Last week, I had the most impactful days of my life in Israel. I participated in a two-day solidarity mission to Israel with about a dozen international lay leaders of Birthright.

It is so important to those who we met with that they share what they experienced and that, in turn, we all share what we learned as broadly as possible. They are asking us to bear witness to the atrocities and trauma they have and are continuing to experience. And I need to honor those requests by sharing what I saw and heard.

Like everyone, I have been glued to the daily news reports since October 7th. But I did not anticipate how much more powerful, meaningful, and emotional it would be to see the devastation first-hand and to hear the stories face to face from those who were so directly and deeply impacted.

The first striking observation upon arriving in Israel is that it was eerily quiet. Ben Gurion was empty. There was very little traffic, hotels were empty, except for those housing displaced people, and the streets were empty. I have never been in a country that is at war – this is what it looks and feels like.

An Israeli flag flies high in a kibbutz in Southern Israel following the October 7 attack

As a Jew, it felt good to be on the ground in Israel at this time. The first thing I did when I woke up on Monday morning was walk to the Kotel. It was early but the Old City felt/was deserted. I have never been there when the walkways in the Old City were so eerily quiet. It was very meaningful to pray at the wall at this time.

To provide some geographic context, all areas 7km from the Gaza border and 9km from the Northern border have been evacuated. Hundreds of thousands have been displaced from their homes.

We visited two evacuated kibbutzim on the Gaza border, Kfar Azza and Alumim. Kfar Azza had 57 killed and 18 hostages, 7 of which were small children. I don’t recall the number of deaths at Alumim but it was a lot, including the butchering of 20 of their 30 Thai workers.

We were led through the kibbutzim by members of the civilian defense teams who valiantly tried to defend their kibbutz for many hours before the IDF arrived. These were not active IDF soldiers. At Alumim, the civilian defense member was a brain science professor at Bar Ilan University who was called into action to protect his kibbutz. The members of these teams are true heroes.

A bloodstained bedroom in the home of a Kibbutz in Southern Israel following the October 7 attack

They walked us through areas of bullet-ridden houses, blood-stained walls, and structures that were completely burnt out. And they described the inhumane carnage that occurred. The feeling of visiting these kibbutzim was similar to that of walking through a concentration camp with a survivor describing what happened in each location.

Our guides were clearly broken and permanently scared.

But, as I mentioned earlier, it is important to them that we see and hear what happened and that we share this with others.

Just to remind us that we were in a war zone, we were regularly startled by very loud booms that we both heard and felt – we were quickly reassured that these were from Israeli artillery.

We visited Sderot, a city of 35,000 that has also been evacuated. Fierce battles also took place there. We visited the site of the police station where officers bravely fought and died and where, ultimately, the IDF flattened the building with the terrorists inside.

We were warned that if there was a siren, there is no Iron Dome protection, as the batteries have been moved to protect the troops. Therefore, people in Sderot have 10 to 12 seconds to get to a shelter.

Initially, there were around 2,500 who stayed behind after the evacuation order and now there are around 7 or 8 thousand – all living without Iron Dome protection. Why? Because they have nowhere else to go.

The mayor of Sderot is an incredible person who is working 24/7 to support his displaced community. Long term, his biggest concern post-war is how they will convince people to come back to Sderot.

He also spoke about how important Birthright trips are to the businesses in Sderot. Most Birthright trips visit Sderot and the kibbutzim in the South and their economic impact is tremendous. He cannot wait for our trips to resume.

One of the actions that Birthright has undertaken is to provide people just outside of the evacuation zones with a week of housing in hotels in safer areas. Dedicated funds for this effort have been raised.

We met with a number of these displaced people. They all shared their stories of anxiety, of living in fear, the constant sirens, and the trauma that they and their children feel. They were so thankful for the week of respite that Birthright is providing them. Again, they wanted us to share their stories with others.

We met with the mother and father of Hersh Goldberg-Polin, who lost an arm in the carnage at the music festival and was taken hostage in Gaza. Hersh’s parents put on a brave face and have been working 24/7 to raise awareness about the hostages and to put pressure on the parties negotiating for their release. And again, they asked that we spread the word.

I never felt unsafe while in Israel and everyone was very calm when the sirens went off and we were in shelters. But I felt I got the true Israeli experience of being in a war zone when a siren went off on the way to the airport and we were lying flat on the side of the road by the concrete barrier while hoping that the shrapnel from the Iron Dome interception would fall somewhere else.

I share these stories because I want to honor the requests of the traumatized people who shared them with us and who asked us to share them broadly.

I appreciate that we all are doing a tremendous amount to help Israel right now. These stories provide context for what we will have to focus on for the “day after.” That is when resuming Birthright trips will play a critical role in the healing process in Israel and abroad. So therefore, we need to do the work now to be prepared to send as many young adults to Israel as possible when it is safe to do so.

For Israel, the resumption of trips will mean thousands of young adults walking around throughout the country and showing their solidarity with, and their love for, the Jewish homeland.

And for the young adults who have now experienced some level of antisemitism, many for the first time, it will be so important for them to travel together to Israel and reconnect with their Judaism, the Jewish community, and their homeland.

It is also important that our young adults hear first-hand some of the stories I did. And then come back home and fulfill the same promise that I’m doing right now — to share these stories with their friends — both Jews and non-Jews.

That’s the role that Birthright Israel will play in the aftermath of the war.