I write to you with a heavy heart from Jerusalem, our Holy City. Of all my dozens of trips to Israel, this one has certainly been unique. I knew it was going to be different when we were asked to sign a release form before dinner on the first evening!
I am here with some 20 Federation leaders from around the United States on a 72 hour Solidarity Mission, and this first 48 hours have been intense and informative. Our presence here has been deeply appreciated by all of the Israelis we’ve met.
We arrived Sunday late afternoon, and were briefed in the evening by Arnon Mantver, Director General of Joint Distribution Committee, and Alan Hoffman, Director General of Jewish Agency For Israel, about the work their agencies are doing on our behalf to support vulnerable communities and victims of these terror attacks. We also received a security briefing regarding our own safety on this visit, and learned the key Hebrew words in Israel these days– “Tzeva Adom,” which means “Red Alert,” the call on the radio and on loudspeakers whenever a missile strike is imminent.
Today (Monday), we had a breakfast briefing with Mark Regev, International Media Advisor to Prime Minister Netanyahu. He gave us the Israeli government’s perspective on the current crisis, a history of the events leading to this conflict, and an outline of some possible directions the conflict could go from here.
Then we headed out to the danger zone. Half of the group headed to Kiryat Malachi to extend condolences to the family who lost loved ones in the attack last week, and the other half of the group traveled to Kiryat Gat to visit with a family whose home was hit by a rocket last week as well. The family had heard about our struggles with Hurricane Sandy, and the husband emphasized how bolstered he felt to know that Jews around the world cared about what had happened to his family.
We made our way to the Ibim Absorption Center near Sderot, where we heard about the ongoing efforts to welcome new Ethiopian immigrants to Israel. Some of those immigrants arrived from Gondor, Ethiopia less than three days before the rockets began to fall. I asked Fasil Kassa, one new immigrant, through an Amharak translator, if he and his family of 7 were scared with all the rockets falling around his new home, and he said, “no, not at all. Having served in the Ethiopian Army, this is nothing.” His determined and quietly defiant attitude was one we’d hear from other Israelis throughout the day. During our time at Ibim, we heard 3 separate calls of Tzeva Adom, and heard the Iron Dome anti-missile system take out incoming rockets. We could also hear Israeli military strikes hitting targets in Gaza.
From Ibim, we moved just a mile or two down the road to Sderot where we visited an indoor playground, hardened against missile strikes. Over 100 families were playing and spending time in this shelter/playground, and here again we heard “Tzeva Adom” and were quickly rushed into deep shelters in the building along with all of the families.
On the road from Sderot to Sha’ar HaNegev, we suddenly heard the distinct sound of the Iron Dome system deploying very nearby. The van driver quickly pulled to the side of the road, where we rushed to exit the vehicle and lay face down by the side of the road. We made it just in time to see the anti-missile system hit its target. It is clear that the “Bronze Kippah” (Iron Dome’s Hebrew name) has saved many Israeli lives. It was a deeply scary moment for us, and we recognize that millions of Israelis are living in that fear every hour of every day.
Upon arrival at Sha’ar HaNegev, we were greeted by the mayor of the Regional Council, and we heard moving testimony from the Director and staff of the Israel Trauma Coalition. Having just worked in New Jersey with first responders as a Disaster Chaplain, I recognized in one particular care-giver the early signs of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. The challenge is, of course, that her stress is ongoing. Her family lives in the danger zone, and she’s trying to be a professional caregiver to other victims of this terror.
From Sha’ar HaNegev, we visited Moshav Arugot, which has an independent living center for some 100 Israelis. The JDC is supporting these vulnerable people, most of whom live in homes with no safe room. Most of them can’t make it either to the fantastic day center they usually spend their time at, or even to the local shelter in the 45 short seconds folks at the Moshav have between the call of Tzeva Adom and the landing of missile.
We headed back to Jerusalem for debriefing after a long day.
There is so much to think about and reflect on regarding just this one day, and there’s whole other days still to come when we head to Ashkelon, the single most-targeted city in Israel today by these rockets.
There is a lot of haze surround the political challenges of this conflict, and that’s a haze we all need to keep working though. But what is clear from today is how much our Israeli brothers and sisters need our emotional, spiritual, and financial support.