It is 5:45 on Shabbat afternoon, and I'm scheduled to speak in just a few minutes to a large suburban congregation in the US. Before the rabbi introduces me, however, he announces that there has been another suicide bomber in Jerusalem, near the Mirrer yeshiva, and at least nine Jews are dead.
(It is amazing how fast news from Israel reaches Jews in America, even on Shabbat when Orthodox Jews do not listen to radio or answer the phone.)
I have an immediate flashback to a conversation over the Shabbat table a few hours earlier. I started to ask a fellow guest with experience in Israeli security issues whether he had ever thought about the extreme vulnerability of Jerusalem's religious neighborhoods.
Before I completed the question, however, I stopped. "Don't open your mouth before the Angel of Death," goes the traditional wisdom. With so many existing horror stories to discuss, there seemed no point talking about potential new ones.
Little did we know then that the theoretical had already become real.
There are approximately 1,500 Americans studying in Mirrer Yeshiva. Many of the congregants undoubtedly have children or close relatives studying in the yeshiva. By the time we finish the evening prayer service and recite special Psalms for the injured, it will be too late to call Israel. We will have to wait many hours before contacting loved ones.
After havdala (the prayer denoting the end of Shabbat), my hostess is full of questions: How do your children deal with this? Are they scared? Do they have nightmares?
But I'm barely listening. In her questions, I hear only an accusation: You deserted your family. I should be home with my wife trying to provide the younger children at least with some sense of security, even though I know (and they probably do as well) that there is little I can do to protect them.
Saturday night, I face another grim-faced audience. Every person in the room has a deep personal connection to Israel - many live there much of the year, or have children living there. But for now, we are all "over here" contemplating what is going on "over there" with a gnawing sense of dread.
(It never ceases to amaze me how quickly Israel becomes "over there." No matter how many times an hour one checks the news, as soon as you are off the plane a certain distance sets in. A friend who was in America when the Sbarro suicide bombing took place told me how embarrassed she was to hear herself asking her daughter to turn off CNN and find something more entertaining.)
It's not hard to tell what is on everybody's mind. The feeling that Israel's existence ensures Jews will never again be defenseless - that Holocaust and exile are things of the past - has infiltrated even those Orthodox circles that do not invest the state with theological significance.
But doubts are beginning to set in: Can we really be so sure that we will never again have to flee?
I see on my listeners' faces the question: Is this how it was for the Jews of Europe in the Thirties? Did they gradually adjust to each new deterioration in their situation until they could no longer see the direction in which events were headed?
On each visit to Israel, American Jews are struck by how much worse things have gotten. The downtown of our capital is deserted, the airport virtually empty, a major new highway barely used due to fear of drive-by shootings, and proud "new Jews" have surrounded themselves with barbed wire and entered ghettos of their own making.
As Israel continues to respond in an ad hoc fashion, without any clear strategy, the sense of helplessness both among its citizens and among world Jewry grows. To act rashly is to risk a situation even worse than the present. But not to act at all creates a feeling of impotence and demoralization, which itself constitutes defeat.
To the implicit question "Why doesn't Sharon do something?" I try to explain how much more complicated matters appear from the prime minister's seat than over the Shabbat morning kiddush.
Israel does not manufacture F-16s, I note, and cannot afford over the long-run to alienate America. More important, the prime minister can act decisively only if he knows that nation is behind him.
If the Palestinians were to see 30% of Jewish soldiers refusing to serve in an "army of occupation," their aspirations will soar. Yet with opposition leader Yossi Sarid calmly explaining every new atrocity as the logical consequence of the "occupation," Sharon cannot be sure this will not happen.
Those who demanded the end of the "occupation" of Lebanon on the grounds that the situation there was intolerable have succeeded only in creating an even more intolerable situation. More Jews are now murdered in a day than were killed in a year in Lebanon.
One shudders to think what murderous Palestinian appetites would be whetted by another withdrawal under fire.
Still, despite all the concerns for the future, everywhere I go parents insist that they will send their sons and daughters to yeshiva or seminary next year. A very wealthy acquaintance tells me that his whole family is moving to Israel - where no amount of money can ensure safety - in time for the new school year.
And one of my closest friends has already sold his house in preparation for this summer's aliya.
They are coming because they recognize that in Israel it is still possible to live the most intensely Jewish life, and their resolve will strengthen all of us. But they are also coming because, in some crazy way, they do not want to witness Jews in danger from afar.
One Purim, the Klausenberger Rebbe spoke to his hassidim of the Holocaust. The Rebbe never saw his wife and 11 children after they arrived in Auschwitz. Yet he told his followers, "Thank God, that when Jews suffered so terribly that I suffered with them and was not spared."
A trace of that same identification with the suffering of Klal Yisrael still burns today.