To Israel: ‘You Are Not Alone’

As citizens of Israel, particularly those in the country's beleaguered north, grapple with the state of warfare that's flared up in the last three weeks, Jews in the Philadelphia region and throughout the nation are once again rallying around the Jewish state, as they have during so many previous times of crisis.

Support has come in the form of rallies, fundraisers, opinion pieces, participation in hastily organized missions to Israel, and support for sons and daughters who have remained on youth programs in the Jewish state despite the ongoing conflict.

"We had to say to the people of Israel that you are not alone, and that we are going to strengthen you both through our visits and through our activism," said Rabbi Steven C. Wernick, the religious leader of Adath Israel in Merion Station.

Along with Bruce Goldberg, Adath Israel's president, Wernick and about 20 other rabbis and lay leaders participated in a three-day mission sponsored by the Rabbinical Assembly of America, an arm of the Conservative movement. As part of its brief visit, the contingent, which returned home on July 27, visited families in a public bomb shelter in Kiryat Bialik, a suburb of Haifa.

Israel's third largest city — and biggest port –has been virtually shut down by repeated rocket attacks launched by Hezbollah in Lebanon. Haifa was long thought of as out of the terrorist group's range. Traveling there now is not without its risks.

"It's the randomness of the missile attacks that makes you anxious," said Wernick. "So the riskiest part was getting there."

The group also met with Karen Bar-On, mother of 20-year-old Staff Sgt. Yaniv Bar-On of Maccabim, who was killed in Hezbollah's July 12 cross-border raid that precipitated the current crisis.

"She was still in shock," recalled Wernick. "She said that it's so strange that it's 2006, and we're still fighting for Israel's right to be."

The Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia also sent five lay leaders and staff on a solidarity mission organized by the United Jewish Communities umbrella group for federations. The 68 activists who attended the program followed a similar agenda to the one put together by the Conservative movement. The UJC group visited Haifa, as did another recent mission put together by the American Jewish Committee.

"Haifa was strange, because there was virtually no traffic on the road, the port was closed, and the stores are open, at most, only a couple of hours a day," said Beryl D. Simonson, board of trustees chair of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia. "We don't realize how much Israelis appreciate our coming in times like this. It's important for them to know that they don't stand alone."

Simonson said that the trip also served as a fact-finding mission for UJC's campaign to raise $300,000 for its Israel Crisis Fund. On Tuesday, federation's board of directors voted to approve participation in the effort. Several more UJC missions are in the works for this month, according to Simonson.

On the home front, a number of synagogues have pitched in to raise money for the American Friends of Magen David Adom, which supports disaster relief and medical services in Israel. In just about a week, synagogues on the Old York Road corridor raised $68,000 for ARMDI. And a benefit concert for the agency is slated to take place Aug. 8 at Temple Sinai in Dresher.

Teens Remain in Center and South
As hostilities raged along the Israeli-Lebanese border, thousands of American Jewish teens remained in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and southern Israel, finishing out summer programs sponsored by groups such as Young Judaea, United Synagogue of Conservative Youth and the North American Federation of Temple Youth.

For example, all but 10 of 450 teens participating on Young Judaea's summer program have stayed on in Israel. Among the vast majority who haven't left is Seth Finkelstein, a 17-year-old who will be a senior this fall at Lower Merion High School.

"I never thought of bringing him home. This is Israel, and our kids need to go — no matter what," said Sara Finkelstein, Seth's mother. She explained that Young Judaea had substantially rearranged the program's itinerary to keep the kids far from trouble spots.

"Honestly, Seth got his driver's license earlier this year. His taking his friends on the Schuylkill Expressway gave me more anxiety," said Finkelstein. "Of course, we wish this wasn't happening."

Reached on his cell phone in Jerusalem, 18-year-old Matan Silberstein, international president of USY and a graduate of Lower Merion High School, said that things seemed eerily normal in the city.

"If I go out to a cafe, it's packed. To know that a third of the country is in bunkers … is kind of weird," said Silberstein. "Last week, we … got to talk to all these people who have been displaced from their homes in the north. It made the situation more real."

Rabbi Ira Grussgott of Congregation Kesher Israel in Center City currently has two children in Israel. His 20-year-old daughter, Leba, is studying there, and his son Josh, 22, made aliyah last year, and is now a corporal in the Israeli Defense Force.

So far, Josh hasn't been called to the front lines in Lebanon, but Grussgott knows that could happen at any time.

"It's the classic dilemma of a Zionist rabbi. I'm proud, but I bite my lip on occasion," he said, adding that he will probably fly over there soon.

A number of Americans who were in Jerusalem or Tel Aviv observed how strange it seemed to be in a city where life carried on normally, while Israel's north was bombarded.

"Being in Jerusalem was surreal. It was as if we were sitting here in Philadelphia and rockets were falling on Baltimore," said Rabbi Sue Levi Elwell, regional director of the Union for Reform Judaism's Pennsylvania Council.

On Sunday, Elwell returned from the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, where she has studied Jewish texts for the past three summers.

"We were in a country that was at war," she said. And "we saw the resilience of the Israeli people."

Adam Zeff got closer to the front lines than he ever expected to. Zeff, a student at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, planned to spend a quiet summer in the Jewish state with his wife and three sons in the Haifa suburb of Tivom.

And sure enough, it began that way.

The 39-year-old was studying cantorial music with a well-known teacher, his wife Cheryl Bettigole was enrolled in a Hebrew ulpan, and his three sons — ages 5, 7 and 9 — were enrolled in a nature camp.

But the family's normalcy — like much of Israel's — was shattered on July 12 when Hezbollah launched its attack, though the reality of the situation took a while to sink in.

"We found that we had the same reaction that so many Israelis had — that it will be okay somehow, even when Katyushas were falling in Nahariya and Carmiel," explained Zeff.

"Even after the first missiles hit Haifa, we thought that this wasn't a big deal," recalled Zeff, who this past year served as a student rabbi at Germantown Jewish Centre, which draws from the nearby Philadelphia areas of Mount Airy and Chestnut Hill.

Then one day, he heard the sounding of the air-raid sirens; fortunately, the home they were staying in had its own bomb shelter, so they slept there.

Then, the next day, between blaring sirens, the family packed up their things, and like 100,000 Israelis, fled the north for safety in the center of the country.

"For the first few days, it was pretty difficult for my kids," admitted Zeff, who is now back in Philadelphia. "Everywhere we went, they asked, 'Where is the shelter?' They wanted a lot of reassurance that there was safety in Jerusalem."

And in the end, he said rather unabashedly, "they were glad to get home."