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Giving Israel’s IDF soldiers a “Really” Big Hug

The Sephardic Educational Center’s trip to Israel was filled with “Hakarat Ha-tov” for the IDF
[additional-authors]
June 4, 2024
Photo courtesy Neil Sheff

As I returned from the recent mission of the Sephardic Educational Center (SEC) to Israel, I couldn’t wait to get home and the emotions felt on our trip (over Yom Hazikaron and Yom Ha’atzmaut) to paper. So, I spent part of the flight home writing. Apparently I hit a chord because I’ve received so much positive feedback from that article, “Giving Israel a Big Hug,” which was the theme of our mission.

There were some other personal aspects of our trip that didn’t fit into my last article but were meaningful enough to share just the same. They stem from a Hebrew term that I love: “Hakarat Ha-tov” — to acknowledge or appreciate the good someone does for your benefit. The interactions I observed between the members of our group with IDF soldiers we met along the way was unlike any previous that I had ever observed. When we stopped for lunch at a gas station near Kibbutz Kfar Aza with a “makolet” (little market) to have our box lunches we had  brought from Jerusalem (sandwiches, veggies and fruits), there were several army vehicles with soldiers stopped nearby on a break. I was almost moved to tears when I saw one of our friends, Moussa Shaaya, basically buying out the store to give the soldiers bags of snacks and treats. Then our friend Pinny Sayegh bought the next group of soldiers their snacks; the soldiers tried to convince us it wasn’t necessary, but there was no use in them arguing! Other members of our group went to get all the sandwiches we had, along with the apples, and gave (or forced) each soldier to take some, like a mother making sure her child eats enough. “Thank you for your service” does not do this justice. These were like parents caring for their children and treating each soldier as a precious member of the family. We took photos together; well let’s say the ladies were more excited about the photos with these good-looking guys who just smiled and took it all in. A little respite from the stress of war.

At the site of the Nova festival, there were also soldiers stationed to the side. After visiting the site of the attacks, some of our group started to make conversation with the soldiers and joke with them to lift their spirits. Then our friend Moussa tried to give each soldier $100. Not sure if they accepted but this amazing act of kindness was just so moving to watch. Like parents sending their kids off on vacation, but we know these soldiers were having no vacation. More hugs, more photos, more invitations for them to come visit us in LA, more “Hakarat Ha-tov” — our version of “thank you for your service.”

Photo courtesy Neil Sheff

This scene repeated itself whenever we came across any soldiers. I’ve never seen such emotionally charged interactions with IDF soldiers. In the past, we knew they are doing their mandatory service and appreciated them for that. But now, they are in the most serious war of their lives and we were like parents biting our fingernails trying not to show how scared we were for them, but at the same time showering them with our love.

I’ve never seen such emotionally charged interactions with IDF soldiers. In the past, we knew they are doing their mandatory service and appreciated them for that. But now, they are in the most serious war of their lives and we were like parents biting our fingernails trying not to show how scared we were for them, but at the same time showering them with our love.

Meeting with Ilan Bouskila, an IDF reservist who has done two tours of duty in Gaza (so far) was not like meeting Rabbi and Peni Bouskila’s son, as we had done for so many years. This was different. He was OUR soldier fighting for us and we all felt like his and his wife Kayla’s parents. Our stomachs were in knots when he described what it was like to be fighting this war. Each one of these soldiers is now like our children. We pray for them. We opened our wallets, gave whatever they needed. The SEC’s Rica Emquies Israel Relief Fund has raised over $300,000 to distribute in Israel and Rabbi Bouskila and Peni spent countless days driving north and south to deliver food, clothing, food processors, washing machines, snacks, and equipment to any base where there was a need. All this has been for “Hakarat Ha-tov” for what these soldiers are doing for us, protecting our homeland and indeed battling a medieval barbarism that will not just stop at wiping Israel off the map, but threaten western civilization.

Photo courtesy Neil Sheff

I listened today to Bari Weiss interview Jerry Seinfeld on her podcast. Toward the end of the interview, Weiss asked Seinfeld about his recent trip to Israel and why it was so moving. There was a long pause. Jerry, the comedian we all love who has so much to say and keeps us laughing, is silent, obviously choked up, unable to say a word. That was the same feeling we had when we returned from Israel. There are just no words to describe it; the tears still flow. The only emotion we can express is performing any acts of “Hakarat Ha-tov,” for Israel, for the hostage families, for the soldiers and for the victims. The war is not over. Please continue to do what you can for Israel as your way of showing your appreciation, your Hakarat Ha-tov.


Neil J. Sheff is president of the Sephardic Educational Center and a practicing Immigration Attorney

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