had gotten her excited and bubbly. I’m not presumptuous enough to think that I’m particularly great with younger kids, or that I had consciously acted in such a way that made me a more appealing figure to play with, a target to jump on.
This past Shabbos, after I already got back to New Jersey, in that awkward hour between shul ending and lunch starting, I heard my parents welcome in a friend for a few minutes, all speaking about said friend’s recent trip to Israel. From what I overheard (admittedly very little), he had woken up at dawn for two weeks straight, hopped on a bus and worked on a farm, sifting through lettuce for hours on end.
In my more pessimistic moments, I’ll think about myself as a cog in the white-American volunteering savior complex — that idea that, while attempting to craft an image of charity and righteousness, the white individual, whether knowingly or unknowingly, perverts what may be an objective good deed into an opportunity for self-promotion, both externally and internally. I’ve seen Instagram posts of people I know working in far-off countries with lower socioeconomic standing, posting pictures with children born into tragic circumstances, attempting both to convince those who follow them (and, perhaps, the poster his/herself) of their goodness, and to bring, in a genuine way, some sort of beneficial presence or activity from someone from an ostensibly more stable background.
It would be easier (and certainly morally less thorny) for me to approach this article from the perspective of that Instagram poster, using an image of me and that little girl and writing about how I’m happy and grateful to have that opportunity to bring some semblance of joy to her life. (Selfishly, I, clearly, still decided on using the photo: I’ll say it’s ironic.) I found myself using that justification in advance of even going on the mission: when someone I know approached me at Nitzanim that morning and told me what they thought “real chessed” was, I found myself, defensively, using my aforementioned line of reasoning.
And yet, when we left the hotel, still no one went in the pool. It was becoming darker and cooler and you could feel the pre-rain condensation in the air. Messi had gone inside; no one wanted to play with him near that patio area. By the bus, a question I hadn’t yet thought of roared in my mind: when was the last time that little girl climbed on someone’s shoulders? When will it happen again?
In truth, I don’t believe myself to have any novel or insightful thoughts about that day in Ein Bokek. I don’t think there’s some hidden undercurrent of a wholly subtle and profound concept that we haven’t, as a collective, touched upon in our reflections on these kinds of missions. More than anything, it’s about the act of having met that little girl at all more than what I left with her. As an American, it was the act of feeling accomplished, not necessarily by my raw involvement in the mission, but the active attempt, and perhaps even struggle, at generating empathy the mission naturally inspires. She will, I imagine, not remember me by the next day; yet, even without a name, I remember how she’d try tackling me before climbing on my shoulders, how emphatic her “Lo!” sounded, how she wouldn’t come down because she may not have known when she’d go back up. It’s hard to forget all of these things, even though, by the time we left, the pool was still empty.
Photo Caption: A young girl climbs on me during our day at Ein Bokek
Photo Credit: Sam Weinberg