In Awe and Admiration… 

On Wednesday morning, June 9, we began our day very bright and early. We were on our way to Washington DC for two days that would turn out to be extraordinarily awe-inspiring for our soldiers and our Chabad Terror Victims Project staff. 

LMIj4324361.jpgOn Wednesday we toured the capital, visiting fascinating and diverse sites that included the Capitol Building, the Airspace Museum, the Engraving and Printing Museum. 

Then, when we began our tour of the Holocaust Memorial Museum, the mood changed completely. It became somber and reflective. Everyone spoke in hushed voices as the reality of what was before our eyes penetrated our souls. Our soldiers and our CTVP staff were deeply moved by all that we saw. It was surely a time for deep introspection and memory, a time none of us will ever forget.

Maor, one of our soldiers captured succinctly what this experience in the Holocaust Memorial Museum meant for our soldiers when he said the following, which brought tears to the eyes of many: “This is exactly what we soldiers fight for, to be certain that nothing like this can ever occur again. The loss of my arm’s use was worth the sacrifice.” 

Maor’s words resonated deeply as we all recognized theimportance of what he was saying for Israel and for the Jewish people. We all owe enormous gratitude to these courageous young people who give so very much.

Wednesday also saw us visiting Arlington Military Cemetery which surely touched the hearts of the soldiers. They too have lost friends in battle and to see the honor accorded those lost in war in the United States was a moving experience for them. They remembered their own fallen comrades as they quietly and reverently visited the places where other heroes were buried.

Wednesday night was capped with a delicious dinner and then a tour of Georgetown that everyone thoroughly enjoyed.

And on Thursday we toured the White House. rTLb4324365.jpg

We were given a VIP tour. 

It’s hard to find the right words to express what it meant for our soldiers to be in the very place in which the President of the United States lives and works. The place where so many decisions are made that affect the United States and Israel and their important friendship. 

Then we were given a wonderfully warm welcome to the United States by officials in the Israeli Embassy. Uri Bar-Lev, Senior Israel Police Attaché to the United States, was the first to address our group. A sabra himself, he was able to relate directly to the soldiers and what they have gone through. He lost a leg while serving his country and understood the suffering the soldiers have undergone. As he spoke to us about the uniqueness of the Israeli army, he said, “Every Israeli knows what it means to be a soldier, because everyone has a family member who has fought in the army. Israel’s army is like one family. Our soldiers fight on Israeli land, on Israel’s very borders, and therefore our victories are vital.” 

RHoE4324355.jpgAs he spoke you could see the soldiers nodding in agreement, appreciating all that he had to say because it was about them and about their lives. And it was from someone who had stood in the very same place they stand today. 

Also present was Senior IDF (Israel Defense Forces) Attaché to the United States, Gadi Shadmi. He spoke of how he had read each of the soldier’s personal stories before they came and felt like he knew each one of them. He said he felt humbled to be in the presence of such great heroes of Israel and thanked them for their great sacrifices on behalf of Israel and the Jewish People. 

Rabbi Menachem Kutner also expressed the awe he feels for these extraordinary young men. He knew them already from Chabad Terror Victims Project’s day to day work with them, but this trip has afforded him an even more personal look into their lives and the admiration he felt before has increased substantially. 

With the broad range of emotions the Washington leg of our trip generated, we climbed aboard the busses again at 2:00 on Thursday, heading back to New York. 

It was a long ride but we were rewarded by a very special and delicious dinner prepared in the offices of one of our hosts. From there we toured Manhattan a bit more and finally fell into bed exhausted but exhilarated at the same time. 

Friday morning: after another delicious breakfast, we boarded buses and traveled to the Rebbe’s OheltrRv4326350.jpg (the gravesite of the Lubavitcher Rebbe). Everyone had been looking forward eagerly to this part of the trip. 

Rabbi Kutner rode on the bus with the soldiers and Rabbi Fogelman met them there and welcomed them. He took them into a room where he explained the holiness of this place. How people have come here from all over the world to ask for blessings. 

Then the soldiers were ushered into another room where they quietly and solemnly wrote their individual notes asking for their personal blessings. It was explained to them that before they went in to ask for their blessing, it was customary to do a mitzvah. Some chose to give tzedakah, others to put on tefillin.

One soldier put on tefillin for the first time since his Bar Mitzvah. He said that he was moved to do so because he felt the holiness all around him. 

Then together they went into the Ohel itself. Inside Rabbi Kutner read aloud a letter in the name of all the soldiers, mentioning their names and the names of their mothers, and requesting a bracha for them, for the protection of Israel, and for all Klal Yisroel (the Jewish people worldwide). 

The soldiers then quietly said their own personal tefillos and read their letters. 

They left the Ohel one by one. Their faces radiated the experience they had just undergone. One of the soldiers said he was so moved that he was literally left speechless. He just hadn’t expected to feel what he did. They all agreed that this was surely the highlight of the trip. 

VlId4326386.jpgThen everyone boarded the bus again and we went to Crown Heights, to 770 Eastern Parkway. Here the soldiers were brought into the Rebbe’s private room. Rabbi Kutner told them of the holiness of this place and the Torah learned there. How so many people came to this room from all over to ask for brachas. 

Then we went to the Rebbe’s shul where Rabbi Kutner described to the soldiers what it was like to celebrate the holidays and Shabbat here with the Rebbe. It was an experience, Rabbi Kutner said, that lasts until today. 

While the soldiers were in the shul they spontaneously began to sing, Am Yisrael Chai (the Jewish People live) and broke into a joyous circle dance with Rabbis Fogelman, Kutner and Vigler. Everyone there began clapping and it was a moment of happiness and celebration to be savored. 

Lunch took place in a Crown Heights restaurant and from there the soldiers went back to Manhattan for some free touring time.

As the sun descended in the sky on Friday afternoon, preparations were being made in a large gym, secured by Rabbi Vigler, for the 250 people expected to bring in Shabbat with the soldiers and the Chabad Terror Victims Project staff.

The past three days have been extraordinary for all of us. When our Chabad Terror Victims Project staff was preparing for this trip, we never could have imagined how moving and awe-inspiring it would be. Our gratitude goes to Rabbi Vigler and his community for all that they have done to show our heroes how deeply they are loved and appreciated. 

We’ll catch up with you again on Sunday. We’re looking forward to kayaking and fishing and much more on Sunday. 

Shabbat Shalom. May we all have a peaceful and joyous Shabbat.

(Photos by Bentzi Sasson)