Before a declared cease-fire between Israel and Hamas, Jewish Philadelphians spent the past week coming to the country's defense. Area day schools held special assemblies and prayer services, students sprang into action at local campuses and pro-Israel supporters turned out for a recent rally outside the Israeli Consulate.
Every Friday evening as part of Shabbat dinner, Debbie Albert and Glen Feinberg would bless their two sons, 16-year-old David and 12-year-old Noah.
The family ritual was interrupted somewhat when David Feinberg left at the end of August to spend three months studying in Israel. But last Friday, with rockets from Gaza raining down on southern Israel — and several fired in the direction of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem — the couple called their son right before they lit the Shabbat candles and put him on speaker for part of the meal.
He received a blessing from his parents while sitting halfway around the world.
“It meant more to us than every other Shabbas,” said Debbie Albert of Horsham, who also has spent time the past week calling members of Congress to thank them for their expressions of support for Israel.
For her son and his classmates, she said, this was to be the greatest trip of their lives. “But starting six days ago, it also became the most meaningful trip of their lives,” Albert said, adding that her son now “sounds like a young man. He doesn’t sound like the teenager we put on the plane.”
David Feinberg is one of 50 juniors at the Jack M. Barrack Hebrew Academy studying at the Alexander Muss High School in Israel based in Hod Hasharon, a town near Tel Aviv. The group is expected to return to Philadelphia on Nov. 29. So far, save for a bomb shelter drill, their routine has remained mostly unchanged.
Barrack parents are not the only local families with children or other relatives currently in Israel during the latest round of hostilities between Israel and Hamas. Several families interviewed expressed a mix of concern, anxiety and pride that their kin are in Israel at this time.
In the past week, since the start of Israel’s Pillar of Defense operation, hundreds of Gaza-based rockets have fallen inside Israel, most of them landing in non-residential areas. As of early this week, more than 90 Palestinians — terrorists and civilians — have been killed since the start of the operation. At least three Israeli civilians have been killed.
As the situation remained fluid, and prospects of an Israeli ground assault seemed as likely as a cease-fire, Jewish Philadelphians of all stripes were coming to Israel’s defense, at least as far as the public relations battle was concerned.
On Nov. 16, roughly 100 pro-Israel supporters turned out for a noon rally outside the Israeli Consulate that was sponsored by the Greater Philadelphia District of the Zionist Organization of America.
For an hour, pro-Israeli demonstrators stood on one side of 19th Street, singing “Hatikvah” and “Am Yisrael Chai” and chanting, “Yes to peace, no to terror.” Across the street, pro-Palestinian demonstrators, including many Jews, chanted, “No justice, no peace.”
Speaking with a megaphone, Howard Katzoff, co-president of the ZOA chapter, told the crowd: “If you have a relative or friend in Israel, call them, let them know that you were here and stood united with many in the Philadelphia area.”
Several area day schools held special assemblies and prayer services.
And students sprang into action at local campuses. At the University of Pennsylvania, students mobilized to counter a Penn Students for Palestine demonstration with 60-second lectures around campus, as well as with a “Red Alert” Facebook campaign. Students showed up at Penn Hillel wearing red as a way to show solidarity with Israelis living in constant fear of rocket attacks.
“We are going to be levelheaded and not be confrontational,” said Noah Feit, president of Penn Friends of Israel. “We are going to tell our side of the story.”
The Daily Pennsylvanian also reported that several students studying at three universities in Israel were forced to spend at least some time in bomb shelters over the past week.
Over the past few days, Israel’s Consul General Yaron Sideman and Deputy Consul General Elad Strohmayer gave a slew of interviews to local television and radio stations, reiterating that Hamas’ aggression is the cause of the current conflict.
“Hamas is taking extreme measures to have civilian casualties while Israel is taking extreme measures to avoid that. Hamas is assembling children next to launchers,” Strohmayer said in an interview. “We call on the international community for strong statements against Hamas’ aggressive attacks. We are very encouraged from the positive reaction we have seen here so far.”
For Barrack student David Feinberg and his classmates, hearing an air raid siren and following the situation in real time and on the ground has been an unexpected educational experience.
Feinberg called the past week “eye-opening” and “nerve-wracking.”
“I am guaranteed to leave the country in a week, while other people have to live with this 24/7,” he said, speaking from Israel. “It has definitely made the situation a lot more real to me. Before it seemed like something that was far away.”
Marty and Gail Twersky, members of Congregation Beth Hamedrosh, an Orthodox shul in Wynnewood, have a lot on their minds this week. In addition to attending the brit milah of a new grandson here, the couple has a daughter, Rachel, who just started her service with Israel’s air force and a younger son who recently made aliyah but hasn’t joined the army yet.
Marty Twersky said he was feeling overwhelmed but that he is “very proud to have a child participating in the defense forces of Israel and that the Jewish people have an army.”
Rabbi Todd Zeff and his wife, Aliza, and their three children made aliyah from Philadelphia this past summer, settling in the Talpiot section of Jerusalem.
Zeff, a former director of Camp Ramah in the Poconos who now works for Jerusalem Online University, said everything was going smoothly until the air raid siren went off shortly after Shabbat began last Friday. The family had been gathered at a neighborhood playground and they rushed into their apartment building.
One of their bedrooms is a reinforced bomb shelter. They stayed there for about five minutes, until the siren quieted.
“We quickly had to tell the kids what’s going on, that there are people who have some hate inside their hearts,” he said.
His oldest child, 9-year-old Maya, suggested that the family recite psalms at the Shabbat table, to pray for everyone who is frightened. Maya read them in Hebrew and translated for her younger brother, who hasn’t picked up the language yet.
“We talked about what does it mean to be part of the Jewish people,” Zeff added. “Whether we live in Philadelphia or we live in Israel, we are all in this together.”
How to Help
• The Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia is collecting funds to assist Israeli citizens living under a constant threat of danger as well as those who have been victimized by the current escalation of violence.
• The funds will go to the Jewish Federations of North America, which has committed $5 million for this assistance program.
• The funds will enable the Federation system’s partners on the ground, including the Jewish Agency for Israel, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, the Israel Trauma Coalition and World ORT, to deliver services such as trauma counseling, financial assistance, portable bomb shelters, and other initiatives, including bringing children in the strike zones out of harm’s way.
• The Philadelphia Federation, through its Center for Israel and Overseas, has already purchased three mobile clubhouses to provide respite for soldiers stationed with the Iron Dome missile defense batteries that intercept incoming rockets.
Contributions can be sent to:
Victims of Terror Fund,
c/o Jewish Federation, 2100 Arch St., Philadelphia, PA 19103.
Donations can also be made online at: