A board member of the local Federation reflects on her spontaneous decision to join a two-day solidarity mission to visit the southern cities of Israel that have been most affected by recent rocket attacks.
I’ve landed in Israel in other times of crisis and been handed a gas mask, just in case.
I’ve arrived at Ben Gurion Airport and been given a flak jacket, just to be safe.
My first solidarity mission was right after the Yom Kippur War in 1973, when I was barely out of college and had just given birth to my first precious baby. I was there two months ago for the centennial of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, joyfully traveling around the country with friends, carefree.
But my most recent trip last week — a spontaneous decision to join a two-day solidarity mission with the Jewish Federations of North America — was unlike all the others. Standing in Center City's LOVE Park July 23 with my daughter, my rabbi and throngs of friends and strangers alike, proudly declaring, “We stand with Israel,” I felt the need to get on the plane, to go and stand there with Israel. Four days later, I was on my way.
There may be a cease-fire now, but knowing that at any time, 80 percent of Israel’s population has 90 seconds or less to get to a safe room was — and still is — sobering. Visiting Sderot, Ashdod, Ashkelon, Beersheva and Tel Aviv means learning to react even more swiftly when the siren sounds. And what of the homebound elderly, the disabled, those living alone or unable to move quickly? How much more terrifying for them to live with this “new normal,” month after month?
Visits with families who jump when they hear a door slam and whose traumatized children are awakened by sirens — night after night — brought home the reality of the long-term psychological effects of living this nightmare. One mother pondered aloud: “Which child do I grab first when the alarm sounds?” So did conversations with border kibbutzniks who were simply sleeping in their safe rooms every night, farmers with unharvested crops, shopkeepers with empty stores, mayors whose citizens were somehow coping, and hospitalized soldiers, all of whom welcomed our visits.
What else was different? The discovery of the sophistication and complexity of the tunnels, the “underground terror kingdom,” was a shock, a game-changer. No longer was it sufficient to look anxiously up at the sky and silently bless Israeli ingenuity and the American government for funding the Iron Dome.
Now on Israeli soil, behind us, beside us, Hamas terrorists were popping out of tunnels with the sole intent of murdering and kidnapping as many Israelis as possible. Stockpiles of weapons and stolen IDF uniforms have been found, evidence of a long-term, well-planned guerrilla war. How much humanitarian aid destined for the people of Gaza has ended up in cement and munitions rather than food and schools?
And all this against a backdrop of virulent anti-Semitic demonstrations in city after city around the world. Some Israelis told us they were more worried about the safety of the Jews in Europe than they were for themselves. The feeling of isolation is palpable still. How can we be losing the PR war, even with the clearest evidence that Israel was looking all along to end the fighting and avoid casualties as much as possible? Where are the headlines detailing ongoing civilian casualties in Ukraine and Syria?
Here’s what’s not different: This is Israel, where our brothers and sisters get up every day and put on a brave front. More new immigrants than rockets arrived in Israel last month — from Turkey, France, the United States, India. Resilience is the name of the game.
We visited people not in trauma centers, but in what they call “resilience centers.” Our Federations are providing emergency respite by way of supportive communities for the elderly and disabled, funding family visits to playgrounds and parks in relatively safer locales, supporting counseling, drama and art therapy, such as what we witnessed with the children of Ofakim, who acted out their interpretations of home, peace, war and hope in a heartbreaking way.
What remains the same is the feeling of solidarity that all Jews are responsible for one another — that we in Philadelphia, Israel, Buenos Aires and Moscow must find a way to act that is true to our Jewish values.
Take that trip to Israel you are contemplating. Give to the Federation’s Israel Emergency Fund. Talk to your children, your friends and neighbors. Call your Israeli cousins. Remember to show, in your own way, that we are all in this together.
Betsy R. Sheerr, who lives in Center City, is on the board of trustees of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia and of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.