Northbrook rabbi travels to Israel to show support, unity

NORTHBROOK — A rabbi from one of the North Shore’s largest Jewish congregations is in Israel this week to show support for Israeli government actions in Gaza.

Forty-year-old Aaron Melman, assistant rabbi for Congregation Beth Shalom of Northbrook, landed in Israel late Sunday night as part of a joint Rabbinical Assembly and Masorti movement gathering. He planned to fly back to O’Hare International Airport Thursday, but said Tuesday those plans might be altered if a temporary FAA ban on U.S. flights into and out of Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion International Airport is expanded.

On Tuesday morning, a rocket landed about a mile from the airport, which is about 50 miles north of an increasingly bloodied Gaza.

Fighting between Hamas and Israel intensified Tuesday amid a rising chorus of international protests and high-level international calls for a cease-fire. The Palestinian death toll was said to be about 600, with Israeli deaths approaching 30.

“This trip essentially came together Tuesday of last week,” said Melman, co-chair of the gathering, which includes dozens of rabbis from Israel and the U.S. Melman is the only rabbi from the Chicago area who is in Israel as part of this Conservative Jewish group.

“We are here for the purpose of showing solidarity to our brothers and sisters here in Israel. We are visiting our Masorti congregations, bringing them strength from abroad and showing them that not only are they in our thoughts and prayers, but we are demonstrating with our feet by being here — side by side with them — during this difficult time for the entire country,” Melman said.

Traveling through southern Israel Tuesday, Melman and others in the group responded to the wail of sirens warning of the possibility that a rocket might strike nearby.

“There were two sirens while we were on the bus in Beersheva and sirens in Sderot,” he said. “If you are on a bus, you get low, below window level, so that should anything explode nearby, the glass will fall on you rather than burst into you.”

In Sderot, the group headed to a shelter.

“This is not the first time I’ve experienced being in a shelter in Israel,” said Melman, who endured similar experiences when visiting Israel during the Lebanon war, and added that he was not concerned about his personal safety.

During the trip, group members were scheduled to meet with yeshiva students and, on Wednesday, with leaders of the Knesset, Israel’s legislative branch, as well as the minister of justice. They also planned to visit the graves of the three Israeli teens kidnapped and murdered in June, allegedly by members of militant Hamas, which has overrun Gaza.

The cemetery visit was canceled Tuesday, however, as other funerals were taking place.

While traveling through Israel, the grim reality of ongoing fighting has been apparent, Melman said.

“It’s evident that people are more stressed. People are trying to get used to a new normal. They’re adjusting their lives,” he said. “It’s unclear what the psychological toll is having on people. I imagine the longer it goes on, the greater it will be.”

Melman said that he is aware of reports of rising anti-Israeli sentiment and scattered protests in the United States and Europe, but added that he believed he was bearing witness to unprecedented solidarity.

“I am not hearing anything negative about the government or about the operation (in Gaza). The unity of the people in this country is something I’ve not seen to this level before. Everyone understands the reality of Hamas building tunnels and rockets for the sole purpose of killing civilians,” he said. “The Israeli government has had no choice but to respond to keep their citizens safe.”

Melman said he has been keeping members of Temple Beth Shalom updated on his travels via email and social media. Along with the congregation, Melman’s wife, Elisa, and two young children also have been supportive of his trip, he added.

“The outpouring of support for my participation and for my coming here at this time honestly has been overwhelming, though I am not surprised because my community is an amazing one,” he said. “I’ll write another email tonight. The support honors me greatly and humbles me deeply.”

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