Reflections from President & CEO Rabbi Aaron Lerner: Our Hearts Are Aching

Israel has profoundly touched so many of our lives. For me, my time b’aretz (in Israel) changed the direction of my life at least twice.

My first encounter with our Jewish homeland was on a Birthright trip with Hillel. The experience solidified my identity as I committed to living a fuller Jewish life. There was just something about being surrounded by Hebrew and the fulfillment of a Jewish yearning to return to the land of our ancestors that made me feel part of a much greater movement.

After graduating college, I returned to Israel, stumbling into a yeshiva experience that taught me to love Jewish learning. And during a year studying at Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem, I met the love of my life, Rachel.

My time there overlapped with the second intifada, a terror-filled time in Israel’s history. The hotels were empty. Ben Yehuda Street in downtown Jerusalem was a ghost town. And soldiers, like my younger brother, were fighting terrorists in Gaza and the West Bank.

In response, Israel built a massive separation barrier from the West Bank, evacuated Jewish settlements in Gaza, and began to rely on a security apparatus that was supposed to be the most advanced in the world.

During the relatively calm period that followed, I relished bringing groups to Israel, especially non-Jewish students seeing it for the first time. I vividly recall an Ethiopian Christian crying joyously as we ascended to Jerusalem because she believed that just stepping foot in the holy city guarantees a place in heaven.

And then it all came crashing down on October 7. Nearly two decades of relative quiet lulled us into a fantasy — that we could live in the most dangerous neighborhood and still enjoy relative security. That our youth could dance at raves next to enemy territory. That the Iron Dome would intercept all rockets. That we could live and travel freely, bring students on Birthright trips, and imagine a future peace.

Israel will recover. It will rise back up. And it will need our help to do so.

It will need our moral support, our constant words of encouragement, our advocacy, and especially our financial backing.

The Foundation immediately understood this would be unlike any crisis response in recent history. We started by making institutional grants to assist Israel and quickly marshaled our resources to advise donors on how to help most effectively.

There are many smart and dedicated experts in nonprofits addressing everything from trauma to combatting pro-Hamas messages on social media. Our job as philanthropists is to identify and support those and many other efforts on behalf of Israel.

The Foundation’s donor family has responded so generously to ensure Israel’s recovery and to address the increasingly brazen antisemitism right here at home. Thank you and todah rabbah! With our help, the days of trips to Israel for college students will return. With our funding, Israeli youth with PTSD will recover. And with our love, we will grow stronger as am echad b’lev echad — one people who share the same heart